The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Draw Plays: Running Them in Tight vs. Spread


By Jonathan Bales

I’m currently stuck at home sick, meaning I have extra time to sort through my Cowboys 2009 stat database.  What, isn’t that what you do when you are sick too?

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

This morning, I decided to take a closer look at the Cowboys’ 2009 draw plays.  Awhile ago, I completed a broad analysis of the Cowboys’ draws, noting that offensive coordinator Jason Garrett might be dialing up the play a bit too often.  The chart to the left displays the numbers I found.

You can see the Cowboys averaged a full yard less per carry on draw plays as compared to all other runs.  That disparity only changed slightly when discounting draw plays out of “Double Tight Right Strong Right,” a formation of which I have spoken ad nauseam in the past.  Click the link above if you are unfamiliar with Dallas’ play-calling out of the formation.

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 our 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.

Ultimately, the Cowboys may want to attempt more running plays out of spread formations and during “passing” situations in 2010, particularly runs of the draw variety.

By Jonathan Bales

Is the Dallas Cowboys Offense Like a Fine Wine?

By Jonathan Bales

The Cowboys are notorious poor starters following the opening kickoff of both the game and the second half.  A few months ago, I conducted a study of the Cowboys’ initial drive statistics.  The results (left) weren’t really all that surprising.  The ‘Boys averaged significantly less yards-per-play and points in drives to begin the game or second half (as compared to all other drives).

In fact, the Cowboys averaged nearly 1.5 yards less per play on initial second half drives and well less than half the points-per-drive.  There are likely a variety of factors which contribute to these numbers, but whatever the reason, the Cowboys must stop digging themselves into early holes.

Of course, 32 total drives (16 total to begin each half) is a fair sample size, but not an outstanding one.  Perhaps the Cowboys aren’t inherently poor starters, but rather the victim of a less-than-stellar sample size of plays.

To determine the Cowboys’ success as games progressed, I decided to analyze the breakdown of “big plays,” i.e. plays of 10+ and 20+ yards.  If a (significantly) larger percentage of these came as the games progressed, we would then be able to conclude that the Dallas offense is like a fine wine–better as times passes.

The graph to the right shows my results.  Note that I sort the plays by drive number.  I only listed the first nine drives because, with the exception of the San Diego game, all the games contained at least nine full offensive possessions.

Notice that, for both plays 10-19 yards and 20+ yards, the Cowboys (generally) improved as the game progressed. The increase in production is rather steep for 20+ yard plays, but it is also apparent for plays 10-19 yards.

Of course, there exists a multitude of reasons this could be the case.  Firstly, the Cowboys seem to come out a bit conservatively to open games, particularly on the road.  Whether this strategy is prudent or not, it would certainly affect their ability to obtain big plays.

It is important to note that, by season’s end, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett appeared to become more aggressive in his initial drive play-calling.  Over the final three games, the Cowboys attacked opposing defenses during their first drive.  The offense averaged an incredible 13.05 yards-per-play on these drives.

Another potential reason for the increase in big play percentage in late-game situations is because, during games in which the ‘Boys are losing, they are forced to attempt big plays.

However, this qualm does not appear justified.  The graph displays only the first nine drives of each game, but only two games all season (San Diego and Tampa Bay) contained less than 10 offensive drives.  In fact, the Cowboys had at least 11 drives in most games, and even up to 13 (in the second Giants game).

Further, the Cowboys simply were not down by a lot of points in any game.  Thus, the ninth drive was unlikely to be one in which the offense was in much of a rush to secure quick scores.

Whatever the reasons behind the Cowboys poor starts in 2009, the team could really benefit from opening games on the right foot.  Dallas basically manhandled New Orleans, Washington, and Philadelphia over the final three weeks of the regular season.  It is no coincidence they came out firing on offense, scoring a touchdown on the initial drive of each contest.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys News and Notes 7/2/10: Will Dez Bryant Hold Out?

We’d actually reverse this.  While there is certainly a lot of confidence in Free and Ball, the Cowboys must at least be somewhat worried about whether the two players’ inexperience will come back to bite them.  On the flip side, the effect of Barber’s potential decline is weakened by the presence of Felix Jones and Tashard Choice, i.e. Barber’s play matters less than that of Free or Ball.  Further, while kicker is a very important position, the variance among kickers from season to season makes Buehler’s presence less risky.

We’d have to disagree.  Bryant will likely be absent for the first few practices of training camp, but that is fairly standard with the Cowboys’ first-rounders.  Having already been scrutinized a great deal, Bryant (and the Cowboys) will probably do everything possible to avoid the stress and bad press of a long holdout.  And as if you haven’t watched enough videos of Bryant, here is another.

Terence Newman, Mike Jenkins, and Orlando Scandrick are locks.  We recently projected Bryan McCann to be the fourth guy (click here for our roster projections), switching from Cletis Gordon.  Gordon offers kick return ability, but those duties may now belong to rookies Dez Bryant and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah.  Either way, the presence of Alan Ball and AOA makes us believe Dallas will only retain four cornerbacks.

Great Story on Robert Brewster

Orlando Scandrick is a talented nickel cornerback, but he was picked on a bit last season.  We gave him a “C” overall grade but we are anticipating a bounce-back year from him.  This, combined with the coverage ability of Alan Ball, means the defense’s numbers against four and five-receiver sets should improve a bit in 2010.

If Ball can improve upon his poor missed tackle percentage, he will do well enough in coverage to be an upgrade over Ken Hamlin.

Some teams use specific words for particular routes or route combinations.

By Jonathan Bales

Are Cowboys’ Play-action Passes Too Predictable?

By Jonathan Bales

A few weeks ago, I published five wacky stats from our 2009 Cowboys Play Database.  The first stat in that post dealt with play-action passes:

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

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

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

The peculiarity of these numbers pushed me to research the Cowboys’ 2009 play-action passes a bit more in-depth.  Before I continue, I must note that I made a mistake in that last post (above).  The Cowboys did run 54 play-action passes with exactly 10 yards-to-go, but that number represents 59.3 percent of the total play-action passes, not 40.9 percent.

Nonetheless, the Cowboys ran so few play-action passes in short yardage situations that they actually ran one more play-action pass (five total) with 20+ yards-to-go than with 1, 2, 3 or 4 yards-to-go.  Like I mentioned above, the offense ran a play-action pass on just four of 132 plays (3.03 percent) with 1-4 yards-to-go.  The Cowboys were in situations with 20+ yards-to-go 100 less times–32 total–yet still ran one more play-action pass (the 15.6 percent play-action pass rate in this range is five times that in the 1-4 yard range).

I could be wrong, but defenses seem a bit more likely to jump up on play-action when there is a legitimate threat of run (as opposed to 20+ yards-to-go).

Not only did the offense run only four play-action passes with 1-4 yards to go, but they also ran just 18 play-action passes with less than 10 yards left for a 1st down.  Thus, just 19.8 percent of play-action passes came with less than 10 yards-to-go.

As I pointed out in a previous study on play-action passes (which I highly recommend), the Cowboys were not particularly successful (or terrible) with their play-action passes last season.  They averaged just 0.2 more yards-per-attempt on them as compared to regular passes, but they also yielded more sacks. The situations in which the Cowboys ran play-action passes are likely a major factor in their mediocre numbers.

Of course, two other statistics regarding play-action passes contributed to the offense’s lukewarm success when implementing them, both of which I addressed before.  The first has to do with a lack of downfield pass attempts:

Of the 83 playaction passes, only four, FOUR, were attempts of 20 yards or more. That is 4.8 percent of all pass plays. In comparison, the Cowboys threw the ball downfield 20 yards or more on 46 of the other 467 attempts, or 9.9 percent of all passes.

**Note that the 83 play-action passes mentioned above and in the previous article are non-sack plays.  There were eight sacks on play-action passing plays, adding up to the 91 total play-action passes.

One of the major reasons the Cowboys only attempted a pass downfield on 4.8 percent of all play-action passes was because of the high rate of screen passes:

The most shocking statistic of all, however, is the dramatic increase of screen passes used during plays when the Cowboys showed playaction. According to our film study, 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).

While the increased rate of screen attempts during playaction passes may or may not contribute to the relatively low overall playaction pass average, it surely did nothing to reverse the perception of Jason Garrett as a predictable playcaller.

This ‘predictable’ label is perpetuated by the high percentage of playaction passes which were thrown to the same area of the field. Of the 83 passes, 53, or 63.9 percent, were to the right side of the field (compared to just 37.0 percent on other passes).

Ultimately, we would rate the Cowboys’ 2009 play-action attack as average.  One would expect a higher yards-per-attempt on play-action passes (due to the situations in which they are generally run), but the Cowboys averaged just 0.2 yards more per pass on play-action passes as compared to all other pass attempts.

However, the Cowboys threw the ball downfield (20 yards or more) just four times on play-action passes.  Meanwhile, they attempted screen passes following a play-action look at over three times the normal rate.  These factors surely contributed to the relatively low play-action pass average.

One final note

The Cowboys did have success with play-action passes out of one formation in particular:  “Ace.”  I’ve spoken before about why the ‘Boys should throw more out of “Ace” and other “running” formations.

Of the 29 total plays out of “Ace” formation, 18 (62.1 percent) were play-action passes. This may be a bit high, but Dallas did average 10.3 yards-per-attempt on the plays.  Of course, everything seemed to work out of “Ace”–the Cowboys averaged 14.3 yards-per-attempt on non-playaction passes out of the formation.

By Jonathan Bales

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

By Jonathan Bales

Should the Cowboys Run More on 3rd Down?

By Jonathan Bales

I’ve spent some time talking about Jason Garrett’s 3rd down play-calls in the past, but only as they relate to the previous play.  I found that, unlike during his 2nd down play-calling, Garrett is actually rather unpredictable on 3rd down (that’s a good thing, of course).

In a recent post on why the Cowboys should pass out of “running” formations (and also in one on why teams should attempt a lot more 4th down plays), I spoke briefly about run/pass efficiency on 3rd down.  In short, NFL offenses fair much better when running the ball on 3rd and short (particularly 3rd and 1-3, but up until 3rd and 5).  Incredibly, running the ball is just as effective as passing up through 3rd and 10.  You can click the link above to read more about why this is so and view a graph displaying the conversion rates.

Nonetheless, I wanted to compare the Cowboys’ 2009 results with the league-wide numbers.  How effective was the offense when they ran the ball in “obvious” passing situations?  Note that these results (left) may be (very slightly) off from the numbers of Stats, Inc. or other unofficial stats companies because I did not use the televised ‘down and distance.’  For example, the televised version of a game may have mislabeled a play as ’3rd and 1′ when it was really closer to ’3rd and 2,’ and I have corrected for these mistakes to the best of my ability.

Notice the Cowboys’ yards-per-carry steadily rose (other than on 3rd and 6) as the yards-to-go increased.  This is obviously due to personnel and the game situation.  A defense which has substituted dime personnel on a 3rd and 10 is much more likely to yield a significant gain on the ground.  Of course, the yards-per-carry means nothing if the Cowboys are not achieving first downs.

The chart to the right displays the conversion rate of all Cowboys’ 3rd down plays (of 10 or less yards-to-go) in 2009.  As you can see, the Cowboys were more efficient on 3rd and 1 or 2 when running the ball.  They converted 17/21 (81.0%) plays in these situations, compared to only 7/11 (63.6%) when passing.

As the distance-to-go increased, however, the conversion rate on runs dropped.  The Cowboys converted zero 3rd downs when running the ball with 8+ yards to go (although they attempted just four).

Interestingly, the conversion rate of 3rd down passes remained relatively stable, regardless of the distance-to-go.  You can see a very slight drop in the Cowboys’ 3rd down passing efficiency, but for the most part, the conversion rate was flat.  This is probably due more so to the team’s success in 3rd and long situations rather than an inability to convert on 3rd and short (when passing).

I give offensive coordinator Jason Garrett a lot of flack, but his 3rd down play-calling is generally outstanding.  I’d still love to see him run more on 3rd and medium (the ‘Boys ran just seven times on 3rd and 3-6 all season, compared to 42 passes).  Of course one would expect more passes in this range, but a slight increase in “surprise” runs would be in-tune with league-wide 3rd down conversion rates and could perhaps significantly aid the offense.

And this really has nothing to do with anything I just wrote, but Tashard Choice was at a waterpark today with his family. . .

By Jonathan Bales

Should the Cowboys Have Traded For OT Jammal Brown?

By Jonathan Bales

There is certainly a ton of mystery surrounding the Cowboys’ offensive tackle position. Current starting left tackle Doug Free has very little experience at the position, having backed up Marc Colombo at right tackle last season.  He did an admirable job filling in and his skill set is probably better suited for left tackle anyway, but the question mark remains.

Colombo was solid (but not spectacular) at right tackle last year before breaking his leg mid-season.  He turns 32 this year, so Dallas certainly needs to search for his future replacement.  Perhaps they have already performed that task, having drafted Robert Brewster out of Ball State last season and Sam Young out of Notre Dame this year.

Newly-acquired tackle Alex Barron has a ton of talent but has yet to properly utilize it on the football field.  He commits a ton of penalties (although I showed why false starts aren’t as costly as you might think), but he could become a very valuable asset to the Cowboys.

Thus, despite the addition and rearrangement of a lot of players at offensive tackle, the future of the position for the Cowboys is unknown.

Now, Pro Football Talk is reporting the Cowboys tried to attain former Saints (and now Redskins) tackle Jammal Brown.  The development came as a bit of a shock to me, particularly on the heels of the Barron acquisition.

PFT lists three possible reasons for the Cowboys’ interest:

1. The Cowboys were not overly pleased with Doug Free during spring workouts. Free is entering his first full season as a starter. Though he flashed promise in spot starts last season, Free remains something of an unknown.

2. Jerry Jones’ team is concerned with 31-year-old right tackle Marc Colombo’s possibly imminent decline. Colombo broke his right fibula last November. Upon return in the playoffs, Colombo was embarrassed by Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards. In the scenario that Dallas’ goal was to upgrade over Colombo, Free could kick over to his more natural right tackle position with Brown manning Tony Romo’s blind side. Alex Barron would remain the “swing” tackle and Colombo would be released.

3. The Cowboys threw their hat into the Brown bidding just because they knew the Redskins wanted him. Dallas and Washington are division foes. Even if the Cowboys’ roster looks to contain significantly more talent, the Redskins are a threat, and will be even more so if they keep new quarterback Donovan McNabb off the injured reserve list.

To me, the first option is quite unlikely. Although spring workouts have become rather intense, it is unlikely the Cowboys would judge Free’s future 2010 success off of OTAs and mini-camp.

Further, the Cowboys have an insurance plan in Barron. Why would they attempt to acquire yet another tackle before seeing those two even play in a game?

Scenario number two may be just as unlikely.  Colombo is getting older, but he is still a capable player (the ’09 pass protection stats for all Dallas linemen are to the left).  I find it very hard to believe that Dallas would cut Colombo in favor of a player who missed the 2009 season and struggled in 2008 (I will show how Brown struggled in a bit).

PFT also writes, “Free could kick over to his more natural right tackle position.”  But is right tackle really Free’s more natural spot?  Sure, he played there last season, but his athleticism, in my opinion, makes him a better fit on the left side.  The Cowboys apparently agree.

Moreover, although the Cowboys are a bit thin behind Colombo, they did recently draft Brewster and Young.  While I see one of those players being released this summer, the addition of Brown would probably force the Cowboys to cut either Colombo or both Brewster and Young.  I just explained why I don’t see Colombo being released, and it seems rather apparent that Dallas will not let go of two young tackles.

Thus, PFT’s third proposition seems to be the most astute.  With the current numbers game in Dallas at both tackle positions, any interest the Cowboys showed in Brown may have been deception.  If the ‘Boys knew of Washington’s interest in the former Saints tackle (which is probable), getting “involved” in the bidding could increase the compensation due to New Orleans.

Now, a skeptic might claim that if Dallas wanted Washington to know of their “interest,” they would have made it more public.  However, NFL teams often gain insights into another team’s strategy (or faux strategy) in ways other than through the media.  Leaking a bunch of information to the media could have tipped off Washington that Dallas’ interest in Brown was a blatant attempt to raise his price.

If this is the case, Dallas did one heck of a job.  They forced the Redskins to (in my opinion) overpay for a player who did not play in 2009 and, although he made the Pro Bowl the prior season, did not perform at that sort of level.

So why am I so low on Brown?  Take a look at his numbers to the right (provided by Pro Football Focus).  In the last season he played, Brown did a decent job in the run game and allowed only three sacks in 921 snaps (568 were passes).  However, he yielded 15 quarterback hits (second-most in the NFL) and 27 pressures.  He also committed 10 penalties.  PFF had him ranked as the 47th-best tackle in the NFL in 2008.

In 2007, Brown was even worse.  PFF had him ranked as the 52nd-best tackle in the NFL during that season.

If I was to grade Brown’s play over his last two seasons, I would provide him with a “B” in run blocking and a “C-” in pass protection.  According to my offensive linemen grading system, this would result in a 77.8 (C+) overall grade for Brown.  Last season, I gave both Free and Colombo a “B-” overall grade.

Why pay the price of a draft pick for a player who graded out lower than the current starters at his position?  The Cowboys would obviously never do such a thing, leading me to believe the team’s perceived interest in Brown was nothing more than a bluff.

By Jonathan Bales

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

By Jonathan Bales

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

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

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

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

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

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys 16 Best/Worst Running and Passing Formations in 2009


We recently detailed the Cowboys success running and passing out of every formation they ran in 2009.  Today, we will briefly explain why the Cowboys prospered in some formations, yet failed in others.  You can see diagrams of every formation listed below by clicking here.

Note:  To be listed, a formation had to have a sample size of at least 10 runs/passes.

Best Running Formations

1.  I Left/Right (18 runs for 124 yards–6.89 YPC)

The Cowboys had a ton of success out of the standard I-formation (including passing the ball as well).  This could be because the position of the fullback (directly behind center) makes running weakside quite easy.

2.  Wildcat (16 runs for 108 yards–6.75 YPC)

We absolutely love the Wildcat (or Razorback, as the Cowboys call it).  The formation is particularly useful in goal line and other short-yardage situations because its largest weakness, the lack of big-play potential due to the absence of a legitimate pass-thrower, is limited.

3.  Double Tight I (31 runs for 208 yards–6.71 YPC)

The only difference between “Double Tight I” and a standard I-formation is personnel–an extra tight end is substituted for a wide receiver.  This version of Double Tight was much more successful than the Double Tight Strong variety (again likely due to the ease with which the team can run weak side).

4.  Gun Tight End Spread (27 runs for 166 yards–6.15 YPC)

We detailed the effectiveness of Gun TE Spread a few days ago.  The Cowboys do a tremendous job of running out of this “passing” formation–something they don’t do out of Gun Trips.

Worst Running Formations

1.  Weak Left/Right (11 runs for 29 yards–2.64YPC)

We admit 11 carries is not a huge sample size, so we must take this particular statistic with a grain of salt.  In theory, “Weak” should be a useful running formation for Dallas as there is no true “strong side”–and thus the offense can easily run in any direction.

2.  Tight End Trips Left/Right (15 runs for 46 yards–3.07 YPC)

This formation is similar to Gun Tight End Spread, with the exception of an extra wide receiver lined up on the strong side.

3.  Double Tight Left/Right Ace (22 runs for 72 yards–3.27 YPC)

The primary reason for the lack of success running out of this formation, we believe, is the absence of fullback Deon Anderson.  If Anderson is off the field, it might be a good idea for the Cowboys to run out of formations which spread the field to a greater degree than Double Tight.

4.  Strong Left/Right (49 runs for 196 yards–4.00 YPC)

The Cowboys simply had little success running out of any Strong formation, whether it employed two tight ends or not.  We think the reason for this is due to the unbalanced nature of the formation.  With the fullback lined up all the way behind the tackle on the same side as the tight end, it is extremely difficult to run weak side.

To see the best and worst Cowboys passing formations, click page 2 below.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Playbook: Gun Trips Left/Right

Play fantasy football? Check out our 2010 Fantasy Football Package.


In our 2009 Dallas Cowboys Formation Breakdown, we listed the statistics for every formation the Cowboys ran last season.  Included in that collection was a formation called “Gun Trips Left/Right” (shown below).

The formation stuck out like a sore thumb, as 63 of the 64 total plays run from it were passes. 63 of 64.  63.  Of.  64.  That is a 98.4 percent clip.

Further, the one run from “Gun Trips Right” came on 3rd and 18–a “give-up play.”

Now, we have seen offensive coordinator Jason Garrett be predictable in his play-calling before.  One such example was play-calling from “Double Tight Right Strong Right”–a formation from which the Cowboys ran the same play (a strong side dive) 71.6 percent of the time, including 85.7 percent of the time when motioning into the formation.

Still, no other formation contains the incredible imbalance between run and pass like “Gun Trips Left/Right.”

Of course, this 63:1 ratio could mean nothing if the Cowboys only lined up in the formation during obvious passing downs. In situations such as 3rd and long when the defense knows you are going to pass anyway, the particular formation can do little to tip them off.

We looked into our database to see exactly when the Cowboys were lining up in the formation, i.e. if they did so on any potential running downs.  For the sake of argument, we will label a play as occurring on a “potential running down” if it came on 1st and 10 or less, 2nd and 10 or less, or 3rd and 5 or less with more than two minutes left in a half.

Of the 64 plays out of “Gun Trips Left/Right,” an incredible 38 of them met these requirements (including 14 on 1st and 10 and 10 on 2nd and 7 or less).  Thus, 58.5 percent of the plays the Cowboys ran out of the formation came during a situation in which the team could have easily run the ball.

You think opposing defensive coordinators didn’t catch on to this trend by season’s end?  While we are almost positive this was the case, we try not to make grandiose statements without backing them up, so here you go. . .

The Cowboys managed a pedestrian 7.48 yards-per-attempt out of the formation. To determine if defenses truly recognized the Cowboys’ rather unimaginative play-calling out of the formation, however, we must examine the seasonal progression of the yards-per-attempt, as opposed to an overall mean.

According to our statistics, the offense’s success out of “Gun Trips Left/Right” dropped dramatically as the season progressed.  As you can see in the graph to the right, Dallas averaged an impressive 14.00 yards-per-attempt out of the formation during the first quarter of the season.  That number dropped considerably in games 4-8, settling all the way down at just 4.95 yards-per-attempt during the final quarter of the season.

Of course, there could be (and probably are) other factors at play, but such a tremendous decline in production is quite likely with a 63:1 pass/run ratio.