The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

Should the Cowboys Throw More Deep Passes? A Follow-Up Analysis

Jonathan Bales

Around the midway point of the 2010, I published an article detailing why teams that throw deep more often generally find more success in the passing game.  As I pointed out, there was a somewhat strong correlation between deep pass percentage and yards-per-attempt.  I detailed why I think this is the case in that article:

Over the years, defenses have adjusted as to not allow big plays–you see it in Tampa 2 schemes and even Coach Phillips’ defense. Make teams beat you again and again underneath.

If you’ve noticed, more and more teams have transitioned to spread offenses (like the Patriots, Saints, etc.) to combat Cover 2 schemes.  The high-percentage passes that are a staple of spread offenses work because of the defenses’ philosophy–don’t give up the big play.  Spread offenses are an answer to the Cover 2 scheme.

In recent years, however, I think we’ve started to see defenses adapt.  Less and less teams are playing Cover 2, instead emphasizing aggressive play and forcing turnovers.  The Saints are again the perfect example, as their scheme is one that will yield the occasional big play, but it creates big play opportunities for their defenders as well.

So, how does all of this relate to how often offenses should throw the ball downfield?  I raised the previous points to exemplify that game theory dictates that there is no inherently optimal strategy, simply one that is best at any particular time against your opponent’s specific strategy.  Thus, there is no “X” percentage of plays at which it is optimal to go deep, or run the ball, or anything else.

Think of it as a giant game of rock, paper, scissors.  When the majority of the league is throwing a rock, it’s pretty obvious that you can take advantage of that by throwing paper.  But as the league transitions, so must you.  When Cover 2 defenses were in vogue (which is still the case with many teams), the spread offense exposed weaknesses.  As more and more teams abandon that scheme, though, offenses must change.  The first team to recognize trends and adapt will win.  The NFL is really like a huge stock market.

At that point in the season, we saw quarterbacks with a deep ball percentage (defined as throws 15+ yards downfield) of 23+ checking in with 5.17 yards-per-attempt.  Of quarterbacks in the 20-23 percent range, the average YPA was slightly lower–5.00.  Finally, of quarterbacks with less than one deep throw in every five passes, the YPA plummeted to 4.31.

2010 Quarterback Efficiency by Pass Depth

Of course, there were certainly limitations to this data.  First, YPA isn’t the only stat that matters in deciphering a quarterback’s value.  We might expect the YPA of quarterbacks with few downfield throws to be slightly lower than other quarterbacks, but those passers also have fewer negative plays.  One might hypothesize that the sack rates and interception rates would be greater for quarterbacks who throw it deep more often.  Thus, the short-throwing passers might make up for a decrease in YPA by completing more passes and putting their teams in more manageable down-and-distances.

When we analyze the data, however, we see this isn’t the case.  The success rate and AYPA (adjusted yards-per-attempt) for quarterbacks with less than 20 percent deep throws is lower than that for passers with 23+ percent deep throws.  Note: Success rate is the percentage of throws that lead to an increase in expected points, while AYPA takes into account sacks and interceptions.  One of the reasons the AYPA for deep passers is greater than that for quarterbacks who throw short more often is that, as you can see, the short passers actually throw more picks.

So is this data enough to conclude the Cowboys should air it out more frequently?  The key, in my view, is personnel.  With a starting quarterback who lacks elite “traditional” accuracy (Romo’s completion percentage is tremendous because he’s able to buy time to allow receivers to become wide open, but I wouldn’t describe him as having top-notch accuracy) and receivers who excel at getting deep and attacking the football (Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, and even Roy Williams all possess outstanding body control and ball skills, but none are incredible route-runners), it’s clear to me that a higher percentage of big play opportunities would benefit this team.

By Jonathan Bales

A Look at Jason Garrett’s Use of Playaction Passes in 2010

Jonathan Bales

Last season, I conducted an in-depth study of the Cowboys’ 2009 playaction passes.  Here are a few points of interest from that study:

  • Of the 83 playaction passes, only FOUR were attempts of 20 yards or more That is 4.8 percent of all pass plays attempted.  The Cowboys threw the ball downfield 20 yards or more on 46 of the other 467 attempts, or 9.9 percent of all passes.
  • Dallas ran screen passes on 33 of their 467 non-playaction passes (7.1 percent).  That screen rate more than tripled on playaction passes to 22.9 percent (19 of 83 passes).
  • Of the 83 playaction passes, 53, or 63.9 percent, were to the right side of the field (compared to just 37.0 percent on other passes).
  • The Cowboys ran only four (FOUR!) playaction passes all season with 1-4 yards-to-go.  The number of plays on the season in that range: 132.  Thus, Dallas ran playaction on just 3.03 percent of plays in situations with just 1-4 yards to go for a first down (situations with a legitimate threat of a run).
  • With 10 yards remaining, however, the Cowboys dialed up 54 play-action passes (59.3 percent of all playaction passes came on this ‘distance-to-go’).
  • The Cowboys actually ran one more playaction pass (five total) with 20+ yards-to-go than with 1, 2, 3 or 4 yards-to-go.
  • They also ran just 18 play-action passes with less than 10 yards left for a 1st down.  Thus, just 19.8 percent of playaction passes came with less than 10 yards-to-go.

So, has Jason Garrett’s use of playaction passes improved in 2010?  Kind of, but not enough.  Here are some comparable notes from the 2010 season:

  • Of the 98 playaction passes, 13 have been thrown 20+ yards downfield (13.3 percent).  This is certainly better than last year, but it is also one of the only areas in which Garrett has significantly improved.
  • Dallas has run screen passes on 48 of their 462 non-playaction passes (10.4 percent).  That screen rate nearly doubled on playaction passes to 19.4 percent.
  • Of the 98 playaction passes attempted, just 38 (38.8 percent) were to the right side of the field.  I think last year’s rate of 63.9 may have been an aberration.
  • The Cowboys still ran just FOUR playaction passes with 1-4 yards-to-go.  That is only 3.2 percent of the 124 overall plays in that range.
  • 59 of the 103 total playaction passes (five were sacks) have been with exactly 10 yards-to-go.  That rate of 56.3 percent is comparable to that in 2009.
  • The Cowboys again ran more playaction passes with 20+ yards-to-go (five) than with 1-4 yards-to-go (four).  Stunning.
  • Only 22 of the 103 total playaction passes came with less than 10 yards-to-go.  That’s just 21.4 percent.

Overall, it’s shocking to me how incredibly similar these stats are from year to year.  What are the odds the Cowboys would run the EXACT same number of playaction passes with 1-4 yards-to-go AND 20+ yards to go from 2009 to 2010?  The rate of playaction looks from other ranges and the number that result in screen passes are eerily similar as well.

Garrett’s play-calling has certainly improved in a bunch of areas, but in the realm of playaction passes, the man needs an intervention.

By Jonathan Bales

Why aren’t the Cowboys running more counters in 2010?

Jonathan Bales

In the preseason, I placed a point of emphasis on running more counters this season.  In many of my game plan articles, I suggested (over and over) that Dallas run more counters.

The reason was the success with which the Cowboys ran counters in 2009.  As you can see below, the ‘Boys averaged a ridiculous 7.9 yards-per-carry on their 36 counters last year.  Felix Jones alone tallied 220 yards on 22 counters.

While the rate of negative runs was a bit higher (as is to be expected with a slower-developing play), the percentage of 10, 20 and 40+ yard runs was all significantly higher on counters as compared to non-counter runs.

This season, the disparity between counters and non-counters is even greater.  The ‘Boys are averaging 8.71 yards-per-rush on their counter attempts in 2010.  That number is even more impressive when you consider the overall failures of the team’s running game this season.  While the Cowboys averaged 5.0 yards-per-carry on non-counters last season, that number has dropped to 3.2 in 2010.

What’s most incredible to me is the similarities in the counter stats from last year to this one.  Compare the chart above with the one below.  The counter average, negative play rate, and big play percentages are all remarkably similar from one year to the next.

Note: Only designed runs were included. Quarterback scrambles and fumbled snaps were disregarded.

Despite the continued success and overall consistency on counters, however, Jason Garrett is not calling them as frequently as he should.  While the team averaged 2.25 counters-per-game in ’09, that number has dropped to just 1.55 this season.

The struggles of the offensive line are certainly a factor in Garrett’s decision.  Counters are generally more “dangerous” than other run plays that take less time to develop and necessitate fewer moving parts.  With the inconsistencies the offensive line has displayed this year, Garrett might be scared to risk a negative run and put the offense in long-yardage situations.

With a negative run rate that is only three percent higher on counters, though, that potential fear appears unjustified.  Certainly the slightly higher risk of a negative run is offset by the gigantic increase in big play probability.  Take this stat for example:  of the Cowboys’ four 20+ yard runs this season, three have come on counters, despite only 7.4 percent of all runs being counters.  75 percent of big runs from 7.4 percent of run plays?  Something isn’t right there.

And with Doug Free replacing Flozell Adams at left tackle, the athleticism of the offensive line is even greater than in 2009–a trait that is suited for counter runs.  At least Garrett recognizes that the left side of the offensive line is the place to run, as 13 of the 17 counters in 2010 have been on the left side behind Free.  The ‘Boys are averaging 9.85 yards-per-rush on those 13 runs.

So Coach Garrett. . .please, please call more counters moving forward.  They will surely increase the offense’s rushing efficiency, which will make it easier to do the thing you love most–throw the football.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs. Packers Week 9 Post-Film Study Review: What We Learned About Dallas

Jonathan Bales

  • By my count, Packers cornerback Charles Woodson blitzed 11 times–all on the same play.  Like I mentioned in my post-game notes, outside linebacker Clay Matthews would twist way outside, forcing Marc Colombo to follow him.  Woodson would blitz from the slot into the vacated area.  It took until the final drive of the game for Dallas to realize they should throw hot to the slot receiver.  On the majority of offensive formations, the running back should have recognized the blitz and stepped up.  The reason it worked so well for Green Bay was because this guy had his worst game as a pro. . .

  • Felix Jones.  He played absolutely horribly.  He continually missed assignments in pass protection and got his quarterback killed.  I attributed two of the four sacks to him (the others went to Colombo and Doug Free), but he blew his assignment on a bunch of other plays that just didn’t result in sacks.  He was playing so poorly that he needed to come out of the game in the fourth quarter, only to be replaced by. . .
  • Marion Barber. . .not Tashard Choice.  Despite being told he would receive a “heavy workload” this week, Choice didn’t get into the game until midway through the final quarter.  He received only three carries, all coming with the Cowboys down 38 points.  To me, this is one of the worst mistakes the coaches made this season.  If you don’t want to play the guy, then fine, but don’t tell him he’s going to receive significant playing time.  You never lie to your players.  Choice was reportedly nearly in tears after the game, wondering why the Cowboys didn’t implement the gameplan they installed all week.
  • I won’t say too much about this because I think it is clear now, but Wade Phillips must go.  His car isn’t at Valley Ranch this morning (as of 10 a.m.), so there’s a good chance he’s already been canned.  As soon as I find out more I will post it here.
  • The Cowboys ran only 10 plays in Packers territory, and just five until the last drive.
  • 40 of the 48 offensive plays came with the same personnel package: one tight end, three receivers, and one running back.
  • 35 of the 48 offensive plays came out of Shotgun.
  • Sticking to form, the Cowboys motioned early in the game–on 10 of the first 14 plays.  They motioned only twice in the final 34.
  • Jon Kitna hasn’t been afraid to call audibles.  He checked out of six plays on Sunday night–three passes for 20 yards and three runs for 10 yards.  Two of the three runs were draws, helping to prove that the high frequency with which the Cowboys run a draw play following an audible is a result of Jason Garrett, not Tony Romo.  In my 2009 wacky stats article, I noted that 77.3 percent of Romo’s run audibles were draws.
  • Dallas ran 10 total draws for 33 yards, two playaction passes for eight yards, and six screens for 10 yards.
  • Kitna threw the ball 15+ yards on six occasions, and those plays totaled 86 yards (and an unnecessary roughness penalty on Green Bay).  Maybe the Cowboys want to read this article on throwing the ball downfield.
  • The Cowboys again refused to run counters.  They called one on the first drive.  It was unsuccessful, so they didn’t run another all game.  Nice.
  • I counted seven of Kitna’s passes as being off-target.
  • Jason Witten came out of the game late, but he was in for 25 of the Cowboys’ pass plays.  He went into a route on 15 of them (60 percent).  The ‘Boys yielded three of their sacks when he was in a route.
  • The Packers blitzed or showed blitz on 29 plays, even coming after Kitna up until and including the final drive.  It must have been like child’s play for Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers.  The Cowboys gained only 91 yards on Green Bay’s 20 blitzes, but 71 of those came on two plays.  That means that the Cowboys gained an incredible 20 total yards on the Packers’ 18 other blitzes.
  • One the nine plays that Green Bay showed blitz but didn’t come, the Cowboys gained 37 total yards, giving up one sack and throwing one pick.

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By Jonathan Bales

Analyzing Jason Garrett’s 2nd Down Play-Calling in 2010

Jonathan Bales

We are just five games into the 2010 season, but already offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has displayed much improvement in a number of areas.  The casual fan will look at the Cowboys’ mediocre 20.4 points-per-game (16th in the NFL) and conclude that Garrett is having a horrible season.  With all of the weapons Dallas possesses on offense, shouldn’t they be averaging, like, 28 points-per-game?

Yes, they should.  But a five game sample size is hardly enough to convince me that Garrett isn’t superior in his play-calling from a year ago.  I’ve told you all season that Garrett has been much, much less predictable with his play-calling.  He’s dialing up more weak side runs (see study on weak side runs here), more 3rd down runs (see study on 3rd down runs here), and less predictable play-calling based on personnel (see personnel-based play-calling stats here).

As I analyzed my database of Cowboys’ 2010 plays this morning, I realized perhaps Garrett’s largest improvement has come in the way of play-calling on 2nd down.  You may remember I conducted a study on Garrett’s 2009 play-calling trends on 2nd down awhile back, noting the Cowboys’ run/pass selection was highly correlated with their previous play-call (even after adjusting for specific situations).  This is from that article:

On 2nd and 3 to 7, for example, Garrett dialed up a run on only 23 of the 78 (29.5 percent) plays that followed a 1st down run. After 1st down passes, though, the Cowboys ran on 2nd down on 26 of 34 plays (76.5 percent). Thus, Dallas was 2.95 times more likely to run on 2nd and 3 to 7 after a 1st down pass than after a 1st down run.

On 3rd and 8 to 10, that trend, surprisingly, did not get much better. The team ran on only 10 of 50 plays (20.0 percent) in these scenarios following a 1st down run. After passes, Garrett called a run on 32 of 58 2nd down plays (55.2 percent), meaning the team was 2.76 times more likely to run on 2nd and 8 to 10 after a pass than a run.

On 2nd and 11 or more, the team was still 2.33 times more likely to run after a 1st down pass than after a run. Obviously Garrett did some things right in the past few years, but this sort of predictability is unacceptable.

I’ve posted a graph to the left detailing the information above.  Note that I am not criticizing the overall rate of runs/passes.  Garrett could pass 95 percent of the time, but if his current play-call is dependent on the previous one, there will be a problem.  Again, the issue is not with the overall run/pass ratio, but rather the fact that it gets skewed based on previous calls.

For a play-caller to maximize his effectiveness, we’d want the run/pass ratio to be equal in comparable situations following a particular call.  Note that I am not advocating a 50/50 balance.  I am simply stating that it is in an offensive coordinator’s best interest to retain his particular run/pass ratio in specific down-and-distances regardless of the previous call.  If he passes 90 percent of the time on 2nd and 3-7 following a 1st down pass, he should pass 90 percent of the time in the same situation following a run.  Don’t let previous calls affect current ones.

As far as the graph above, we’d want to see the red and blue lines be as close together as possible.  The specific run/pass ratio is irrelevant–what’s important is that the lines match up, wherever that may be.

As I analyzed the Cowboys’ 2nd down plays in 2010, it is very obvious Garrett has made a conscious effort to clean up the mess from last season.  Check out the graph below.

Note how much closer the lines are to converging as compared to 2009.  On 2nd and 3-7–plays on which Garrett “mixed it up” last year in an attempt to be random (only to, ironically, become very predictable)–his run/pass ratio is nearly identical, regardless of his call on 1st down.  That’s as much as any fan could ask from an offensive coordinator.

There are still some issues, which is to be expected (it is unreasonable to think an offensive coordinator, in the heat of a game, can perfectly equalize all ratios).  Although the run ratio on 2nd and 8-10 looks about equal, the Cowboys have actually been nearly 3.5 times as likely to run after a 1st down pass as compared to following a 1st down run.  In fairness to Garrett, the offense has only run nine plays on 2nd and 8-10 that followed a run (just one was another run).

There also appears to be a large gap between 2nd and 1-2 run ratios, but note that the Cowboys have had just six total plays in that down-and-distance.  Hardly a significant sample size.

Overall, Garrett’s improvements in his 2nd down play-calling are remarkable.  Looks like someone has been visiting DC Times. . .

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By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys Initial Drive Stats Thus Far in 2010


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 adaptability is his biggest weakness.  We’ve certainly seen him improve with his abundance of weak side runs, play-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 results of the Cowboys’ initial drives this season.  Note that, at only three games into the season, the sample size is far from ideal.  It’s small enough that one big play could throw off the results, so we need to take these particular statistics in with a grain of salt.  Still, the Cowboys had a bye. . .what else are we going to talk about?

As you can see, the Cowboys aren’t really finding much success on initial drives (at least in terms of points).  They’re averaging 0.5 points-per-drive on the drives to start the game and second half–significantly down from last year’s rates.  Dallas is also managing just 4.22 yards-per-play to open the game.

However, despite managing just a field goal on the three drives to open the second half, the offense is tallying 7.33 yards-per-play.  The yards-per-play number is more significant than the points at this time because it is less susceptible to fluctuations.  For example, if David Buehler made an extra field goal on one initial second half drive, the points-per-drive would double.  Thus, yards-per-play is a better indicator of the team’s success.

So while the Cowboys could certainly benefit from coming out firing to start the football game, it does appear as though Garrett may have found a way to become a bit more adaptable this season.  Further evidence of that comes in the Cowboys’ second drive of each second half this season.  Halftime adjustments aren’t applied to just the first drive of the second half, so those second drive numbers can be of help to us as well.

On the second drive of the second half this season, the Cowboys are averaging a robust 7.65 yards-per-play and have scored two touchdowns.  When combined with the aforementioned second half initial drive statistics, Dallas is averaging an incredible 7.52 yards-per-play (on 38 plays) on the two drives coming out of halftime. Quite an improvement from last season.  The 17 total points scored also represents an impressive 2.83 points-per-drive.

Thus, I feel confident in saying Garrett is improving in his halftime adjustments.  If he and the offense can find a way to start the game in the same manner in which they begin the second half, the Cowboys should find a much easier time winning football games in the future.



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By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys’ 2010 Play-Calling Based on Personnel



Jonathan Bales

The largest flaw in Jason Garrett’s play-calling, in my opinion, is his tendency to call a specific play (run or pass) based on the personnel on the field.  For example, take a look at the Cowboys’ 2009 pass rates with specific personnel.

Note that, no matter the personnel grouping, the Cowboys passed or ran the ball nearly three-fourths of the time out of all two-tight end, three-receiver, and four-receiver sets.  We’d of course expect certain personnel groupings and formations to be either run or pass-oriented, but Garrett could probably find more success by calling the “unexpected” a bit more often.  That idea is something I talked about a few months ago in my article on why the Cowboys should throw out of more double-tight end sets:

A few weeks back, I published a breakdown of every formation the Cowboys ran in 2009, including run/pass ratios, success rates, and big/negative play percentages.  Included in that article was a double-tight (two tight ends) formation called “Ace.”

The Cowboys ran 29 plays out of “Ace” last season:

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)

“Ace” was the Cowboys second-most efficient passing formation, and they also had a ton of success passing out of other double-tight formations.  Not exactly the statistics you were expecting from “run-oriented” formations?  Me neither. . .which is exactly why passing out of it was so successful last season.

I hate to harp on it again (actually, secretly I love it), but run/pass selection is controlled in large part by game theory.  In a nutshell, game theory is thinking one step ahead of your opponent.  Why perform a surprise onside kick?  Why run on 3rd and 7?  Because your opponent will never be expecting it.

The passing success of the Cowboys out of “Ace” and other “running” formations is equivalent to the success teams have when running the ball on 3rd down.  There is nothing inherently efficient about running the ball in these situations.  Rather, the success comes from your opponent’s expectations.

Similarly, passing out of “running” formations isn’t an inherently superior strategy to passing with four wide receivers on the field.  Instead, it works because of the defense.

Think of it like this. . .let’s say passing the ball out of a four-receiver set receives a hypothetical score of 80 points (this total is arbitrary and independent of a defense).  Passing the ball out of a double-tight formation, on the other hand, is intrinsically worth just 60 points.

So, why would a team choose the latter scenario–a “sub-optimal” strategy?  Because the strategy is only “sub-optimal” in theory.  In practice, the defense makes substitutions to be able to effectively defend each formation.  To counter the run against the double-tight formation, they knowingly decrease their ability to thwart the pass.

Thus, they may receive a pass defense score of 75 against a four-receiver set, but just 50 against double-tight.  In that case, passing the ball out of double-tight yields a 10 point advantage for the offense, compared to just a five point advantage when throwing the ball out of the “passing” formation.

Play selection is dominated by game theory, meaning the actions of other offensive coordinators around the league really should affect those of Cowboys OC Jason Garrett.  It is for this reason that I would love to see the Cowboys do the “unexpected”–pass more out of tight formations (and run more out of spread ones) in 2010.  The theoretical value may be sub-optimal, but the actual value would be maximized.

So, what are the numbers telling us thus far in 2010?  While they are far from optimal, it seems clear Garrett is altering his play-calling to becomes less predictable.  Check out the chart below.

You can see that, outside of four-receiver sets, the Cowboys are at least slightly more balanced in each grouping.  Note that Dallas has implemented four receivers just nine times all season, so you can expect that percentage to change as well.

I’d still love to see the Cowboys run the ball more in three-receiver sets and pass more out of 2 TE, WR, 2 RB (one of those “2 RB” is usually a fullback, by the way).  Garrett is doing a fine job throwing out of two-tight end sets (55.3% of all plays with two tight ends on the field are passes), but the Cowboys are doing the throwing out of a specific type of two-tight end sets, i.e. with two receivers on the field.

With the receiving ability of fullback Chris Gronkowski, you can expect the Cowboys to throw the ball more with a fullback on the field in the coming weeks.  If Garrett finds a way to efficiently run the ball without a fullback on the field as well, the Cowboys will take huge strides in becoming a much more unpredictable, and potent, offensive football team.

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By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs. Chargers Preseason Film Study Observations

Jonathan Bales

I’ve already posted initial game notes, “DOs and DON’Ts analysis,” and what we learned from the Cowboys/Chargers game.  Now that I’ve finally had a chance to completely break down the film, here are my final observations.

Play-Calling/Formation Notes

  • The Cowboys lined up in Double Tight Left (or Right) Strong Left (or Right) seven times on Saturday night, running a strong side dive all seven times. They gained 22 total yards (3.14 yards-per-carry).  I know it is only preseason, but this is getting a bit ridiculous.  However, all seven of the plays came with the backups in the game–perhaps not a coincidence.  Here is my full analysis of the Cowboys’ play-calling out of the formation.
  • Overall, the Cowboys have run a strong side dive out of the formation on 12 of 14 plays this preseason (85.7 percent).
  • Last season, the Cowboys ran a strong side dive out of both the “Strong” and “I” variations of the “Double Tight Left or Right) formation (below).

  • This preseason, they are running weak side out of the latter variation (I-formation).  The reason is simple: the weak side lead block for the fullback is easier if he lines up behind the center as compared to lining up between the strong side guard and tackle.  On Saturday night, they lined up in Double Tight Right I Right twice, running weak side both times and losing four total yards.
  • The Cowboys have lined up in a new formation this year called “Double Tight Left Twins Right Ace” (or vice versa).  The play-calling out of this formation is by no means as predictable as that from “Double Tight Strong,” but I’ve noticed that Dallas has frequently lined up in “Double Tight Right Ace” and motioned the receiver on the Double Tight side of the formation over into a twins set, running a toss to the two-tight end side.  The play, which I (and not the Cowboys) have titled “Double Tight Right Ace Liz 28 Toss” is shown below.

  • The Chargers said they would blitz the Cowboys, and they did.  San Diego came after the Dallas’ quarterback 17 times after Oakland blitzed the ‘Boys just five times.  The Cowboys gained only 88 yards on these plays (5.18 yards-per-play).  Unfortunately, Romo was just one-for-five against the blitz for six yards and an interception. That won’t be a trend for a quarterback who is one of the league’s best in the face of pressure.
  • It seemed as though Dallas made it a priority for the quarterbacks to get the ball out of their hands quickly.  They allowed only one sack (Sam Young), but only six passes traveled more than 10 yards in the air, and only two more than 15.  An incredible 18 of the passes were five yards or less.

Players

  • I haven’t been impressed with fullback Chris Gronkowski.  I’ve seen multiple 53-man roster projections with him making the team over Deon Anderson.  You won’t find that in my roster projection.  Sure, Gronkowski is probably more athletic and a bigger receiving threat out of the backfield, but with the weapons the Cowboys possess on offense, does that really matter?  They don’t need another pass-catcher.  They need a powerful lead blocker, and right now Gronkowski isn’t showing that ability on film.  I’ve witnessed him lose his balance and dive at defenders on multiple occasions.
  • I still cannot figure out how Lonyae Miller has not jumped over Herb Donaldson on the depth chart.  Donaldson is extremely hesitant when running the ball and a poor receiver.  Miller has shown a knack for catching the ball and, although inconsistent, has at least shown some burst with the ball in his hands.
  • I’ve been impressed with Phil Costa at center.  Starter Andre Gurode is still one of the most important pieces of the offense, but Costa is making a case that he, and not Kyle Kosier, should be the backup center.
  • After watching more film, I am beginning to like safety Barry Church more and more.  He is never going to be a ball-hawk in the secondary, but he sure can tackle.  He has come flying up from the back of the secondary to make a few extraordinary tackles, yet still maintains control.
  • I was wrong on cornerback Cletis Gordon.  He will be the Cowboys’ fourth cornerback.  The one-handed interception and subsequent return he displayed in the fourth quarter in San Diego was a thing of beauty.
  • For more player observations, check my post-game notes. Player grades coming tomorrow.

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By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys Playbook: Ultimate Guide to Draw Plays

Jonathan Bales

Part I: The Numbers

The Cowboys are thought of as one of the best draw-running teams in the NFL.   A lot of their success is due to the footwork of Tony Romo.   His quickness and athleticism allows him to effectively fake slant passes before handing the ball off to either Marion Barber, Felix Jones, or Tashard Choice.

As I progressed through the 2009 game film, I noticed that defenses began to become accustomed to this fake and (it seemed) were able to more efficiently defend the Cowboys’ draw plays.   I sorted through our database to uncover the offense’s draw statistics and what I discovered is below.

Note: Two 3rd and long draws were excluded as "give up" plays

Before I tallied the final numbers, I wanted to eliminate any draw plays that could be considered “give up plays”–those draws on 3rd and long that the Cowboys ran simply to gain field position and punt.   There were actually only two times all season that Dallas ran a draw on 3rd and 7 or more and these two plays were discredited (even though I’ve shown that running is actually about as efficient as passing on 3rd and 5 to 10).

The Cowboys ran 121 other draws for 547 yards last season (4.51 yards-per-carry).   This average is well below the 5.52 yards-per-carry the Cowboys maintained on non-draw plays.

But why would the Cowboys’ average be so low on a play which they are thought to run better than just about any other team in the league?   One possible explanation is the frequency with which Dallas runs draws out of the formation “Double Tight Right Strong Right.”

Remember in my study on Double Tight Right Strong Right, I noticed the Cowboys ran a strong side dive out of the formation 71.6 percent of all plays and 85.7 percent of the time when motioning into it.   The success of the dive decreased as the season progressed.   Dallas averaged a stout 7.8 yards-per-carry over the first five games but, as defenses became accustomed to the formation, the Cowboys were only able to manage 4.4 yards-per-carry on these dive plays the rest of the season (including just 3.2 against all teams except Oakland).

Of the 116 dive plays they ran out of Double Tight Right Strong Right, 23 of them were in the form of a draw.   The Cowboys gained just 87 yards on these plays for a per-carry average of 3.78 yards.

While this isn’t particularly efficient, the sample size of 23 plays is not enough to significantly alter the overall results of the overall draw plays.  Even if we disregard these Double Tight Right Strong Right draw plays, the Cowboys still averaged only 4.69 yards-per-carry (460 yards on 98 runs) on the remaining draws.

Ultimately, it appears as though the Cowboys’ poor average on draw plays is due more so to dialing up the draw too often than to them simply not being an effective draw team.   There is no doubt that draws can be extremely useful, but perhaps offensive coordinator Jason Garrett could maximize their effectiveness by calling them just a bit less often in 2010.

In the case of the Cowboys’ draw plays, the old euphemism holds true: you really can have too much of a good thing.

Part II: Timing is Everything

The point of running draw plays is to fool the defense into thinking you are going to pass the ball.   The play itself is slow-hitting and even perhaps inherently sub-optimal, but it works because the linebackers and secondary see pass and begin to drop into their coverages.

This same idea–running plays based on the defense’s expectations–was the basis of my articles on why the Cowboys should run more out of passing situations and formations (and on the other side of the coin, pass more out of running situations and formations).   Calling a running play on 3rd and 5 might not be intrinsically optimal, for example, but it is statistically equal to passing in terms of efficiency due to the defense’s strategy.

After combining the two notions, I decided to sort the Cowboys’ 2009 draws based on formation.   If my theory is correct, we would expect Dallas to have more success running draws out of passing formations as opposed to running ones.

But what is a “passing formation”?   I defined it as any formation which implements 3+ wide receivers (3 Wide I, Gun Trips, etc).  All of the “running formations,” on the other hand, utilized a fullback (Double Tight I, Full House, etc.).  The chart to the right displays the results.

You can see the Cowboys were much more successful running the ball out of spread (passing) formations in 2009.   The ‘Boys averaged nearly 1.5 times the yards-per-carry when running draws from formations which are generally considered “passing” ones.

A quick side note: I also thought the Cowboys would be more successful running draws to the left side of the formation, as they are less common and more difficult for a defense to decipher.   Overall, Dallas averaged 4.96 yards-per-carry when running draws to the left, compared to just 4.31 yards-per-carry to the right.   The sample size of plays isn’t tremendous, but there may (or may not) be a relationship there.

As far as running draws out of spread vs. tight formations, there are a variety of reasons the Cowboys may have accrued superior statistics out of spread formations (outside of those formations actually being “better” from which to run draws).

The most logical explanation is that offenses generally line up in spread formations during situations which are more suitable for running the football.  The defense is more likely to allow a seven yard gain on a 3rd and 9 draw play as opposed to the same play on 3rd and 5, for example.

I computed the average down and distance for all draw plays from both spread and tight formations.  The average down on spread draws was 1.65 with an average of 9.27 yards-to-go.  For tight formation draw plays, the average down was 1.37 with an average of 7.82 yards-to-go.   Additionally, the Cowboys ran 13 draws with a distance-to-go of 11+ yards, all of which came out of spread formations.

Thus, it is obvious the Cowboys ran draws from spread formations in different situations from when they ran them out of tight formations, but it is difficult to say how influential this disparity was on the results.   It is my opinion, however, that the differential is not enough to account for the vast disparity in yards-per-carry for each formation type.

The primary reason for my opinion is that when we remove the draws which came during plays with 11+ yards to go (13 runs for 95 yards), the draw statistics out of spread formations (50 runs for 246 yards–4.92 yards-per-carry) are still far superior to those out of tight formations.  Even after accounting for “outliers,” the Cowboys averaged 1.24 yards more per carry on spread draws than tight draws.

Part III: Influence on 2010

The increased frequency and corresponding decreased efficiency on draw plays in 2009 should impact how the ‘Boys call them this season.

First, offensive coordinator Garrett must decrease the number of draws he runs until the Cowboys obtain optimal efficiency.  The 4.51 yards-per-carry the Cowboys averaged on draws in 2009, while not horrendous, was anything but optimal.  They ran 123 total draws last season, or 7.69 per game.  If the offense can decrease that number to about five or six per contest, they should see the yards-per-carry increase.

Secondly, the Cowboys might be well served to call not only more draws during “passing” situations, but more runs in general during these times.  Running draws out of untraditional formations (non-tight ones) may also be advantageous.  Dallas called far too many draws (and regular strong side dives) out of Double Tight Right Strong Right last season.  A 3rd and 5 draw play out of Gun Spread, for example, could be superior to a pass.

Of course, calling plays is all about strategic randomization and game theory.  Remember, true randomization isn’t simply “mixing it up”–a mistake Garrett has made before.  Instead, if the Cowboys can pass when the defense expects a run, and run (draws) when the defense anticipates a pass, they have the offensive firepower to be unstoppable in 2010.


By Jonathan Bales

From the Archives: Cowboys Initial Drive Statistics

Jonathan Bales

One of the more important aspects of an offensive coordinator’s play-calling ability, I 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 second 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) was 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.  My 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.

Second Half

The Cowboys’ statistics on the initial drive of the second half might be more indicative of Garrett’s play-calling ability.  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.