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.
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.