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

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Tony Romo Versus Blitz, Perceived Blitz in 2010

Jonathan Bales

It is quite obvious that Tony Romo’s improvisation skills are vital to the success of the Cowboys’ offense.  He has used his quick feet and athleticism to make the offensive line look above average in pass protection–or at least superior to reality–for years.

The vast majority of Romo’s “schoolyard” plays–the ones where he jukes and dodges defenders, all the while keeping his eyes downfield in search of the big play–have come on blitzes.  Not only are there more defenders for Romo to elude (and thus less in coverage), but the quarterback is also underrated in his ability to diagnose defenses and promptly hit the open receiver.

Most of Romo’s reads get made before the snap.  How often do you see the play clock tick down to just one or two seconds before the Cowboys snap the ball?  This is because the team uses every available second to call the play(s), diagnose the defense, and make the necessary adjustments.

As I looked into my database of Cowboys’ 2010 offensive snaps, I noticed a trend that seemed to confirm these ideas.  I track not only when a defense blitzes, but also when they show a blitz pre-snap.  Most of Romo’s mistakes over the past few years have seem to come in two situations:

  1. When defenses don’t blitz and sit back in zone coverage, forcing Romo to make accurate throws, and
  2. When defenses show blitz pre-snap but back into a safe coverage

In the chart below, you can see that Romo was incredible against the blitz this past season.  His 6:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio on blitzes is far better than the 5:6 ratio he displayed against “regular” defenses.  Romo is particularly outstanding when he knows a blitz is on the way, recording a ridiculous 136.7 passer rating in these situations.  His 9.45 adjusted yards-per-attempt is ridiculous.  (AYPA subtracts sack yardage and 45 yards per interception–the number of yards, on average, each interception is “worth” in terms of a team’s win probability.  Thus, AYPA is an awesome tool for assessing a quarterback’s value against the blitz).

When teams did not blitz Romo in 2010, however, he was slightly below average.  His passer rating his historically always been lowest when a defense shows blitz but then backs off, and that was again the case in 2010 (71.3 rating).  Romo’s 2.04 AYPA in such situations tells the whole story.

I think Romo’s failures stem from the importance he places on pre-snap reads.  When defenses show a blitz but then don’t come, Romo’s original read is usually taken away.  He can then sometimes panic, and although I truly believe Romo is a tremendous talent and a Championship-level quarterback, he does not possess incredible accuracy.  He makes a lot of his plays by buying extra time to allow receivers to become wide open.

This would explain why he still does well when teams do not show blitz but then end up coming after him.  What he sees post-snap may differ from his pre-snap reads, but he possesses not only a quick release, but also the athleticism to make good things happen that may not have been designed in the original play.

Overall, it seems clear Romo performs much better when he “knows” whether or not a blitz is coming.  When teams do not blitz, his passer rating is 15.3 points higher and his AYPA 3.53 yards better when teams do not show it as opposed to feigning a blitz.  When defenses do send extra defenders, Romo’s passer rating is 1.58 times as high and his AYPA nearly four yards superior if the defense “shows” it as opposed to disguising their intentions.

So you want to stop Romo?  Year in and year out, it had been proven to not blitz him often, but feel free to act as if you will.  When you do blitz, you better disguise that as well.

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Breaking Down the Cowboys’ 2010 Air Attack: More Balls to Austin and Jones?

Jonathan Bales

I spent the morning breaking down the Cowboys’ passing attack through the first 12 weeks of the 2010 season.  Check out the chart below, along with some of my thoughts.

Minimum 15 targets

  • There’s nothing really surprising about the target counts.  Witten once again leads the pack, and I think that needs to change.  His 7.86 yards-per-attempt is solid, but it’s trumped by all three receivers.  I realize Witten catches a higher percentage of passes (which means less difficult ‘down-and-distances’), but it’s not that much greater that it makes up for the lack of big plays.  Despite 84 targets, Witten’s longest catch all season is only 31 yards.  Less emphasis on Witten in the passing game will equate to even better efficiency.
  • The catch rates for all three receivers are outstanding.  Williams is the low-man on offense with a 60.4 percent reception rate, and that’s still really good for a wide receiver.
  • Felix Jones’ reception rate is absolutely unbelievable.  I knew he improved in the passing game, but I had no idea he has hauled in 37 of the 40 passes which have come his way this season.  His 8.65 yards-per-attempt and 11.78 yards-after-catch/reception are jaw-dropping.  With the limited upside that comes with catching passes out of the backfield, Jones’ numbers tell you he needs to become an even bigger focus in the passing game.
  • The running game isn’t the only place Marion Barber has lost explosion.  His 3.06 YPA is unacceptable, even for a running back.  The offense as a whole does benefit from his pass protection ability, however.
  • Miles Austin’s gaudy YPA (9.12) is to be expected, but who knew Williams (8.85) was just behind?  And despite frequent rumblings to the contrary, Williams is a big play threat.  17 percent of his receptions have gone for 20+ yards–by far the highest rate on the team.
  • Dez Bryant’s numbers aren’t as impressive as I thought they might be, but it could be due to the frequency with which he is thrown screen passes.  They limit his YPA and big play ability.  Despite that, he still leads the team with three receptions of 40+ yards.

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Will the Cowboys be more aggressive moving forward?

Jonathan Bales

I’ve written frequently (specifically in the “Comments” of posts) about how and why the Cowboys should be much more aggressive moving forward in 2010.  At 1-6, there’s really nothing to lose, and Dallas could use the remainder of the season to answer important questions about their squad.  For example. . .

Playing Phil Costa is the aggressive move.  Will he remain the starter once Kyle Kosier returns?

Inserting Akwasi Owusu-Ansah into the starting lineup is the aggressive move.  Will that happen once he overcomes his high ankle sprain?

Sitting veterans such as Marc Colombo, Marion Barber, and Keith Brooking (at least in certain situations) is the aggressive move.  But will it happen?

And going for it on 4th and 4 from your opponent’s 40-yard line is the aggressive move. . .and we know what Coach Phillips has recently elected to do in such situations.

I bring this up because this organization is going to have a major problem if the current coaching staff continues to coach to “save face” instead of doing what is best for the Dallas Cowboys in 2011.  It’s clear that Phillips has recently made in-game decisions in an effort to “soften the blow” so to speak.  Why?  I know many of you think Jerry Jones already has too much power, but he needs to step in right now and make sure the 2010 version of the Cowboys is actually focused on becoming a better team in 2011.

I’m not at all in support of a mid-season coaching change.  Unless JJ thinks the future Dallas Cowboys head coach is already in the organization (which I sure hope isn’t the case), firing your current head coach and defensive coordinator makes no sense. . .UNLESS.

Unless said head coach knows his job is already out the window and is making important decisions based on appearing “respectable” in 2010.

I’m a competitor.  I want the Cowboys to win all the time and anything less than a championship, in my view, is a failure.  So while I want the Cowboys to win every remaining game this year, the future cannot be sacrificed in an effort to do that.  It’s almost irrelevant to me if Dallas ends up 1-15 or 8-8 this year. . .both records will be a failure.  I want the Cowboys to be true winners–the best of the best–and they need to realize that opportunity has passed this season.

Thus, they need to do everything in their power to prepare for a championship run in 2011.  If it means sacrificing the present, then so be it.  But if the goals of the current staff result in punting the ball on 4th and 4 from the opponent’s 40-yard line (or 4th and 3 from the 39-yard line last week), then something needs to change, and it needs to change now.

For those who are frequent visitors to DC Times, you know I try to back up everything I write with statistical proof that is highly relevant to my views.  So here we go. . .

On 4th and 4 from the opponent’s 40-yard line, the decision to punt the ball is incredibly detrimental to the Cowboys.  Statistically, they should go for it on all 4th down plays in that range up until and including 4th and 10.

Evidence of this comes in Advanced NFL Stats Win Probability graphs (which I highly recommend).  They take thousands of results from very specific game situations in the past and determine a team’s chances of winning a game at any particular moment.  What is the probability of a team winning a game when having a 1st and 10 at their own 20-yard line, down four, with three minutes left to play?  I’ve been amazed at the accuracy with which these graphs can provide that sort of information.

If you look at the Win Probability graph for the Cowboys-Jaguars game, you’ll see the Cowboys’ chances of winning decreased from 14 percent to 13 percent after their 4th down punt.

But this alone isn’t evidence that Phillips made a poor decision.  The effectiveness of a choice isn’t determined by how much it increases or decreases a team’s chances of winning, but rather how much it does so in comparison to the alternative.  If the Cowboys went for it on 4th down and gained just the four yards needed for a 1st down, the chances of them winning the game would have actually been closer to 20 percent.  Meanwhile, if they went for it on 4th down and failed, their chances of winning would have decreased to around 12 percent.

I’ll save you the monotonous math, but for the decision to punt to be the correct one, we’d have to assume that the Cowboys had less than a 25 percent chance of converting on that 4th and 4.  That’s clearly not the case.  Actually, the Cowboys have been 7 of 17 (41.2 percent) on 3rd or 4th and 4 dating back to the start of last season.  Of course that sample size isn’t huge, but the pool of data suggesting punting on 4th and 4 from your opponent’s 40-yard line is a horrible decision is statistically significant–meaning Phillips’ decision to do so isn’t just the “conservative” play, it’s also the wrong one.

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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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Dallas Cowboys 2009 Defensive Player Efficiency Comparisons


Buy your Dez Bryant Cowboys jersey now. . .
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By Jonathan Bales

Last week, I published a comparison of Dallas Cowboys offensive player efficiency rankings.  This comparison listed our own grades and those of a few well-regarded football statistics companies.

The point of this was to make an attempt to “normalize” playing conditions (teammates, situations, and so on) to determine a particular player’s true value.

In that article, I wrote:

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 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.

Another source for efficiency-based values is Pro Football Focus. PFF is different from 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.

Today, I will be comparing the Cowboys defensive player values from ANS and PFF with our own.

NR=Not Rated

Observations

  • Neither ANS or PFF rated Jay Ratliff any higher than the 12th best defensive tackle in the NFL.

I was slightly down on Ratliff as well, giving him an overall grade of 87.0, but to nowhere near the degree of ANS or PFF.  A reader recently pointed out that Ratliff also played injured all season (and played too many snaps at that).  His efficiency will increase in 2010.

  • PFF rated defensive ends Igor Olshansky, Stephen Bowen, and Jason Hatcher as nearly identical.  Marcus Spears was not far behind.

This fits very well with my defensive end grades.  While I had Olshansky rated a bit higher than the others, the interchangeability of all four defensive ends allows them to stay fresh.

  • ANS was extremely down on DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, rating them as the 18th and 20th most efficient linebackers in the NFL.

There is a caveat here.  ANS ranks all linebackers together and their methodologies reward inside linebackers (who acquire more tackles) more than outside linebackers.  Nonetheless, they still had Ware and Spencer rated as just the sixth and seventh most efficient 3-4 outside linebackers, behind James Harrison, Clay Matthews, Aaron Kampman, Terrell Suggs, and Manny Lawson.  You can see my grades of Ware and Spencer here. I personally recently rated them as the first and third-best 3-4 OLBs in the NFL.

  • The opinions on Keith Brooking varied from the 11th best linebacker in the league to the 50th.

I would probably say he is somewhere in between, although his 2009 game film stood out enough to me for me to provide him a rather high 87.6 percent overall grade–the fifth highest of any Cowboys defensive player.

  • We are unanimous in noticing that Bobby Carpenter is bad.

Very, very bad.

  • Cornerbacks Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins had very comparable 2009 seasons.

ANS rated Newman slightly higher, while PFF gave Jenkins the nod.  I had Jenkins edging out Newman by a hair in my 2009 cornerback grades, due solely to his three extra interceptions.

  • By everyone’s observations, Orlando Scandrick had a down year.

He was targeted more than just about any cornerback in the NFL last season, but I am expecting a breakout year for him in 2010.  Here are nine other Cowboys players who will break out in 2010.

  • Both ANS and PFF rated safety Gerald Sensabaugh ahead of fellow starter Ken Hamlin, although neither were particularly outstanding.

I gave Hamlin the superior grade because his primary job in Dallas was generally to make sure the defense didn’t allow big plays–a job he performed quite well, even last season.  He was also an underrated tackler, missing tackles at half the rate of Sensabaugh (8.0 percent compared to 15.6 percent), despite playing a position–free safety–which is perhaps the most difficult on the field from which to secure a tackle.

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Why ‘Gun Tight End Spread’ Is Cowboys’ Most Productive Formation

Play Fantasy Football?  Be sure to check out our 2010 Fantasy Football Package.


Yesterday, we published a breakdown of every formation the Cowboys ran in 2009, including run/pass ratios, yards-per-play, and more.  In the coming days, we will be taking a more in-depth look at these statistics, attempting to explain why the numbers came out as they did.

Today, we will analyze “Gun TE (Tight End) Spread” (shown in Gallery).

The formation was a favorite of offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, as the offense lined up in it an incredible 168 times–by far the most of any single formation.  The run/pass balance was rather skewed, as the team attempted 141 passes (83.9 percent) to just 27 runs (16.1 percent).
Nonetheless, the Cowboys found success on both types of plays, averaging 8.84 yards-per-pass and 6.15 yards-per-rush. The sample size (particularly for passes) is large enough that we can conclude there is something about the formation itself which leads to success for Dallas.
It is possible the Cowboys’ yards-per-play was inflated due to the times at which they lined up in the formation. Calling plays out of ‘Gun TE Spread’ on 3rd and long or when the defense is in a prevent, for example, might make the formation seem more successful than it should.
The stats do seem to support this theory, but not to the degree you might expect. 51 (30.4 percent) of the Cowboys’ plays out of the formation came on 3rd down, while just 20.4 percent of the all Cowboys’ 2009 plays came on 3rd down. That difference is not as large as we might expect from a Shotgun formation (offenses are more likely to pass out of Shotgun, and thus use the formation on 3rd down).
The Cowboys also ran 63 (37.5 percent) of the “Gun TE Spread” plays in in the 4th quarter–a time when defenses are more likely to be in a prevent (and thus allow some intermediate completions).
However, teams employ a prevent defense to limit big plays. The Cowboys acquired a ton of big plays out of “Gun TE Spread.” In fact, 45 (31.9 percent) of the team’s passes from the formation went for 10+ yards, while 16 (11.4 percent) of them went for 20+ yards (including passes of 30, 32, 32, 34, 37, 42, 42, 49, 59, 60, and 64 yards).
Further, over one-in-five runs from the formation went for 10+ yards–a significantly higher than the 13.1 percent clip of 10+ yard runs using all other formations.
Lastly, the sack rate of just 3.6 percent using “Gun TE Spread” was also superior to the overall 5.6 percent mark.
The story is not over, however, as the Cowboys also found great success using the formation with Tony Romo under center.  This is simply called “TE Spread.” The Cowboys ran 25 plays out of this version of the formation–17 passes and eight runs.  They averaged an incredible 14.06 yards-per-pass (including a gaudy 58.8 percent rate of 10+ yard plays), and 6.38 yards-per-rush.  They also allowed no sacks.
So, while we pick on Jason Garrett from time to time (okay, from day to day), we must show him respect for recognizing the efficiency of the two verions of “Tight End Spread” and utilizing it often.  193 times, to be exact–19.4 percent of all meaningful plays.

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Dallas Cowboys Times’ Final 2009 Player Rankings

We have concluded our “Grading the ‘Boys” Series, with the final offensive player rankings below.  You can find each individual offensive position study here: quarterback, running backs, tight ends, wide receivers, offensive line (run blocking), offensive line (pass protection), and each individual defensive position study here: defensive linemen, inside linebackers, outside linebackers,cornerbacks, safeties.

It all comes together in our final 2009 rankings.

A few notes before reading:

  • 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, but rather a list of the most important players to the team (as we see it) in 2009.
  • Lastly, players listed in blue are those we expect to improve in 2010.  We 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.

T1.  QB Tony Romo:  94.0 (A)

Threw only six interceptions over final 14 regular season games

T1.  Demarcus Ware:  94.0 (A)

Tallied a ridiculous 56 quarterback pressures last season–20 more than any other outside linebacker in the NFL

T3.  TE Jason Witten:  93.0 (A-)

Team averaged nearly two full yards-per-attempt better when he was in route (9.3 yards) versus blocking (7.4)

T3.  WR Miles Austin:  93.0 (A-)

Dropped only 2.2% of balls and tallied an incredible 10.4 yards-per-attempt

T3. RG Leonard Davis:  93.0 (A-)

Average of 4.57 yards-per-carry when at point-of-attack is outstanding for guard; also gave up lowest negative run percentage

6.  Anthony Spencer:  92.0 (A-)

Racked up 28 more tackles and 1.77 times the hits-per-rush as Ware

7.  C Andre Gurode:  91.0 (A-)

Solid in the run game and yielded least pressures and hits of any lineman–could be most crucial component of line in 2010

T8. Mike Jenkins: 89.8 (A-)

Allowed just 49.1 percent completion rate and led all cornerbacks in yards-per-attempt, deflections, and interceptions

T8. RB Felix Jones:  89.8 (A-)

Surprisingly the team’s top runner after contact (3.3 yards-after contact per run); averaged an incredible 10.0 yards-per-carry on 22 counter runs

10. Terence Newman: 88.2 (B+)

Thrown at less than any cornerback in 2009 (9.49 percent of all snaps) and a supremely underrated tackler (65 tackles, 8.5 percent missed tackle rate)

11.  Keith Brooking:  87.6 (B+)

Solid numbers against both the run and pass (led all inside linebackers in tackles, tackle rate, and yards-per-attempt against), but most important grade was ‘A’ in leadership

12. RB Tashard Choice:  87.3 (B+)

Team-high 31.8% of runs up the middle and 5.8 yards-per-carry in that area could make him the 2010 short-yardage RB

13.  Jay Ratliff  87.0 (B+)

Led all linemen with a .82 percent sack rate from the nose tackle position

14.  LG Kyle Kosier:  85.4 (B)

Perhaps offense’s most underrated player–led offensive line with just one sack yielded in 2009

15.  Igor Olshansky 85.0 (B)

Probably higher on this list than others would like, but acquired a solid 33 tackles last season–11 more than Spears

16.  Bradie James:  84.1 (B)

Missed only three tackles (3.4 percent) all season

17.  Deon Anderson:  83.0 (B-)

Team averaged a remarkable 5.6 yards-per-carry with him on the field–only 3.7 with John Phillips at fullback

Click “page 2” below to continue reading.

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Cowboys News and Notes: 5/27/10 (Martellus Bennett, Orlando Scandrick, Patrick Crayton)

This is obviously huge praise for a guy on the same team as All-Pro tight end Jason Witten.  It also supports our “B+” grade for Bennett’s blocking in 2009.

We think Sensabaugh will improve in 2010, but it is way too soon to offer him a long-term deal.  We gave him a “C” overall grade for his work last year, as he gave up a 67.4% completion rate and had the worst Dallas Cowboys Times Pass Defense Rating.

Although Scandrick struggled a bit last year (we gave him a “C” overall grade), it would be a big blow to the team if this injury is more significant than it appears.  With Alan Ball now at safety, the Cowboys have only Cletis Gordon, sixth-round pick Jamar Wall, and undrafted rookie Bryan McCann behind the top three CBs.  ESPN Dallas agrees that cornerback depth is a concern.

Jerry Jones Supports New York Super Bowl

The Cowboys’ points-per-100 yards was 5.3–the lowest of any playoff team.  According to former coach Bill Parcells, good teams should score approximately seven points-per-100 yards.  We can think of no better way to increase this number than creating turnovers on defense.

We still maintain the Cowboys will keep six wide receivers, with Crayton being one of them.  Even if the Cowboys do let go of either Crayton or Sam Hurd, a player such as Titus Ryan could sneak onto the 53-man roster.

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Cowboys Film Study: 2nd Down Play-Calling Revisited

A few weeks ago we examined offensive coordinator Jason Garrett’s play-calling trends on 2nd down. Our results shocked us perhaps more than any we have gathered this offseason.

The graph to the left displays Garrett’s tendencies. Notice the disproportionate amount of times Garrett called a run play on 2nd down after a pass play, and vice verse. On 2nd and 3 to 7, for example, Garrett dialed up a run just 29.5 percent of the time following a run on 1st down. In the same exact situations, though, he called a run 76.5 percent of the time after 1st down passes.

Clearly a coordinator’s play-calling tendencies should not be based solely on the previous play-call (regardless of that play’s result). We concluded Garrett fell victim to the idea that “alternating creates randomization.” In his attempt to “mix it up,” Garrett actually became incredibly predictable with his calls. True randomness has no regard for previous happenings. As we have shown, however, Garrett allowed previous plays (not simply the result, but whether it was a run or a pass) to affect his current call.

After publishing that study, we received some criticism that our stats were meaningless without knowing the tendencies of other play-callers from around the league. These criticisms, though, are unjustified.

We are not simply analyzing the percentage of run or pass plays in certain situations. If that was the case, then yes, we would need to know league-wide tendencies to draw meaningful conclusions about Garrett’s own trends.

Instead, we are analyzing the percentage of runs/passes after a certain type of play. Let’s look again at the above graph. On 2nd and 3 to 7, Garrett was 2.95 times more likely to run after a 1st down pass than after a 1st down run. We are not critiquing how often Garrett called a run in general during those situations–that information is meaningless to us.

Graph provided by AdvancedNFLStats.com

Since the down and distance on 2nd down is exactly the same regardless of the 1st down play-call, we would expect a truly random play-caller to dial up a run after a 1st down pass the same percentage of the time as after a 1st down run, regardless of what that specific percentage may be. Thus, it is the overall run/pass percentage that would require the knowledge of others’ play-calling tendencies to be meaningful, but not the percentage of runs/passes in a specific down and distance following a specific type of play.

Nonetheless, we were still curious as to the play-calling trends of other coordinators in similar situations. We had a feeling that, because humans perform so poorly in generating random sequences, we would see that others fall victim to the same fallacy as Garrett, i.e. that “mixing it up” will produce randomness.

Of course, it would be impossible for us to study film on every 2nd down play for every team for the entire 2009 season. Luckily, we came across similar statistics on AdvancedNFLStats.com (a tremendous site that we highly recommend). The numbers are listed just above.

The data consists of 14,384 plays, so the sample size is obviously large enough to draw meaningful conclusions. During those plays, teams ran approximately 50 percent of the time after a 1st down pass, but just 28 percent of the time after a 1st down run.

We contrasted these results with Garrett’s 2009 2nd down play-calls (shown to the left). Notice that Garrett calls a 2nd down run after a 1st down run at basically the exact same rate as other coordinators around the NFL. His 2nd down run ratio after a 1st down pass is also incredibly similar to the league-wide average (54.3 percent to approximately 50.0 percent).

So, is this evidence that Garrett is justified in his play-calling? Not at all. Remember, opposing offensive coordinators are not involved in a zero-sum game (meaning the success of one does not necessarily cause the failure of the other). Offensive coordinators around the league can collectively perform well, or collectively do poorly. In the case of 2nd down play calls, it is the latter.

Further, not all teams suffer from this randomization fallacy at the same rate. The Pittsburgh Steelers, for example, have done a tremendous job or randomizing their plays over the last few years (graph below). Notice that their 2nd down run/pass ratio is nearly the same after a 1st down run as it is after a 1st down pass. The closer these bars come to matching, the closer a team is to reaching the Nash equilibrium, and the more successful they will be on offense.

Graph provided by AdvancedNFLStats.com

Thus, the failures of other coordinators around the NFL do not justify the failures of Garrett. His success is independent of that of other offensive coordinators. As we wrote in our initial study of this topic, “If the Cowboys want to maximize the productivity of their potentially explosive offense, Garrett is the first person that needs to change. Unfortunately, if his play-calling does not become less predictable, neither will the team’s fate in the playoffs.”

We aren’t backing off from that statement.

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Cowboys Film Study: Motion Statistics

NFL teams use motion for a variety of reasons: to uncover defensive coverages, to get defenders out of position, to exploit positive match-ups, and so on. The frequency of motions also differs greatly among teams. Some, like the Bengals, like to motion very frequently. Others, such as Peyton Manning’s Colts, almost never motion.

We analyzed our film database to determine just how many plays the Cowboys motioned in 2010 and exactly how effective those plays turned out. The results, shown below, were a bit surprising.

As you can see, the Cowboys tend to run the ball at higher rate after motions than on plays where there is no pre-snap movement (46.4 percent runs after motion versus 36.2 percent non-motion).

However, this is not necessarily a knock on Jason Garrett, as the Cowboys frequently remain static pre-snap in situations where the defense knows they are going to pass.

For example, when the Cowboys lined up in “Gun TE Spread” (shown to the right), a formation that they threw out of 83.3 percent of all plays, the offense motioned only 12.5 percent of the time (as compared to a 42.8 percent motion rate on all plays). Thus, while the run/pass ratio after motions is a bit skewed, it creates no real competitive advantage for the defense.

More significant than the rate at which Dallas runs or passes after motioning is the efficiency (or lack thereof) of the post-motion plays. As you can see, the Cowboys gained significantly less yards-per-play on both runs and passes after motions (.7 yards less on passes and a full yard less on runs).

Why is this the case? Are the Cowboys simply less effective on offense when they motion?

It is tough to say, but our initial thought was that the the drop in yards-per-play was caused by a possible tendency to motion on short-yardage plays. Thus, the upside would be limited and the averages would suffer.

However, on short-yardage plays (three yards to go or less), the Cowboys motioned just 44.8 percent of the time–barely more than the 42.5 percent overall rate. Thus, while it is good that Garrett effectively spreads out motions among various downs and distances, the low yards-per-play on motions cannot be attributed to an abundance of short-yardage plays.

Another possible explanation is that, because the Cowboys rarely motion in their hurry-up offense, the yards-per-play might be greater on non-motion plays because defenses are more likely to play soft and give up yardage.

The Cowboys poor running average on motion plays is not due to an abundance of short-yardage situations.

However, this could only explain the difference in passing average between motion and non-motion plays, as teams rarely run the ball in hurry-up scenarios.

Further, the Cowboys actually only ran a true hurry-up offense just 80 times in 2009, or just 8.0 percent of all plays. Thus, it appears that the Cowboys success when not motioning is actually due to something meaningful rather than just down and distance or game situation.

This notion is strengthened by both the rate of big plays garnered and negative plays yielded in motion and non-motion situations. As the chart shows, the Cowboys had their highest rate of big plays (10+ yards) out of static formations.

While this statistic could be affected by the aforementioned tendency of Dallas to not motion in hurry-up situations, the most surprising and meaningful statistic, in our opinion, is the rate of negative plays given up in each scenario. The Cowboys actually gave up a sack after motions at nearly 2.4 times the rate they yielded a sack on non-motion plays. Our sample size of both types of plays makes that number statistically significant.

Further, the rate of overall negative plays (sacks, negative runs, and negative passes) was nearly twice as high on plays where the Cowboys moved a player pre-snap.

But why is this the case? Why do the Cowboys have a larger downside without an increased upside on plays that they motion, despite not running these plays in “low upside” situations?

For us, the answer is not entirely clear. Perhaps Tony Romo is just much better at reading defenses than anyone thought. Maybe motions give him no advantage in reading coverage. We don’t want to put him on the same level as a Peyton Manning just yet, but perhaps he is approaching a portion of his career where, like Manning, he can effectively read a defense without resorting to pre-snap motions.

The Cowboys may be better off motioning less so defenses cannot decipher their play calls.

Another reason might be that the Cowboys’ motions are giving the defense an idea of where the play is going to be run. After watching as much film as we do, there are times when we can predict with great precision what play the Cowboys are going to run. How and where they motion is a big factor in our ability to do this.

This last explanation would explain the significant gap between motion and non-motion run average, as it is easier for a defense to decipher a particular run play from a motion than a pass.

Conclusions

The Cowboys are quite obviously less effective on plays which involve a pre-snap motion. Further, the reason for this does not seem to be due to particular game situations.

So where should the Cowboys go from here? Should they scrap motioning completely and resort to an Indianapolis-esque offense?

Like our solution to many of Dallas’ woes, we believe the “Nash equilibrium” should be implemented. Again, this is the point where the Cowboys’ total yards would be maximized.

Thus, Garrett should steadily decrease the motion rate until the defense compensates enough that the Cowboys’ yards-per-play reaches its peak. Our guess is that this is around 25.0 percent. At this point, it is likely the rate of big plays and negative plays will also be maximized and minimized, respectively.