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

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Dallas Cowboys Times’ Final 2010 Player, Position Rankings

Jonathan Bales

I recently concluded my 2010 “Grading the ‘Boys” Series.  If you’d like to go back to review individual position grades, here ya go: Quarterbacks, defensive lineinside linebackersoutside linebackerssafetiescornerbackstight endswide receiversrunning backs, offensive line.

A few notes before reading my 2010 Final Player and Position Grades:

  • This is not a comprehensive list of everyone who played last season, but rather those players who participated in enough plays to gather statistically significant results.
  • It is also not a ranking of the best players or those with the most production, but rather a list of the most efficient players to the team (as I see it) in 2010.
  • Lastly, players listed in blue are those whose grade I expect to improve in 2011.  I anticipate a decline in production from those players listed in red, and neither a vast improvement or deterioration in play from those listed in black.

1. DeMarcus Ware: A (94.0)

Ware had an “average” season by his standards.  He’s one of the best players–at any position–in the NFL.

2.  Jason Witten: A- (91.0)

Witten appeared to be slowing down early in the 2010 campaign but picked it up over the second half of the season.  I think you’ll see him as a “B” or “B+” guy in 2011, if for no other reason than a reduced snap count (under 1,000 is ideal).

3.  Victor Butler: B+ (89.8)

Butler’s improvement will be contingent on playing time.  The good news is new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has no loyalty to Anthony Spencer and will play the best outside linebacker.  Butler’s team-leading .118 pressures-per-rush should be in there on passing downs.

4.  Martellus Bennett:  B+ (88.0)

If it came down only to Bennett’s ability, I’d have him in the blue.  Until Witten is gone, however, Bennett simply won’t garner the enough opportunities in the passing game to compile big numbers.  By the way, he’s this high because of his blocking ability, which is probably the best on the team.

5.  Gerald Sensabaugh:  B+ (87.0)

Shocked?  Don’t be.  Sensabaugh was outstanding against the pass in 2010 and was one of the few defenders to show maximum effort all year.  He did overperform a bit, however, so this grade will probably slip in 2011.

6. Felix Jones: B (86.3)

Jones is clearly the Cowboys’ best running back.  His 9.38 yards-per-reception in 2010 was incredible.  He can be an “A” player he if improves his pass protection.

7.  Kyle Kosier: B (86.2)

Zero sacks yielded all season.  I know Kosier is a “boring” player, but he’s been the team’s most underrated one for quite some time.

8.  Tony Romo: B (85.0)

In my view, 2010 was about as bad as it can get for Romo.  Even so, he compiled a 94.5 passer rating and a 130.0 rating on throws of 20+ yards.  He will be an “A” player in 2011.

T9.  Anthony Spencer: B (84.6)

Spencer wasn’t as horrible in 2010 as people think, and I can all but guarantee this grade will be higher in 2011.  Expect at least .02 sacks-per-rush next year (he had .012 this season).

T9. Dez Bryant: B (84.6)

It’s pretty clear that Bryant will improve in 2011.  He led the team with a 4.2 percent drop rate (and I’d bet that will be even lower next season), and displayed an incredible overall skill set.

T11. Miles Austin: B- (83.4)

Austin came into the 2010 season with incredible expectations that he didn’t fulfill.  He wasn’t terrible, however.  His 9.09 yards-per-attempt and 6.32 YAC-per-reception numbers are still quite good.

T11.  Orlando Scandrick:  B- (83.4)

Scandrick will always be targeted more than the other cornerbacks because he plays in the slot, but he improved greatly in 2010.  Yielding 0.88 yards-per-snap is good for a nickel cornerback.

13.  Doug Free: B- (83.0)

I don’t know of anyone who would give Free this low of a grade other than me, but he still has some work to do.  The three sacks he yielded is outstanding for a left tackle in the NFC East, but he also recorded a team-high nine penalties and wasn’t close to dominant in the run game.

14.  Sean Lee: B- (82.4)

I was really impressed with Lee’s improvement as the season progressed.  He led the inside linebackers in tackles-per-play, missed tackle rate, and most coverage statistics.

15.  Jon Kitna: B- (82.0)

Some of you thought Kitna deserved a higher grade, but if Romo puts up a 4:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio this season, fans will go nuts.  Still, Kitna is a luxury as a No. 2 quarterback.

16.  Bradie James: B- (81.3)

James was worse in coverage than I thought, yielding an 83.9 percent completion rate and 7.6 yards-per-attempt.  He’s still stout against the run, but I foresee a decline in production in 2011.

17.  Jay Ratliff:  B- (81.0)

Many of you didn’t like that I gave Ratliff an 87.0 percent in 2009, so his 81.0 this year can’t be popular.  His play will improve in 2011, however, because a move to defensive end seems likely.

18. Leonard Davis:  B- (80.6)

Davis is by no means a Pro Bowl-caliber player anymore, but he isn’t as poor as fans believe.  He was abused in the Titans game, but other than that, he allowed only one sack and zero quarterback hits all season.

19. Tashard Choice: C+ (78.9)

Choice is going to improve upon his 2010 production because either 1) Marion Barber will be gone or 2) it will be for another squad.

20.  Andre Gurode: C+ (78.2)

Over the second half of the season, Gurode was excellent in pass protection.  I still think he has value to the ‘Boys, but his run blocking must improve.  When he was at the point-of-attack in 2010, Cowboys running backs averaged only 2.82 yards-per-carry.

21.  Montrae Holland: C+ (77.8)

Holland is a solid backup, but he is not the future at guard for Dallas.

T22.  Terence Newman:  C+ (77.0)

Newman has been one of my favorite players for awhile, but he looked bad in 2010.  He was targeted 98 times and gave up a 65.3 completion rate.  I don’t have him in the red, however, because 1) I think he underperformed and 2) I think a move to free safety could help him.

T22.  Roy Williams: C+ (77.0)

I just don’t think Williams fits in well with what the Cowboys do on offense.  He has a knack for catching touchdowns (13.5 percent touchdown rate) and led the team in yards-per-attempt (9.12), but how much value can he add to a receiver corps with Austin and Bryant ahead of him?

24.  Keith Brooking: C (76.7)

Brooking’s production may not have a chance to decline if he’s out of Dallas in 2011.  He tallied 23 less tackles in 2010 as compared to the prior season despite playing more snaps.

25. Sam Hurd: C (75.8)

I think it’s about time to part ways with Hurd.  He’s tremendous on special teams, but No. 4 receivers should possess the upside to potentially be a future starter.  Hurd doesn’t.

26.  Stephen Bowen: C (75.4)

Will Bowen even be a Cowboy in 2011?  If so, he seems to be the most likely defensive end to improve.  His 4.9 percent pressure rate was outstanding, so the sacks will come.  Rob Ryan reportedly loves Bowen’s game tape as well.

T27.  Jason Hatcher: C (75.0)

I predicted a breakout season for Hatcher, but it never came.  Receiving only 257 snaps will do that, but he did lead the defensive ends in sack and hit rates.  He’s probably in a battle with Bowen for a roster spot.

T27.  Marcus Spears: C (75.0)

Spears was the Cowboys’ only legitimate run-stuffing defensive end this season.  His tackle rate of 6.1 percent was well ahead of runner-up Jason Hatcher.

29. Marion Barber:  C- (71.3)

Barber would be a “D” player if he wasn’t so good in pass protection.  Still, he offers no value to the ‘Boys anymore as a runner or pass-catcher.  He’s actually a poor short-yardage runner now, converting on only 66.7 percent of plays with 1-3 yards-to-go.

30.  Igor Olshansky:  C- (70.2)

Olshansky is supposedly a stud against the run, but I gave him a “C” in run defense.  I’ll be pissed if he’s in Dallas next year.

31.  Josh Brent: D+ (69.0)

Brent wasn’t as good as people believe (due to low expectations), recording zero sacks, one quarterback hit, and three pressures.  I think he has potential to be a solid rotational player in the future, but right now he doesn’t possess starter ability.

32.  Alan Ball: D+ (67.7)

Ball yielded a 63.0 percent completion rate (despite playing deep on almost every play) and seven touchdowns (on only 27 targets).  I’m undecided on if Ball should stay in Dallas, but he damn well shouldn’t be starting at free safety.

33.  Barry Church: D (66.3)

I liked Church in the preseason, but he missed 28.6 percent of tackles and tallied a terrible 239.51 DCT Pass Defense Rating.  He has nowhere to go but up.

34.  Mike Jenkins: D (64.6)

I’d bet all the money I own that Jenkins will improve in 2011.  If he allows 11.17 yards-per-attempt again, I’d be in utter amazement.

35.  Marc Colombo: D- (63.0)

Nine sacks.  11 pressures.  40 quarterback hits.

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Last season, I handed out nine As, 13 Bs, 11 Cs, and two Ds.  The Cowboys’ lack of 2010 success was depicted in the overall player grades, as the number of As dropped to only two this season, while the number of Ds jumped to five (there were 16 Bs and 12 Cs).

Average Position Grades

T1. Tight Ends: B+ (89.5)
T1.  Outside Linebackers: B+ (89.5)
3.  Quarterbacks: B (83.5)
4.  Wide Receivers: B- (80.2)
5.  Inside Linebackers: B- (80.1)
6.  Running Backs:  C+ (78.8)
7.  Offensive Line: C+ (78.1)
8.  Cornerbacks: C (75.0)
9.  Defensive Line: C (74.3)
10.  Safeties: C- (73.7)

Although this list is a good baseline for talent evaluation, it isn’t actually how I would rate the positions.  This is because 1) the grades above are for the 2010 season only and 2) they are simply the averages of all players at a position (which may not be the best way to do things since the impact of one player isn’t necessarily the same of another. . .Alan Ball vs. Barry Church, for example).

Perhaps a more proper method of assigning overall position grades is to alter the weight each player contributes to his position by factoring in the number of snaps he played.  Thus, Ball’s grade would count 8.29 times as much as that of Church (987 snaps vs. 119).

After factoring in snap counts, here are the revised position grades:

Weighted Position Grades

1. Tight Ends: A- (90.0)
2. Outside Linebackers: B+ (89.3)
3. Quarterbacks: B- (83.0)
4. Wide Receivers: B- (81.0)
5. Running Backs:  B- (80.9)
6. Inside Linebackers: C+ (79.3)
7. Offensive Line: C+ (77.9)
8. Safeties: C (76.4)
9. Defensive Line: C (75.3)
10. Cornerbacks:  C (74.0)

No dramatic differences, but still interesting nonetheless.  The Cowboys’ 2010 decline is also evident in the number of players I labeled as ‘declining’ (in red), jumping from six (in 2009) to 10.  The good news is the number of players who I expect to perform better in 2011 is the same as last season–13.  A lot of that has to do with players like Jenkins, Bowen, and Austin who simply underperformed so much in 2010 that they’re bound to play better next season.

And finally, listed below are the most overrated and underrated players on the Dallas Cowboys (in no particular order).  These choices are based on a combination of the 2010 grades and public perception.  Thus, guys like Colombo and Ball aren’t overrated because everyone knows they are that bad, while players like Ware and Witten aren’t considered underrated because their talent is clear.

Overrated

Jay Ratliff, Bradie James, Keith Brooking, Marion Barber, Igor Olshansky, Josh Brent, Barry Church, Doug Free

Underrated

Victor Butler, Martellus Bennett, Gerald Sensabaugh, Kyle Kosier, Orlando Scandrick, Sean Lee

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There are bound to be some of you who disagree with these rankings.  Explain why below.

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Dallas Cowboys 2010 Rushing/Passing Efficiency By Down

Jonathan Bales

I’ve talked before about why I believe the Cowboys should throw more often on first down, particularly out of running formations.  Despite the league-wide transition to an emphasis on throwing the football, defenses still tend to primarily defend the run on first down.

Well, I sorted through my 2010 play database today to determine the Cowboys’ efficiency on first down passes.  I quickly realized the numbers were relatively useless without a comparison to statistics on other downs, so I calculated those as well.  Then, I postulated that an even stronger down-to-down comparison of passing statistics would be accomplished by noting the team’s rushing efficiency too.  The result of all of this is below:

Note: I did not count QB spikes or kneel downs, and sacks/QB rushes are counted into the passing totals.

A few notes:

  • The Cowboys’ completion percentage remains relatively steady, regardless of the down.  I was really surprised to see just a 4.4 percent difference between first and second down passing.
  • You might think the Cowboys would run more on second down than first, but that’s actually not the case.  Nearly two-thirds of second down plays have been passes.
  • As expected, third down passing efficiency trumps that on first and second down.  I would speculate this is due to game situations–defenses don’t mind yielding a 10-yard gain on 3rd and 15.  Still, 8.01 yards-per-attempt is tremendous for any down.
  • The low rushing efficiency on third down stems primarily from 3rd and short situations.  Running on 3rd and 4+ is actually quite successful.
  • The greatest disparity between rushing and passing efficiency comes on third down (passing is 2.36 times as efficient), followed by first down (1.80 times as efficient), and then second down (1.56 times as efficient).  You might ask, “Why not just pass the ball every play?”  Well, aside from the fact that defenses would quickly adjust, running the ball also yields a higher percentage of positive plays–there are no incomplete passes.  A 3rd and 1 run is almost always superior to a pass for this reason.

There are a lot of other conclusions that can be drawn here.  I’d love to hear what some of the DC Times regulars think about this data.

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Dallas Cowboys 2009 Offensive Player Efficiency Comparisons

Last week, a reader suggested we perform a value-based statistical analysis (similar to our 2009 Player Grades) which could be used to determine the worth of one player over another.  For example, how much better would the Cowboys be if Felix Jones played every snap at running back (disregarding fatigue)?  How costly would an injury to Jason Witten be?  Essentially, how much does each player contribute to a win?

This task is easier said than done (and since it isn’t even particularly easily said, it sure isn’t easy to do).  As the reader points out, one would have to “normalize” the conditions outside of the player to determine his true worth.  This is rather easy to do (relatively speaking) in a sport like baseball where the circumstances are basically always the same.

In football, though, no two plays are ever really identical.  Statistical comparisons among players on different teams are rather pointless, as the nature of each player’s system plays an incredible role in his statistical capabilities.

Nonetheless, there have been some attempts to “normalize” outside factors and assign an objective value to players.  In fact, we are in the process of making such an attempt right now.  Until then, we wanted to take a look at the values of Cowboys players gathered by some other leading football statistics gurus (and compare them to our own 2009 Player Rankings).

One such source (and perhaps the most well-known) is Football Outsiders.  The primary FO statistic with which we are concerned is DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average.  FO describes DVOA as “representing value, per play, over an average player at the same position in the same game situations.”

DVOA is an excellent statistic to use to compare with our own player rankings, as both represent efficiency, not overall value.  For example, Roy Williams had a greater overall value to the offense than Kevin Ogletree in 2009, but most would argue Ogletree was more efficient during his snaps.

Another source of efficiency-based value rankings is Advanced NFL Stats–a site we refer you to a lot.  Advanced NFL Stats implements a statistic called Expected Points Added.  We’ve spoken about ‘expected points’ in the past, and ANS talks about it here.

In short, EP (expected points) is the value of a certain situation in football.  EPA (expected points added) is the difference between one situation and another.  If the Cowboys have a 1st and 10 at their own 30-yard line, for example, the EP of that situation is +1.0 point, i.e. on average, they can expect one point from that drive.  If Miles Austin catches a pass for 50 yards, the Cowboys’ EP shoots up to +4.0 (the expected points of a 1st and 10 at the opponent’s 20-yard line).  Thus, the EPA for that play is +3.0.

We are concerned with EPA/play–the amount of expected points a player adds to his team’s point total per play.

A final source for efficiency-based values is Pro Football Focus.  PFF is different from FO and ANS in that they do not necessary use the outcomes of plays to formulate rankings.  Instead, they break down each play and assign values based on their interpretation of how well each player performed his job on that play.  You can read more about their methodology here.

It is important to note that all three sites use a value of “0” as a baseline for average play.  Players in the negative are worse than average, and players with positive values are better than average for DVOA, EPA, and PFF’s values.

Click to enlarge.

The chart above displays the rankings and values for the Cowboys offense from all three sites (Football Outsiders, Advanced NFL Stats, and Pro Football Focus), along with our own grades.  A few notes before we analyze the data:

  • NR=Not Rated (likely due to insufficient sample size)
  • The statistics circled in blue are a player’s highest rating; those in red are his lowest.
  • Comparisons among players at different positions are meaningless due to the nature of the data.

Observations

  • Only two players, Martellus Bennett and Flozell Adams, were unanimously voted as “below average.”

Shockingly, ANS rated Roy Williams as slightly above average.  We love Williams’ attitude right now, but we couldn’t disagree more about his 2009 play.

  • Tony Romo’s highest rating (from FO) put him at just 7th among all quarterbacks.  PFF had him all the way at 15th.

We had Romo rated as the 7th-best quarterback in the NFL in our 2010 Starting Quarterback Power Rankings.  We would have ranked his 2009 play, though, as top-five.

  • It’s unanimous: Felix Jones is one of the NFL’s most efficient running backs.  He was ranked 5th, 6th, and 9th, respectively.

Jones’ lowest grade would actually probably come from us.  He has a long way to go to prove he can hold up over an entire season, but as far as efficiency, he’s one of the league’s best.  We provided him a B+ in short-yardage running, an A in overall running, a B in receiving, and a B in pass protection.

  • Two out our three sources agree with us that Barber was about average last season.  FO ranked him as a top 15 back.  Meanwhile, Tashard Choice checked in with a higher efficiency rating than Jones from two of the sites.

We rated Barber as an average running back in 2009 (77.2 percent).  We were also very high on Choice, rating him just 2.5 percentage points behind Jones.  Choice would have ranked as one of the league’s top running backs on Football Outsiders and Advanced NFL Stats had he played more snaps.

  • Jason Witten was ranked all the way from the league’s top tight end to No. 11.

Witten was the No. 1 tight end in our NFL Tight End Rankings.  There’s simply no doubt about it.

  • Opinions on Deon Anderson varied from slightly below average to the league’s 6th-best fullback.

We tend to agree with the latter.  The Cowboys averaged nearly two yards more per rush with Anderson in the game (as compared to John Phillips) and .2 yards more per pass.  Click here to see our in-depth study on Anderson’s 2009 play.

  • Miles Austin has arrived.  He was rated from 5th to 9th.

We gave Austin the third-highest grade of any Cowboy due to his low 2.2 percent drop rate and incredible 10.4 yards-per-attempt.

  • Ratings of both Patrick Crayton and Roy Williams varied.

Two of the three sources had Crayton as a top 16 receiver (in terms of efficiency).  Williams wasn’t high on anyone’s list, but PFF had him ranked all the way down at No. 100.

  • PFF was the only site to rank individual linemen, but their ratings fell in line with ours.

We were a bit higher on Leonard Davis and Andre Gurode and slightly lower on Kyle Kosier (who they listed as the Cowboys’ top lineman last season).  We gave Davis and Gurode “A-” grades and Kosier a “B.”  All three linemen made our list of Dallas’ top 15 overall players last season.

Conclusion

There is obviously quite a bit of work left to be completed in the area of advanced football statistics, particularly objective efficiency rankings.  Still, the difficulty of the task is no reason to concede.  The more we learn which statistics contribute to a team’s success (and how much), the closer we will be to “normalizing” subjective factors in an attempt to acquire objective player ratings.

Up Next: 2009 Defensive Player Efficiency Comparisons

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Fantasy Football: Learn How to Predict Running Backs’ Yards-Per-Carry

– Jonathan Bales

If you missed it (which is likely since we have yet to talk about it), we recently launched our 2010 Fantasy Football Package.  It is a collection of everything I use to dominate fantasy football leagues each year, including my personal projections, rankings, draft plans, players to target, and so on.  You can read more about the service by following the link above.

I understand it is a risk to take another person’s advice on a subject as serious (<— is that a joke?) as fantasy football, so I think it is important to detail the methodologies I implement to arrive at my final projections.

In my bio on this site, I wrote:

I have always been fascinated by the way mathematics and statistics, if used properly, can thoroughly explain seemingly complex phenomena.  Like the motion of the planets or the path of an ant, I truly believe football can be perfectly represented by numbers (the difficult part is determining which numbers are significant and why). . .I implemented the same sort of approach to playing (and winning) fantasy football.  Fantasy football is nothing more than risk analysis; like playing the stock market, a sound use of game theory can work wonders for your team.

This particular article is a sample of how I implement statistical analysis to determine future performance.

Running Backs’ Yards-Per-Carry

I recently visited New York City and passed a “psychic” in Times Square.  She told me she could tell me anything about the future that I wanted to know (for $99, of course).  I asked her if she could tell me how likely it is that Chris Johnson will repeat his stellar 2009 yards-per-carry (YPC).  She walked away, and I never got my answer.

Nonetheless, I think statistical analysis and film study will give me a far more accurate prediction of Chris Johnson’s YPC than any psychic.  Predicting the future isn’t about knowing conclusively what will happen, but rather deciphering the chances that a particular event will occur.  Not to get too philosophical (hey, it’s what I do), but if the universe runs not through deterministic events, but rather random happenings, then it is impossible to “know” the future.

Stats gathered from Pro-Football-Reference.com

That doesn’t mean accurate predictions cannot be made, however.  Weathermen often get a bad rap, but they are generally very good at what they do.  Weather systems don’t function in a deterministic manner, such as balls on a pool table, but through random occurrences.  Likewise, the 2010 YPC for each running back in the NFL is not somehow “determined” beforehand–but the probabilities of certain averages for particular players, I believe, are already written in stone.

So how are we to determine these probabilities?  While they may “just come” to the New York psychic, I, unfortunately, have to do a lot more work.  My methodology includes statistical analysis, so let’s take a look at some numbers.

First, we must note that the league-wide yards-per-carry average has skyrocketed in the past 13 years.  After remaining relatively steady from 1974 to 1996, the yards-per-carry average has increased .2 yards since–a 5.11% increase.  That number might not appear large, but it is rather staggering for a sample size of carries as large as the entirety of NFL running backs over an extended period of time.

Thus, there is a difference in YPC among eras, meaning if we are going to use the statistics from prior eras to broaden our sample size, we must account for this disparity.  After correcting the YPC of “the old-timers” to more appropriately relate to the league-wide averages during their eras, we see that there is a rather significant correlation between a player’s YPC in year N and his YPC in year N+1 (the next season).

To see this formula and continue reading, please visit page 2 of 2.

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Re-Analysis of 4th Down Attempts: The Impact of Momentum

Optimal 4th Down Decisions via mgoblog.com

A couple days ago, we published a study on the Cowboys’ 2009 4th down attempts, explaining why the offense, along with most others around the NFL, does no attempt nearly enough 4th down plays.  The Cowboys attempted just 11 plays on 4th down last season, converting on only four of them (36.4%).

Last night, I came across another study on 4th down attempts.  The conclusions of their original study were similar to those we discussed in our own article.

  1. Don’t punt on the opponent’s side of the field.
  2. Really consider going for it on 4th down after crossing your own 40.
  3. Field goals only make sense if there are more than 5 yards to go and you are between the 10 and 30 yard lines. If you’re in opponent territory and these two criteria aren’t true, you should be going for it.

However, they also raise (and rebut) a couple of objections to the “go for it” dictum.  They are listed below.

  • Failing on a 4th down attempt gives the opposing offense momentum they would have otherwise never received.

Offenses have no advantage if their drive is the result of a 4th down stop.

This was initially our biggest qualm with the notion of adhering to a (seemingly risky) 4th down chart.  The methodology seemed like it may work in principle but be less representative of reality when human emotions came into play.

However, the graph to the left shows that 4th down stops actually do not generate momentum for opposing offenses.  In fact, from 2007-2009, the total points obtained by drives following 4th down stops (2523) is less than the projected points for any drives starting at the same field position (2580).  Thus, “the big mo” appears to be more like “the big no,” at least as it relates to 4th down stops.

  • The model does not account for game-specific situations.

This is actually a valid objection.  MGoBlog.com points that out, writing:

The main flaw with the expected points model is that for most of the game all points are largely equal but at the end of the game, a field goal or even time can become crucially important.  If a field goal can tie a game, take the lead, or move said lead from one possession to two (or vice-versa), the decision-making process suggested above can shift radically.  This could mean punting near midfield to prevent a short field goal drive for the other team or taking a field goal instead going for it on fourth in field goal range.

However, the effect of situational 4th down calls is not as great as you may assume.  Until the 4th quarter, a coach’s decisions cannot be strongly correlated with the outcome of the game.

For example, when a team is down by four points with 30 seconds to go, the decision to go for it on 4th down is easy.  In the 3rd quarter, however, there are enough possessions left that there is less predictive power regarding the coach’s decision and the final score.  Thus, the 4th down chart is at least viable into the 4th quarter, and probably a bit beyond.

In any event, offenses around the league could benefit vastly from a more aggressive approach to 4th down play-calling.  Failures to convert appear to have little impact on game momentum, squashing our biggest fear of the real-life application of the model. Further, game-specific decisions are not nearly as common as people may believe.

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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.