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cowboys play-calling | The DC Times - Part 2

The DC Times

A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football


Cowboys Film Study: 2nd and 1 Play-Calling

Advanced NFL Stats has published two interesting articles on the value of 2nd and 1 plays and the poor play-calling displayed throughout the NFL in these situations.  As you can see in the graph below, a nine yard gain on 1st down is extremely valuable to an offense.

Courtesy of Advanced NFL Stats

Why?  Well, think of it from the perspective of a defensive coordinator.  You want to stop the run to prevent a 1st down, but playing too aggressively against the run would create a vulnerability in your defense should the offense decide to pass.  Since 2nd and 1 is such a tremendous risk/reward situation for an offense, they could very well take a shot down the field.  If the result is an incomplete pass, they have a rather easy (relatively speaking) 3rd down play (meaning low risk), but the upside of a deep playaction pass, for example, is outstanding.

Game theory dictates that NFL offenses should be in the business of maximizing upside and minimizing risk, while defenses are looking to create low reward/high risk situations for offenses.

The value of a 2nd and 1 play is so incredible that, on average, a team will score .7 extra points each time they gain nine yards on 1st down as compared to gaining 10 yards.  Yes, gaining one less yard on 1st down provides a team with .7 more “expected points.”  In fact, 2nd and 1 plays are so valuable that they yield more expected points than any 1st down gain all the way up until 17 yards.  Thus, a nine-yard gain on 1st down is actually more valuable to an offense than a 16-yard gain.

The value of 2nd and 1 plays is even greater, though, if offensive coordinators take advantage of the situation.  This is not the case, however. League-wide, coaches called a run play on 78% of all 2nd and 1 plays.  That is even more than the 76% rate on 3rd and 1’s!

Further, only 4% of 2nd and 1 plays result in the offense going deep (throwing 15+ yards in the air).  This is fewer than all other 2nd down situations except 2nd and 4.

So why aren’t coaches taking advantage of the outstanding opportunity that comes with 2nd and 1 plays?  Disregarding the fact that most NFL coordinators are simply naturally conservative in their play-calling, we think the main reason is that they don’t want to deal with the stress of 3rd down.

Instead of utilizing the potential upside of 2nd and 1, they treat it as if it was simply another 3rd down.  Two opportunities to run the ball for just one yard?  Sounds good to me.  This thinking initially appears rational because it is the combination of plays which is most likely to result in a 1st down.  Offensive coordinators are supposed to do everything possible to obtain 1st downs, right?

Well, yes and no.  Of course a team needs to acquire 1st downs to move the ball, but coordinators should not be so focused on getting that next 1st down that they miss an opportunity for a huge play.  Take a look at this example:

Team A has 50 2nd and 1 situations throughout a season, running the ball on nearly every one.  They obtain 45 1st downs, but zero touchdowns on these plays.

Team B also has 50 plays on 2nd and 1, but they take a more balanced approach.  They throw about half the time, resulting in just 35 1st downs.  However, they score a touchdown on six of these plays.

So, which team would you rather coach?  For us, the low risk/high reward results obtained by Team B are much more appealing (and much more strongly-correlated with winning) than those of Team A.

Thus, offensive coordinators could increase the expected points of their offense dramatically by throwing out conventional wisdom and opening up the playbook a bit on 2nd and 1.

As you can see in the graph to the right, Cowboys’ offensive coordinator Jason Garrett’s play-calling on 2nd and 1 was nearly identical to the league average (he called a run on 80% of plays, compared to the 78% mean).  With Miles Austin and the newly-acquired Dez Bryant both athletic play-makers who thrive at getting deep, we would love to see the Cowboys employ a more balanced 2nd and 1 approach in 2010.

The chart also provides the run/pass ratio for all plays with a distance-to-go of three yards or less.  You can see that Garrett rarely exploited the high-reward opportunity of short-yardage 2nd down plays.  In fact, the Cowboys attempted just three passes of 15+ yards all season in 2nd or 3rd and 3 or less (3.22% of all plays in these situations).

We would actually like to see the red and blue lines in the graph to the right alternate places in 2010 (or at least move closer together).  A higher pass percentage on 2nd and short and a higher run percentage on 3rd and short, we believe, would result in not only more 1st down conversions for Dallas, but also (more importantly) a much larger opportunity to score quickly on big plays.

For an offense that tallied the second-most yards in the NFL in 2009 yet failed to crack the top 10 in points (14th), maximizing upside through the implementation of high-reward plays in short-yardage situations (particularly on 2nd down) may be just what the doctor ordered for the ‘Boys.


Dallas Cowboys Film Study: Short-Yardage Plays

I was just digging through our film database from last season and decided to take a quick look at the Cowboys’ short-yardage running in 2009.  I analyzed plays in which the Cowboys had one or two yards to go to obtain a first down.

For this particular study, I purposely ignored goal line plays due to their limited upside and the “all-or-nothing” approaches defenses tend to take when defending them.  A 2nd and goal play from the 1-yard line is much different than, say, a 2nd and 1 play from midfield.

According to our database, the Cowboys ran 31 plays with one yard to go for a first down, and 35 plays with two yards to go.  Of the 31 plays with one yard to go, 27 (87.1 percent) were runs.  This may be slightly high (particularly because 10 of those plays were on 2nd down), but still not much about which we can complain.

However, of the 35 plays the Cowboys ran with two yards left for a first down, only 16 were runs.  Over half of these 35 plays (18) were on 2nd down, a down when teams are basically free to run either a run or a pass.  We are not saying that running the ball on just 16 of these 35 short-yardage plays is too low.  We are simply pointing out that this particular ‘distance-to-go’ is one in which offensive coordinator Jason Garrett seemed to like to take shots downfield, or at least try to catch the defense off-guard with a pass.

When the Cowboys did run the ball in short-yardage situations, they were quite balanced in terms of the play direction.  Of the 27 runs with one yard to go, 14 were to the left side and 13 were to the right side (each side includes runs that were just to the left or right of center Andre Gurode).  Of the 16 runs with two yards to go, seven were to the left and nine were to the right.

The lineman the Cowboys enjoy running behind most should come as no shock–big Leonard Davis.  They utilized his size and strength on 24 of the 66 total short-yardage runs.

The Cowboys also ran short-yardage plays out of a variety of formations.  Below is a list of each one, along with the number of times they were utilized.

  • Gun Tight End Spread (20)
  • Double Tight Right (or Left) Strong Right (or Left) (19)
  • Gun Trips Left (7)
  • Double Tight I (6)
  • Wildcat (4)
  • Strong Right (3)
  • Gun Tight End Trips Right Empty (2)
  • Weak Left (2)
  • Twins Right Strong Right (1)
  • Gun Double Tight Ace (1)
  • I Right (1)

As you can see, the Cowboys ran short-yardage plays out of 11 formations, but the majority of them came out of just four.  Further, the two shotgun (Gun) formations are very similar, while the two “Double Tight” formations are nearly identical.  Thus, the Cowboys ran 52 of their 66 short-yardage plays (78.8 percent) out of basically two formations.

Diagrams of “Gun Tight End Spread” and “Double Tight Right Strong Right” are pictured below.

You can see that these two formations are very different.  “Gun Tight End Spread” is utilized by the Cowboys in both short and long-yardage situations and employs Tony Romo in the shotgun and a “spread-it-out” approach.  The goal of “Double Tight Right Strong Right,” however, is to load as many blockers into as small an area as possible.

Neither approach can be considered the “right one.”  In fact, game theory dictates that, should the two formations be comparable in terms of effectiveness, teams should utilize them equally.  The Cowboys certainly used their Shotgun and Double Tight formations nearly equally in short-yardage situations in 2010 (27 to 25), but were they equally effective?

The answer is no.  As the chart to the left shows, the Cowboys gained a lot more yards-per-play in short-yardage situations out of the aforementioned Shotgun formations as opposed to the Double Tight ones.  In fact, the Cowboys gained over 2.3 yards more per play out of “Gun Tight End Spread” and “Gun Trips Left.”

So with such a large disparity, it is obvious that running short-yardage plays out of Shotgun formations is preferable to doing so out of Double Tight formations, right?

Not so fast.  Yards-per-play is certainly important, but it can often be very misleading.  A collection of 11 runs for 99 yards yields an impressive 9.0 yards-per-carry average.  However, if one of those 11 runs went for all 99 yards, the offense basically failed on 10 out of 11 plays.  Thus, an average is only significant in the absence of large outliers.  The 99-yard run is just that–an outlier–and significantly skews the overall yards-per-carry.

In the case of the Cowboys’ 2009 short-yardage plays, the existence of outliers makes the initial appearance not necessarily reflect reality.  There were six short-yardage plays run out of Shotgun that went for 10 or more yards, compared to just one from the Double Tight formation.

While you always want to maximize your opportunity for big plays, this is only beneficial to an offense if it does not significantly affect your percentage of negative plays.  However, of the 27 short-yardage plays run out of Shotgun, just 15 (55.6 percent) went for a first down.  In comparison, the Cowboys were successful in obtaining a first down on 20 of 25 (80.0 percent) Double Tight short-yardage plays, despite averaging just 3.40 yards-per-play.

Finally, it is worth noting that the effectiveness of plays run out of Double Tight Right Strong Right was limited by the lack of diverse plays out of the formation.  In our study on Double Tight Right Strong Right, we noticed the Cowboys ran a strong side dive out of the formation 83/116 times (71.6%), including an incredible 42/49 times (85.7%) when motioning into it.  The average yards-per-carry steadily decreased on these plays as the season progressed, showing that our short-yardage statistics are not immune to being altered by outside factors.


So, does the increased upside of Shotgun short-yardage plays negate the Cowboys’ lack of consistency when implementing the formation?

It is tough to say, but we do know that the statistics can (and should) be utilized to effectively alter short-yardage play-calling.  Specifically, the Cowboys could maximize their effectiveness by implementing a higher rate of Shotgun plays on 2nd and 1 and 2 to take advantage of the higher yards-per-play and increased upside the formation yields.

On 3rd and 1 and 2–situations when the team really needs to do everything possible to get a first down–employing the Double Tight formation would be smart.  This combination and timing of the two formations would allow the Cowboys to reap the beneficial characteristics of each while also limiting the harmful traits.

Interestingly, Dallas actually did not implement this strategy often in 2009.  Of the 27 short-yardage Shotgun plays, 17 (63.0 percent) were run on 3rd down.  In comparison, just 12 of the 25 Double Tight plays were run on 3rd down (48.0 percent).

Football is a game of risk/reward.  Perhaps the misuse of risk/reward in formation selection was a major reason for the Cowboys’ poor short-yardage success in 2009.


Cowboys Film Study: Initial Drive Statistics

One of the more important aspects of an offensive coordinator’s play-calling ability,we believe, is his success on initial drives–those drives to begin a game and to start the second half. At these points, a coordinator is generally calling scripted plays. Thus, he has had all week to plan his attack on the defense (in the case of the initial offensive drive), or the entire halftime (in the case of the opening 2nd half drive).

When given time to prepare, offenses generally outperform defenses. Year in and year out, the league-wide average yards-per-play and scoring totals for offenses are higher on the first drives of each half than any other drive.

Some teams, of course, are more apt to come out firing on all cylinders. Unfortunately, the Cowboys have not seemed to be one of them in recent years.

Note: Drives during which the Cowboys simply took a knee were not counted.

First Half

The Cowboys’ first half average yards-per-play (5.78 yards) is significantly lower than the 6.45 yards-per-play the team averaged on what we will call “non-initial drives”– all drives excluding the first drive of the game and the first of the second half.

While point scoring can be fluky and thus susceptible to fluctuations over the course of just one season, Dallas’ points-per-drive was noticeably lower to begin the game (1.69) than in non-initial drive situations (2.30).

But why is the Cowboys’ initial drive success so poor? Is it fair to place all of the blame on Jason Garrett’s play-calling?

Probably not. Our guess is that it is a combination of Garrett and the overall mindset of the team. Remember, Wade Phillips is an excellent “X’s and O’s” coach, but he is not exactly a top-notch pre-game motivator.

2nd Half

A stat that is more indicative of Garrett’s play-calling might be the initial drive of the second half. At this point, most of the pre-game adrenaline and hype has faded and the mindset of teams has shifted to a more ‘cerebral’ approach.

Unfortunately, the Cowboys’ second half opening drive stats are atrocious. As the chart details, the team averaged just 4.94 yards per play in these situations. That is an astounding 23.5 percent drop from the non-initial drive average.

These second half failures are only worse in terms of points, as the Cowboys averaged just 1.06 points-per-drive to open the second half, a 54.0 percent drop from the non-initial drive average of 2.30.

In Garrett’s defense, the team did improve vastly at the end of the season, scoring a touchdown on the first drive of the game over the final three weeks. They averaged a ridiculous 13.05 yards-per-play on those drives.

Let’s hope he can carry that success into the 2010 season.