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Jason Witten’s 2010 Red Zone Performance

Jonathan Bales

A couple days ago I posted a study detailing one of the reasons the Cowboys were successful in their 2010 red zone performance.  I argued that Jason Garrett’s first down play-calling more appropriately fit with advanced red zone statistics, namely that teams should run the ball more on first down only when inside their opponent’s 10-yard line.  The analysis was the result of a look back at a 2009 article in which I stated three ways by which the Cowboys could improve their red zone performance in the upcoming season.

In addition to first down play-calling, I also argued that the team needed to find Jason Witten more often while in the red zone.  Witten’s two touchdowns in 2009 were surpassed by a remarkable 21 tight ends that year.  Even though touchdowns can be a fluky stat, there is no reason a player with the talent and size of Witten should ever have just a pair of touchdowns in a season.

At first glance of Witten’s 2010 statistics, you might conclude the ‘Boys did a better job of finding him in the red zone.  Witten caught a career-high nine touchdowns, eight of which came in the red zone (the other one was 22 yards).  On closer inspection, however, we see that Garrett targeted Witten only a bit more in the red zone in 2010 than in 2009, and not more at all as compared to the rest of the field.

Although Witten was out in a route on 77.5% of 2010 red zone plays (up from 69.4% in 2009), that rate is barely higher than the 76.2% of overall passing plays in 2010.  The ‘Boys were slightly more effective in the red zone when Witten was in a route, averaging almost a yard more per play and scoring on 27.2% of dropbacks.

Despite the success, Witten was actually targeted just 14 times in the red zone all season. That equates to just 19.7% of all red zone dropbacks–lower than the 20.9% overall rate at which Witten was targeted.  Witten’s low red zone target numbers means a ridiculous 57.1% of his red zone targets resulted in touchdowns. Incredible efficiency, but not nearly enough looks.  Expect that to change in 2011.

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Cowboys 2010 Initial Drive Statistics

Jonathan Bales

In a previous post, I detailed why a major problem with the ’09 Cowboys was their inability to come out of the gates on fire (whether it was to start the game or the second half).  The Cowboys averaged significantly less yards-per-play and points-per-drive to start the game and second half than on “non-initial” drives.

I believe initial drives are a tremendous indicator of the strength of an offensive coordinator.  It is during these drives that he has more control and influence over the game than any others.  On the opening drive, his plays are scripted, meaning he had all week to determine which ones were most suitable to attack the defense.  The opening drive in the second half is the first during which an offense can implement its halftime adjustments.

Jason Garrett does a lot of things well, but I think he sometimes struggles with adaptability.  We’ve certainly seen him improve with his abundance of weak side runsplay-calling alterations with particular personnel, and 3rd down runs this season.  However, I’ve always felt he has such confidence in himself and his players that he believes the 11 men on offense will always execute.  But being an offensive coordinator is about maximizing the likelihood of success for an offense, not stubbornly calling the same plays until they work.

Below are the Cowboys’ 2010 stats on initial and “non-initial” drives.

A few points of interest. . .

  • You can see Garrett improved in his initial drive play-calling, at least statistically.  Overall, the Cowboys averaged 5.42 yards-per-play on all initial drives (both first and second half) in 2009.  That number jumped to 5.78 this season.
  • More importantly, the points-per-drive increased.  In 2009, the points-per-drive on initial drives was significantly lower than the overall points-per-drive rate.  In 2010, however, the Cowboys scored more points-per-drive on both first and second half initial drives (2.13) than on all other drives (1.90).
  • It’s still possible the sample size is too small to draw meaningful conclusions.  This season alone, the ‘Boys had a three-play 75-yard drive, a three-play 71-yard drive, and a two-play 68-yard drive coming out of the half that skewed results.  Overall in 2009 and 2010, Dallas averaged 5.60 yards-per-play on initial drives–lower than the 6.02 yards-per-play on all other drives.

Do you think Garrett has improved in his adjustments and his overall ability as a play-caller?

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“Grading the’Boys,” Week 1: Cowboys at Redskins

Jonathan Bales

The Cowboys’ offense obviously didn’t execute well in Washington, while the defense was just the opposite.  Below are my individual player grades for the game, post-film review.

Player Grades

  • Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips:  C+

He gets an A- as a defensive coordinator, and a D as a head coach.  The Cowboys may have been prepared to play from an ‘Xs and Os’ standpoint, but not from an emotional one.

  • Offensive Coordinator Jason Garrett:  C-

I actually liked the design of most of Garrett’s plays.  The Cowboys lined up in 25 different formations and, for the most part, ran unique, innovative plays out of them.  The reason this grade is low is because 1) the offense put up just seven points and 2) the decision to not take a knee before halftime was horrendous.

  • QB Tony Romo: B

Romo was good, but not spectacular.  He was off-target on eight passes, which is just about equal with his per-game average from 2009.  The decision to flip the ball out to Tashard Choice just before halftime may have been a poor one, but he also led a game-winning drive that turned out to be not-so-game-winning.

  • RB Marion Barber: B

Barber showed more explosion than he did in the preseason and his blitz pickup was solid, as usual.  Most importantly, he seems like he’s regained the fire which characterized his play from a few years ago.

  • RB Felix Jones: B-

I thought Jones would get used more than he did.  He received just 10 touches, and there’s really not much to report.

  • RB Tashard Choice:  C-

Normally I don’t put too much weight on any single play, but Choice’s fumble before halftime was a killer.  Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett should have called a quarterback kneel, but Choice has to play smarter as well.

  • WR Miles Austin: A

For anyone who was concerned about Austin’s play after receiving a big contract extension, Sunday night’s game is proof that Austin is the real deal and here to stay.  His blocking was good, too.

  • WR Roy Williams:  C

I’m convinced Williams is a receiver who can be good, but not in the Cowboys’ system.  He never gets particularly wide open, so he needs a quarterback who can put the ball on him and allow him to adjust.  Romo isn’t that–he scrambles and buys time to allow receivers to work their way open.

  • WR Dez Bryant: B+

I thought Bryant had a really good debut.  I was shocked by how often Romo targeted him, but he displayed his patented hands and excellent body control.  His catches to start the final drive were clutch.

  • TE Jason Witten:  C+

Witten did well in the run game (and in pass protection), but it almost seemed as if he wasn’t a part of the game plan on offense.  For whatever reason, he just wasn’t getting as open as usual.

  • TE Martellus Bennett:  B

Bennett was really solid in the run game, which is primarily where the Cowboys employed him.

  • LT Doug Free:  C+

You didn’t hear Free’s name called too much against the Redskins, which is a good thing.  He got overpowered at times by Brian Orakpo, but he responded by doing what he does best: using his speed and athleticism to lead the way on counters, screens, and so on.

  • LG Montrae Holland:  B

Not a bad night for the backup.  He missed a stunt on one occasion, but I thought he blocked pretty well in the run game.  The running backs ran behind him quite often, too.  He’s really not much of a downgrade from Kyle Kosier as a run blocker.

  • C Andre Gurode:  B+

I know Gurode gave up a sack, but that stemmed from confusion on his assignment (as opposed to getting beat physically).  Neither is better than the other, but Gurode thoroughly manhandled Albert Haynesworth most of the night.  Let’s hope he can keep that up against players who are trying.

  • RG Leonard Davis:  B+

I’ve heard that Davis is old and overrated, but he seems to be the Cowboys’ most consistent lineman to me.

  • RT Alex Barron:  H

For holding.  In all seriousness, Barron performed better than an ‘H’ grade.  He’s all the way up at ‘F.’

  • NT Jay Ratliff:  B-

Ratliff was good, but he got nailed for two costly penalties that really hurt Dallas.  You still want to see him keep his aggression up, though.

  • NT Josh Brent:  C-

Brent actually got a lot of snaps, but he didn’t make too much of an impact.

  • DE Marcus Spears:  B+

There’s a reason Spears is still starting.  He’s crucial to Dallas’ run defense.

  • OLB DeMarcus Ware: A

Ware was all over the place before going down with a neck strain.  Thankfully he’s okay.

  • OLB Anthony Spencer: C

The Redskins really didn’t double-team either outside linebacker that often, meaning Spencer had a rare off-night.

  • OLB Victor Butler:  C-

In his limited snaps, Butler was overpowered in the run game.

  • LB Keith Brooking:  B+

A high grade just for this.

  • LB Bradie James:  B

I’m not really sure why Coach Phillips blitzed the inside backers so often, but it didn’t seem to work.

  • CB Terence Newman:  B

Newman gave up a few completions to Santana Moss, but overall he played pretty well considering how much the ‘Boys blitzed.

  • CB Mike Jenkins:  B-

An ‘A’ in coverage and a ‘D’ against the run.  He’s quickly becoming Deion Sanders (kind of).

  • CB Orlando Scandrick:  B-

The entire secondary looked pretty good.  Scandrick still seems to be just a half step out of position, though.  He’s on the brink of a big-time game.

  • S Gerald Sensabaugh:  C

Sensy struggled some against Chris Cooley and wasn’t particularly devastating in run support.

  • S Alan Ball:  B

As was the case with former Cowboy Ken Hamlin, there really isn’t much to report on Ball.  He didn’t let anyone get deep, which is his primary objective, but he didn’t make any big plays either.

  • K David Buehler:  D

No touchbacks and 0-1 on field goals.

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Jason Witten 2009 Pass Attempt Breakdown

In studying the breakdown of pass attempts to Roy Williams, Miles Austin, and Patrick Crayton, we noticed that all three receivers flourished over the middle of the field.  Crayton led the way with a ridiculous 14.48 yards-per-attempt and 74.1% completion rate.  Austin wasn’t far behind, averaging 11.43 yards-per-attempt and hauling in 70.0% of balls, and Williams checked in with a respectable 10.87 yards-per-attempt (albeit with just a 52.2% completion rate).

These results really didn’t surprise us, as Crayton is a prototypical slot receiver whose skill set is best fit for the position.  In our opinion, Crayton still has an important role in Dallas.

Today, we will take a look at tight end Jason Witten’s 2009 pass breakdown.  Like the receivers, we would expect Witten’s numbers to be best over the middle of the field.  There, he is right at home and often exploiting a mismatch on a smaller or slower linebacker.

As you can see in the graph to the left, this is just the case.  In fact, Witten was far superior over the middle of the field in 2009, averaging a gaudy 10.48 yards-per-attempt–over twice as many yards as on the right side of the field.

The number is lower than all three receivers, but perhaps more impressive–Witten is asked to run shorter routes and, as a tight end, his yards-after-catch will never be stellar.

Even more eye-opening is Witten’s 81.7% completion rate over the middle.  He caught 49 of 60 balls thrown his way in that area.  Although routes run over the middle of the field are generally of the shorter variety, an 81.7% completion rate in any area of the field is outstanding.

In case you were wondering, 48% of pass attempts to Witten came in the middle of the field, 32% on the right side, and just 20% on the left.

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Cowboys Play-calling Following Big Gains: Time to Strike?

By Jonathan Bales

I’ve always believed one of the best times to strike on offense is immediately following a big play.  The defense is already reeling and the opposing defensive coordinator is more likely to call a blitz to “make up” for the prior play.  What better time to call a play-action pass, for example?

There is another school of thought on the matter, however, which emphasizes a safer approach.  This could allow a running back or wide receiver to catch his breath, assuming he is still in the game.  Running the ball is also a more effective way to allow an offense to utilize its strength against a tired defense.

Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett certainly falls in the latter group.  I took a look at the Cowboys “big plays” in 2009–those of 20+ yards.  On the following play, Garrett called a run 43 out of 63 opportunities (68.3 %). 

However, to my surprise, the Cowboys actually were far more successful on these runs than the 20 passes, averaging 5.77 yards-per-rush compared to just 4.70 yards-per-attempt.  It is also worth noting that Garrett dialed up a play-action pass on five of these pass attempts, although none went for big yardage.

In any event, kudos to Garrett for apparently making the right decision on plays following big gains.  While the sample size of 63 plays isn’t completely significant and I still believe there are opportunities to strike down-field in these situations, Garrett obviously made intelligent decisions on these first down plays–many of which led to another first down or a very manageable second and short.

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Cowboys Film Study: 2009 Formation Breakdown

Like our film study and stat analysis?  You can buy our entire Cowboys 2009 play database.


Thus far this offseason, we have analyzed a few of the Cowboys’ tendencies when running plays from certain formations and with specific personnel packages.  For example, we noticed the Cowboys average nearly three yards less per play in “Empty Set” formations (as compared to all other formations), are much more successful with tight end Jason Witten in a route, and run a strong side dive play out of “Double Tight Right Strong Right” 71.6 percent of the time, including 85.7 percent when motioning into it.

Today, we are going to analyze the run/pass ratios and success rates of every formation the Cowboys ran in 2009.  If you don’t know the difference between “Gun 3 Wide Pro” and “Double Tight Left Weak Right,” don’t worry–we have diagrams of each formation to help you along.

Below each diagram, you will find stats on run/pass ratio, average yards per run/pass, and analysis of big/negative plays.  We have explained in the past why averages can often be misleading, so understanding the effect of outliers (big and negative plays) can aid you in interpreting the results.

Formations with 20+ play sample size

  • 3 Wide I

12 passes (60 percent)/8 runs (40 percent)

5.25 yards/attempt

3.63 yards/rush

3 sacks (25 percent), five passes 10+ yards (41.7 percent), 1 pass 20+ (8.3 percent)

  • Ace

24 passes (82.8 percent)/5 runs (17.2 percent)

11.46 yards/attempt

2.00 yards/rush

12 passes 10+ (50 percent), five passes 20+ (20.8 percent), two negative runs (40 percent)

  • Double Tight I

10 passes (24.4 percent)/31 runs (75.6 percent)

6.30 yards/attempt

6.71 yards/rush

One sack (10 percent), two passes 10+ (20 percent), one pass 20+ (10 percent), four negative runs (12.9 percent), eight runs 10+ (25.81 percent), one run 20+ (56 yards)–3.2 percent

  • Double Tight Left/Right Ace

14 passes (38.9 percent)/22 runs (61.1 percent)

6.0 yards/attempt

3.27 yards/rush

One sack (7.1 percent), three passes 10+ (21.4 percent),  two passes 20+ (14.3 percent), three runs 10+ (13.6 percent),  five negative runs (22.7 percent)

  • Double Tight Left/Right I

3 passes (4.7 percent)/61 runs (95.3 percent)

10.33 yards/attempt

4.93 yards/rush

One pass 10+ (33.3 percent), one pass 20+ (33.3 percent), six runs 10+ (10.4 percent), two runs 20+ (46, 32 yards)–3.5 percent

  • Double Tight Left/Right Strong Left/Right

9 passes (17.3 percent)/43 runs (82.7 percent)

1.22 yards/attempt

5.58 yards/rush

One sack (11.1 percent), one pass 10+ (11.1 percent), five runs 10+ (11.6 percent), three runs 20+ (36, 33 yards)–3.5 percent, one negative run (1.2 percent)

    Click below to go on to page 2.

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Cowboys Film Study: Five Wacky Stats From the Database


I often come across trends or “anomalies” in our Cowboys play database that I decide to not post.  These stats are often interesting (to me at least), but simply not wide enough in scope for me to dedicate an entire post to them.

Well, this entry is a collection of “too-small-to-post” statistics from the Cowboys’ 2009 season which I uncovered this weekend.

  • The Cowboys ran only four (FOUR!) play-action passes all season with 1-4 yards-to-go.

The number of plays on the season in that range:  132.  Thus, Dallas ran play-action on just 3.03% of plays in situations with just 1-4 yards to go for a first down (situations with a legitimate threat of a run).  I wouldn’t call myself an offensive mastermind, but that just doesn’t seem efficient.

With 10 yards remaining, however, the Cowboys dialed up 54 play-action passes (40.90% of all play-action passes came on this ‘distance-to-go’), making it the most frequent ‘distance-to-go’ for all play-action passes (relative to the number of overall plays from that distance).

Perhaps these figures are at least a partial cause of the Cowboys’ lackluster success rate on play-action passes.

  • 34 of Tony Romo’s 79 audibles (43.04%) were to draw plays.

Since 44 of the 79 checks were run plays, an incredible 34-of-44 (77.27%) run plays (which followed an audible) were draws.  While this seems over-the-top, our analysis of Romo’s audibles showed that the Cowboys averaged 5.8 yards-per-carry on these runs.

Nonetheless, the Cowboys would likely have even more success on these runs if the draw rate decreased.  In a previously article, we explained why checking to a run play might be successful:

One possible explanation for the lower productivity in the passing game after checks is that defenses are more prepared to defend the pass after an audible. They may assume an audible by the opposing quarterback means he sees an opportunity for a big play, probably a pass, thus making them more likely to effectively defend the pass.

Before we place all the blame on Romo for the disproportionate draw rate, note that, in almost all circumstances, Romo does not actually choose the “new” play.  The majority of the checks (75-of-79, in fact), are “kill” calls.  We explained how “kill” calls work in a previous article:

Sometimes Romo will actually call an entirely new play at the line of scrimmage, while other times he will simply signal for the team to check into the second play which was called in the huddle (the team often calls two plays in the huddle, planning to run the first unless Romo checks out).

The latter scenario is marked by a phrase many of you have probably heard the Dallas’ quarterback yelling on television, “Kill, Kill, Kill!” When you hear this, Romo sees something in the defense that makes him believe the first play called in the huddle will be unsuccessful. The second play, which is the one run after the “Kill” call, is generally dissimilar to the original call to combat whatever problem Romo noticed.

Thus, on all but four plays in 2009, the Cowboys offense ran a play which was originally called by offensive coordinator Jason Garrett.  If the exorbitant rate of draws-after-checks is to continue, Romo is not the only person to blame.

  • Romo threw the most off-target passes to Patrick Crayton and Roy Williams, missing on 28.4% of throws to both receivers.

The chart to the right lists the off-target passes, attempts, and off-target percentage of throws to all Cowboys’ 2009 pass-catchers.  In our in-depth analysis of Romo’s off-target passes, we noted that we consider a pass to be ‘off-target’ if:

1.  Romo missed a receiver who was relatively open

2.  Romo was giving his best effort to acquire a completion.

Thus, spikes, throw-aways, and passes that were on-target but knocked away by a defender did not constitute ‘off-target passes.’

Of course, the percentages are not comparable among players at different positions, as Romo is more likely to be off-target to wide receivers than tight ends or running backs.

  • The Cowboys ran a true hurry-up offense on just 28 plays last season–less than two per game.

In this instance, we define “hurry-up” as a no-huddle play run with a time-saving mentality.  Of the 28 plays, only two were runs (for 6 total yards).  The 26 passes went for 151 yards, or just 5.81 yards-per-attempt.

25 of the 28 plays were out of a Shotgun formation.

  • The Cowboys completed a pre-snap shift 17 times in 2009–all on first or second down.

A shift is when multiple players change their alignment at once.  Offenses will frequently shift from a run formation to a pass formation, or vice versa, such as Full House (run formation) into Gun Trips Right (pass formation).

The offense ran on seven of these plays for 20 yards (2.86 yards-per-carry), and passed 10 times for 55 yards (5.50 yards-per-attempt).

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Cowboys Film Study: 3rd Down Play-Calling

Note: This is a two-page entry.


Perhaps our favorite statistical analysis of 2010 was the study we conducted on the Cowboys’ 2nd down play-calling in 2009.  We discovered that offensive coordinator Jason Garrett was extremely predictable in his play-calling on 2nd down–so much so that he was 2.95 times more likely to run on 2nd down after a 1st down pass than after a 1st down run, even when the distance-to-go was identical.

In that particular analysis, it is important to note we are not criticizing the team’s run/pass ratio in general.  Garrett could dial up a pass on 2nd down 95 percent of the time and we would have no qualms–as long as that percentage remains stable in similar situations whether the previous play was a run or a pass.

Unfortunately, that stability is not apparent.  We concluded this was the result of Garrett attempting to “mix it up.”  Human beings naturally tend to think the next item in a random sequence will be different from the previous one.  This is not the case, however, meaning Garrett’s attempt to “mix it up” with his play-calling has (quite ironically) led to his predictability.

The strength of correlation between Garrett’s 1st and 2nd down play-calls led us to question the relationship between his 2nd and 3rd down play-calls.  Before delving into the results, it is important to note that these relationships (that between 1st and 2nd down play-calls and that between 2nd and 3rd down play-calls) are not identical.  Plays on 1st down are (almost) all run in the same situation–1st and 10.  2nd down play-calls, however, are more closely linked to the ‘distance-to-go’ due to the varying nature of this distance on 2nd down.

For example, 2nd and 1 plays are likely to be the result of a 1st down pass–a nine yard gain is more likely from a pass than a run.  On 3rd and 1, however, the previous play is more of a mystery.  The chances of the preceding play having been a run are probably just as likely as it having been a pass.

Nonetheless, we can still draw meaningful conclusions from our film study-derived results.  Those findings are below.

The first thing we notice is that the discrepancy between 3rd down passes after a run and those after a pass is nowhere near as great as those on 2nd down (shown below).  For example, while the rate of passes on 2nd and 3 to 7 was 2.95 times as high after a 1st down run as opposed to a 1st down pass, the largest discrepancy between 3rd down play-calling occurred on 3rd and 1 to 2, when the Cowboys were 1.75 times as likely to pass after a 2nd down pass as opposed to a run.

2nd down run rate is directly related to 2nd down pass rate, as the pass percentage is simply (100-run percentage).

Another interesting characteristic of Garrett’s 3rd down play-calling is that the relationship between passes after a 2nd down run and those after a 2nd down pass is positively correlated, i.e. as one increases, so does the other.  This occurs in each distance-to-go subset of 3rd down plays and is in direct opposition to the negative correlation displayed in the ‘2nd and 3 to 7’ subset of 2nd down play-calls.

A final intriguing note is that, while the type of play (run or pass) that Garrett dialed up on 2nd down was in opposition to his 1st down call, his 3rd down play-calls were more likely to be the same as those on 2nd down.  Put simply, the Cowboys were actually more likely to pass on 3rd down after a 2nd down pass than after a 2nd down run.

All of that is basically a complicated way of saying Garrett was much less predictable in his play-calling on 3rd down than on 2nd down.  Still, he wasn’t perfect.  Like we said, he was 1.75 times as likely to pass on 3rd and 1 to 2 after a 2nd down pass as opposed to a 2nd down run.  The situation is identical, so a perfect play-caller would have an identical pass rate regardless of the call on the previous play.  We by no means expect Garrett to be perfect, but we would certainly hope for a more closely linked relationship.

Click Page “2” to read the rest of this analysis.