The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

15 Things to Watch in Dallas Cowboys vs. San Diego Chargers Week 2 Preseason Game

Jonathan Bales

The Cowboys took down the Broncos in a thriller during Week One of the preseason.  Here is what we learned during that game.  This weekend, the ‘Boys will host the San Diego Chargers.  Here are a few things I will be watching. .

Mike Jenkins vs. Vincent Jackson: In his first game of the preseason, how will Jenkins fair when matched up with physical wide receiver Vincent Jackson?  He will be asked to do more press coverage with Rob Ryan in town, and that could be a problem against players like Jackson.  Expect to see more of a press and bail technique from Jenkins rather than a true jam.  The preseason will be a great opportunity for Jenkins to regain some of the confidence which seemed to be missing in 2010.

Dwayne Harris: After busting out for 127 yards and two touchdowns last week, let’s see how Harris responds.  He has a legitimate shot to beat out Kevin Ogletree for slot receiver duties, and I personally hope he wins.  He seems to be a harder worker, more intelligent, and superior after the catch.  Jason Garrett will not be afraid to play the rookie ahead of an under-achieving Ogletree.

Screen Passes: Garrett called a few more screens than usual last week, and I think that is a trend which will continue into the regular season.  With more athletic offensive linemen and Felix Jones/DeMarco Murray in the backfield, why not?  Here are the 2010 screen stats.  Expect at least 100 screens this season.

Tyron Smith vs. Shaun Phillips: I thought the rookie offensive tackle had a solid outing in Week One.  He looks powerful in the running game and agile out in space.  He’ll face an incredibly difficult match-up this week against Shaun Phillips.  If he excels here, I think the ‘Boys found a keeper.

Dan Bailey: David Buehler is out with a hip injury, so Bailey will get plenty of work.  He struggled with field goals this week in practice, but I’m more concerned with his kickoffs.  Consistent touchbacks will put Buehler’s roster spot in jeopardy.

Victor Butler vs. Marcus McNeill: In my breakdown of the Victor Butler-Anthony Spencer position battle, I argued that Butler should be the starter:

At the very least, Rob Ryan should increase Butler’s snaps until the production and efficiency of both players (combined) is maximized.  At that point, the Nash equilibrium of outside linebacker production will be reached.

Think of it like this: as Butler’s snaps increase, his production will, at some point, decline (due to fatigue, increased attention from the offense and so on).  Once his efficiency declines to the point of Spencer’s, the Nash equilibrium will be reached.  Although neither player’s individual production will be maximized, the overall efficiency of the outside linebacker position will be at its peak.

When you have an All-World player like DeMarcus Ware, the Nash equilibrium is shifted to Ware playing as many snaps as possible, i.e. a tired Ware is better than anyone else.  Spencer isn’t Ware.  When he is tired, he needs to come out of the game.  Ryan should shift the snap count of Spencer and Butler until the ‘Boys reach their Nash equilibrium of outside linebacker production.  I have a strong feeling that equilibrium would result in Butler receiving the majority of snaps.

And why do I think Butler should receive significantly more playing time?  You can see to the left that Butler recorded the highest pressure rate of any player on the team in 2010.  Detractors argue that this is because Butler played less snaps against the run than Spencer or Ware, but that’s flat wrong.  Butler actually played the run on 39.5% of snaps–highest of any outside linebacker.  Oh yeah, he also didn’t miss a tackle all season (Spencer missed six).

Bryan McCann: McCann looked awful in Week One, and that’s a bad sign for Cowboys fans.  As of now, he is this team’s nickel cornerback.  With Terence Newman’s health always in question, McCann needs to be ready to go this season.  He’ll get some time against San Diego’s first team, so let’s see how he responds to adversity.

Shaun Chapas’ Lead Blocking: The rookie fullback was brought in because the Cowboys need a better lead-blocking fullback.  Chris Gronkowski is an okay player, but he’s not the sort of bruiser a team can rely on in short-yardage situations.  Is Chapas?  Look for some dives from Double Tight Strong with Chapas in the game, as Garrett will want to test the youngster.

Kenyon Coleman: Coleman will receive his first start as a Cowboy, replacing Igor Olshansky.  In my breakdown of the defensive end battle, I argued that neither Coleman nor Olshansky should be starting.  Despite being perhaps the team’s best pass-rushing defensive end, I think Jason Hatcher should start football games opposite Marcus Spears.  I’m not overly familiar with Coleman’s game, though, and he has a chance to impress tonight.

Clifton Geathers: No matter who starts at defensive end, a heavy rotation will be used.  That’s in part due to fatigue, but also because none of the players are all that great.  Geathers had a sack last week and showed some things against the run, so I’m looking forward to studying him more to see what sort of potential impact he might be able to make down the road.

Patrick Crayton: He’s back in town and doesn’t seem to have many nice things to say about the Cowboys.  This isn’t a particularly big story to me, particularly in the preseason, but I know others are interested.

Lonyae Miller: Miller looked terrible against the Broncos.  With Tashard Choice and DeMarco Murray still sidelined, this is his opportunity to grab a roster spot.  Unless something changes quickly, that won’t happen.

Akwasi Owusu-Ansah: Owusu-Ansah has been riddled with injuries during his short NFL career, but he is healthy now.  I still think he has great potential, but now is the time to show it.  If he doesn’t make a play at safety or in the return game, he might not make this team.

Gerald Sensabaugh: Sensabaugh looked lost in Rob Ryan’s defense last week.  I’m glad the ‘Boys re-signed him, and I expect his play to improve as he becomes more comfortable with the system.  Most of his mistakes appeared to be mental.

Sam Young: If Doug Free or Tyron Smith gets injured, what exactly are the Cowboys going to do?  The other offensive tackles on the roster are Young and Jermey Parnell.  Young is probably the immediate backup at right tackle (with Smith moving to left tackle in the event of an injury to Free), but is anyone really comfortable with that?  Watch the play of both Young and Parnell this week.

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By Jonathan Bales

Why the Dallas Cowboys (and all NFL teams) should attempt WAY more two-point conversions in 2011

Jonathan Bales

One of my favorite topics on which to write is football theory–why teams make the decisions they do and if they could become more efficient in their choices.  In the past, I’ve completed studies detailing why teams should go for it more often on fourth down, run more on third down, throw more deep passes, run more frequently to the weak side, pass out of ‘running’ formations, be far more aggressive on 2nd and short, and so on.

It is my view that, if a coach was to implement a perfect understanding of advanced statistics and game theory into his in-game decisions, the potential impact would far outweigh that of any single player.  A “perfect” record of fourth down decisions, for example, could be “worth” a handful of points to a team in any individual game.  With all of the statistically inefficient choices NFL head coaches make each and every game, there is an enormous opportunity for less talented teams to outperform superior ones based solely on statistics.  Now is truly a golden age for the NFL in that teams are just beginning to crack the surface of advanced statistics that baseball uncovered years ago.

One such statistical issue about which I feel very strongly is the use of two-point conversions.  I talked about this issue at length during the 2010 season, particularly after the Cowboys’ Week Seven loss to the Giants and their Week 16 loss to the Cardinals.  From the New York post-game review:

Later, the Cowboys did score a touchdown to close within 12 points.  They decided to go for a two-point conversion, and Tirico immediately went off about “awful” the decision was.  I normally like Tirico, but he needs to stick to play-by-play and keep his nose out of matters of football theory.  On this topic, he was again as wrong as could be.

You’ll often hear announcers say it’s “too early to go for two.”  But what does that even mean?  How is it ever “too early?”  The decision to go for a two-point conversion should be based on a variety of factors, including the score, a coach’s confidence in his two-point play, and so on.  Actually, if the probability of Team X converting on a two-point attempt is 50.1 percent, they should almost always go for two.  The expected points of 1.002 is greater than that of an extra point (which can obviously only be as high as 1, even with 100 percent accuracy).

Thus, you’d only want to go for an extra point in non-normal game situations.  Suppose Team X scores a late touchdown to tie the game.  They’d clearly want to attempt the extra point to secure the win.  Going for two points would be quite disadvantageous in that scenario.  If football commentators knew the statistics and theory behind two-point attempts, perhaps they’d be saying “It’s too early to try the extra point.”

There are more reasons that Tirico was unjustified in his stance.  Down 12, the decision of whether or not to attempt a two-point try is indeed a “no-brainer,” but Tirico is on the wrong side of the debate.  If you go for two points and succeed, you’re down 10 points and now know that a touchdown and field goal will tie the game.  If you go for two and fail, you now know that you need two touchdowns to win.  If you kick the extra point, however, you might later kick a field goal that will turn out to be meaningless.

The idea that you want to “keep yourself in the game” by kicking an extra point is preposterous.  You actually want to determine what scores you’ll need as early as possible.  If you kick the extra point, then a field goal, you’re down eight points.  If you then score a touchdown and fail on the two-point attempt, you’re still another score away from winning the game.  The field goal attempt in between touchdowns becomes all but meaningless, and this is due solely to the fact that you didn’t attempt the two-point conversion as early as possible.  Failing the two-point try earlier, as I said above, provides you with the knowledge that you need two touchdowns to win.

Tirico and Jaws used the outcome of the game as justification for their view, but that’s wrong as well.  If you roll a six-sided die and bet even money on a specific number coming up, your bet is a dumb one regardless of the outcome of the roll.  The fact that you will win money one time out of six doesn’t justify the decision ex post facto.  When I listen to the Monday Night Football crew, I feel like I am betting that an even number will come up on my roll of the die–but all the commentators, I mean numbers, are odd.

Later in the season, I criticzed Jason Garrett for his failure to attempt a two-point conversion in the third quarter of a game:

  • Down 21-19 in the third quarter, Garrett decided to kick an extra point. Huge mistake. I’ve talked all season about why teams should try way, way more two-point conversions. Over the course of any given season, kickers make around 98 percent of extra points, while two-point conversions are successful around 48-49 percent of the time. While the expected points of extra points is higher (.98 x 1 is greater than .48 x 2), the difference isn’t great enough that it should overcome all game situations. For example, Garrett never would have kicked the extra point in the fourth quarter, as he doesn’t know if the Cowboys will score again.
  • Further, two-point conversions are only statistically inferior to extra points because coaches tend to call the wrong plays down by the goal line.  Over the last 20 seasons, rushing the ball has yielded a successful two-point conversion over 60 percent of the time.  Even if a team went for two points after nearly every score and rushed the ball each time, I doubt the success rate would jump below 50 percent (the break-even level at which two-point tries are statistically equivalent to extra points, assuming a 100 percent success rate on the latter).  Thus, extra points should actually only be attempted in very specific situations, such as a tied game in the fourth quarter.
  • On top of all of that, let’s not forget Buehler is about as erratic as kickers come.  His extra point success rate is nowhere near 98 percent (probably closer to 94 or so), meaning the Cowboys would only need to convert on 47 percent of two-point tries to yield the same expected points.  And if you’re correctly running the ball, what does it matter if Stephen McGee is at quarterback?
  • I assume Garrett attempted the extra point because he figured Dallas would score again anyway.  That’s faulty logic, however.  Even if we assume two-point conversions yield less expected points than extra points, and we take into account McGee’s presence in the lineup, the difference between a two-point try and extra point is still small enough that, for an extra point to be the right call, we’d have to assume there’s less than a one percent chance the Cowboys wouldn’t score again.  While it’s likely the offense was going to put more points on the board, it certainly wasn’t greater than 99 percent.
  • I updated live from the game last night on Twitter, and a few followers claimed that it was “too early to go for two and the chart says the extra point is the right call.”  While I appreciate everyone who took the time on Christmas to read my thoughts, that reasoning is simply incorrect.  What does it even mean to be “too early to go for two”?  While you certainly have less of an idea of the final score in the first quarter as compared to late in the game, you should always side with statistics.  If the numbers say attempting a two-point conversion is the right call (which they did for the Cowboys in the third quarter–and it wasn’t even close), then kicking an extra point is the risky move.  Further, NFL coaches are just tapping the surface of advanced statistics and game theory, meaning most of their “infallible” charts are dead wrong.  It’s Garrett’s job to give the team the highest probability of victory, and whether a decision seems “risky” or not to the public, it needs to be made.

Later, Garrett issued a statement on his decision to kick the extra point (below).  I responded with this:

According to Jason Garrett, he didn’t go for two points when down 21-19 in the third quarter of Saturday night’s game because “What happens when you start making those decisions is sometimes you get a little hasty and say, ‘OK, if we get two here that will tie us up.’ But typically, what happens when you have another quarter to play, there are a couple more scores and the whole thing kind of plays itself out a little bit.”

Although I’d wager that the majority of NFL coaches agree with Garrett’s assessment, it is the wrong one.  I hate to be so blunt about it (secretly I love it), but he’s just dead wrong.  Garrett points out that there will typically be more points scored after the third quarter, which is correct, but somewhat irrelevant.

First of all, as I’ve already pointed out, two-point conversions may not even yield less expected points than extra points.  If that’s the case (which would be a virtual certainty if teams ran the ball more on two-point attempts), then going for two points should be the status quo, with an extra point only being attempted in specific game situations (such as tied late in the contest).

Even if extra points are generally statistically superior to two-point tries, however, Garrett still made the wrong decision.  While I agree with his notion that more points were likely to be scored, that fact is far from certain.  Actually, for an extra point to be the right decision in that scenario, we would have to assume that the chances of neither team scoring again was small enough that it wouldn’t account for the disparity between the expected points of an extra point (about .98) and a two-point attempt (.96 at worst).

As it turns out, Garrett would have to assume either that the chances of neither team scoring again were below one percent or that the offense’s chances of converting on their two-point try were closer to 25 percent than 50 percent.  Anyone believe either scenario to be the case?

Me neither.

I used a lot of old material here because I feel like actual game situations are the most effective way to state my case.  We can see real-world situations in which forgoing a two-point try has dire consequences for a club.

Ultimately, I believe an NFL team could secure a significant number of “extra” points by attempting two-point conversions after the majority of touchdowns.  As I stated above, NFL teams convert two-point attempts about 60 percent of the time when they run the football.  That number would certainly decline with increased rushing attempts, but the efficiency of two-point pass attempts would subsequently increase.  I see no reason why an NFL team (particularly one with an offense as potent as that of Dallas) wouldn’t be able to convert a minimum of 55 percent of two-point tries if they focused on improving their efforts.

Assuming the Cowboys score three touchdowns per game in 2011 (they scored 43 in 2009 and 46 last season), the “increase” in expected points would be 6.24 (assuming 97 percent accuracy on extra points, which is a stretch if David Buehler is still the kicker).  That might not sound like a lot, but there’s a solid chance those “extra” points would result in another win for the ‘Boys.  Assume a 60 percent conversion rate and that number jumps to 11.04.  Not too shabby for a philosophical decision that would require relatively little practice time.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys 2010 Pass Rates from Specific Personnel Groupings

Jonathan Bales

Game theory dictates that offensive coordinators should increase (or decrease) the frequency of any particular event (runs, passes, draws, counters, playaction, etc.) until its efficiency and overall production are maximized.  For example, in my analysis of the Cowboys’ 2010 weak side runs, I noted that the Cowboys have been significantly more successful on weak side runs than strong side runs or runs from balanced formations.

Jason Garrett adjusted accordingly in 2010, running to the weak side on 22.8 percent of all runs–up from 19.5 percent the prior season.  Still, the ‘Boys could benefit from an even higher rate of weak side runs, as the 4.72 yards-per-rush number when running to the weak side was significantly greater than that of strong side or balanced runs.  But how does Garrett uncover the “perfect” weak side run ratio?  I addressed that problem in the past:

Game theory suggests Garrett should slowly increase the number of weak side runs until the average yards-per-carry is maximized.

But how will we know when that number is reached?  The answer would be simple if we assumed those people drawing up plays to try to stop the Cowboys offense–the opposing defensive coordinators–were perfectly rational.   In that scenario, the defense would call an increasing number of weak side blitzes until they minimized the overall yards-per-carry.   They would in effect create their own Nash equilibrium.

Of course, defensive coordinators do not always call plays in a rational manner. Their knowledge is not unlimited, and so sometimes they may call too many weak side blitzes or not enough.  Perhaps sometimes the number of weak side blitzes they dial up has no correlation at all with the offenses’s weak side running rates or successes.

Garrett’s job, then, must be to take into account the thoughts and tendencies of defensive coordinators (perhaps easier said than done), and then adjust his play-calling accordingly.   If Team X calls an inordinate amount of weak side blitzes, for example, then the Cowboys own Nash equilibrium will be shifted to include more strong side runs (and vice versa).

Thus, play-calling (or effective play-calling anyway) is not simply about knowing your own players.   It is about successfully predicting the calls of defensive coordinators by knowing their tendencies.   This may sound extremely difficult (and it is from the standpoint of one individual play), but aberrations tend to flatten out over the course of a game in such a way that, despite not knowing individual play calls, a team can assume a “regression to the mean” of sorts where a team’s overall tendencies will always eventually shine through.

For Garrett, this means being one step ahead of the game.  Instead of simply knowing what you want to do, you have to know what your opponent thinks you are going to do, then adjust accordingly.  When playing against a really stealthy coach, you may have to know what he thinks that you think that he thinks about what play you are going to call.

If you are an offensive coordinator and have called three straight weak side runs in a row, for example, your natural inclination may be to deviate from this tendency.  You might do this in an effort to “mix it up.”   But game theory suggests you should take into account the opposition’s thoughts before making a decision.

Perhaps you know that he is thinking that you are thinking that he will call a weak side blitz to combat your recent success. Knowing this, you would assume he may call a strong side blitz (or none at all), and you would be correct.   Thus, despite three straight weak side runs, the best play call is yet another weak side run.

Being “unpredictable” isn’t about changing play calls just for the sake of changing the play, but about adjusting your tendencies according to your opposition’s tendencies to create an environment where potential success will be maximized.

This same sort of method can be used as the rational behind a plethora of play-calling alterations.  One such change we could potentially see from Garrett is the run/pass ratio from specific personnel groupings.  In the chart below, you can see Garrett’s 2010 pass rates based on personnel, along with the relation to his 2009 rates.

In much the same way that weak side runs can be optimal for an offense, so too can passing the ball out of “untraditional” personnel groupings (or, on the other hand, running the ball from pass-heavy personnel packages).  There’s a reason the ‘Boys have found a ton of success when passing out of “running” formations (and with “running” personnel).

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

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

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

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

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

When analyzing Garrett’s personnel-based play-calls, we see that he is generally improving.  When the Cowboys implement two tight ends, two wide receivers and a running back, they are generally a balanced team, passing the ball 58.6 percent of the time.  This is down from a 71.9 percent pass rate in 2009.

Garrett is also calling more passes from run-oriented personnel packages (such as two tight ends, one receiver and two running backs), and less passes from pass-oriented personnel groupings.  The only exception is the one tight end/four receiver package, which the Cowboys implemented only 25 times all season.

I’d still love to see the Cowboys run the ball more in three-receiver sets and pass more out of 2 TE, WR, 2 RB (one of those “2 RB” is usually a fullback, by the way).  If Garrett finds a way to efficiently run the ball without a fullback on the field and continue to throw the ball well out of two-tight end looks, the Cowboys will take huge strides in becoming a much more unpredictable, and potent, offensive football team.

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By Jonathan Bales

The Ultimate Dallas Cowboys 2010 Playaction Pass Guide: A Must Read

Jonathan Bales

I apologize for failing to post an article yesterday, as I’ve been entrenched in the Cowboys’ 2010 playaction pass numbers.  I love studying Jason Garrett’s use of playaction, particularly because of the statistical “anomalies” that arise from season to season (although the consistency of these numbers actually makes them anything but anomalies).  The idea that such seemingly unique numbers can develop on such a consistent basis is absolutely fascinating to me.

I’ve already posted a couple of analyses on Garrett’s 2010 playaction use, including one after Week 16 which compared this season’s playaction statistics to those from 2009.  I’ve republished those results below with the Cowboys’ Week 17 game in Philly added into the totals. . .

The Oddities

  • Of the 109 playaction passes, 14 were thrown 20+ yards downfield (12.8 percent).

2009 Comparison: 4.8 percent

Analysis: Garrett certainly made an effort to get the ball downfield following playaction looks, but this was one of the only areas in which he improved.

  • Dallas ran screen passes on 53 of their 528 non-playaction passes (10.0 percent).  That screen rate nearly doubled on playaction passes to 19.3 percent.

2009 Comparison: 22.9 percent screen rate following playaction; 7.1 percent otherwise

Analysis: We see a bit of an improvement here, but that’s probably due to the higher overall screen rate.  The Cowboys did average a solid 7.76 yards-per-pass on playaction screens, due in large part to Felix Jones’ average of 15.0 yards-per-catch on those sort of plays.

  • Of the 100 playaction passes attempted, just 43 were to the right side of the field. **NOTE: There were only 100 playaction passes attempted due to six sacks and three scrambles, i.e. 109 total playaction passes called.

2009 Comparison: I say “just” 43 because 63.9 percent of 2009 playaction passes went to the right side.

Analysis: 2009 seems like an aberration.

  • The Cowboys still ran just FOUR playaction passes with 1-4 yards-to-go.  That is only 2.96 percent of the 135 overall plays in that range.

2009 Comparison: 4/132 (3.03 percent)

Analysis: Incredible.  These are the kind of numbers that get me excited (I’m a strange individual).  Seriously though, the EXACT same number of playaction passes with 1-4 yards-to-go on nearly the exact same number of opportunities.

The idea that Garrett doesn’t utilize playaction in “obvious” running situations is mind-boggling to me.  These numbers must change in 2011.

  • 62 of the 109 total playaction passes were with exactly 10 yards-to-go.  That’s a rate of 56.9 percent.

2009 Comparison: 59.3 percent

Analysis: Wow.  The similarity of those percentages alone is nothing short of amazing, but the fact that Garrett utilizes playaction so much in such a specific situation is just as incredible.  I’m not necessarily against this tactic, as the majority of these passes came during 1st and 10 situations when most defenses, mistakenly, are playing to stop the run.  Still, the rate should be a bit lower if for no other reason than an increase in short-yardage playaction looks.

  • The Cowboys again ran more playaction passes with 20+ yards-to-go (six) than with 1-4 yards-to-go (four).

2009 Comparison: Five playaction passes with 20+ yards-to-go; four with 1-4 yards-to-go

Analysis: For the life of me, I cannot figure out why Garrett calls playaction passes in such obvious passing situations.  It isn’t as if the Cowboys have been successful on them, averaging just 4.5 yards-per-pass.  Again, the consistency here is astounding to me.

  • Only 24 of the 109 total playaction passes came with less than 10 yards-to-go.  That’s just 22.0 percent.

2009 Comparison: 19.8 percent

Analysis: I feel like I’m stating the obvious in claiming that someone who has watched football for only a week would realize that, perhaps, more than one-fifth of a team’s playaction passes should come with less than 10 yards-to-go.

Spread vs. Tight

The other playaction study I published this offseason broke down the Cowboys’ playaction passes from spread and tight formations.  I noticed that, contrary to my prediction, the ‘Boys were far more successful on playaction looks from spread formations, averaging over four more yards-per-attempt in 2010.

I’m still not entirely sure why we see these numbers.  It’s possible that a small sample size is at work, although the large discrepancy in passing efficiency seems to make the 53 play sample size a bit more valuable.

My best guess is that the situations in which Garrett calls playaction passes (i.e. very few “obvious” running situations) is the largest contributor here.  If the Cowboys ran more short-yardage playaction passes, I presume the efficiency of playaction looks from tight formations would increase due to defensive expectations.  Short-yardage + tight formation = expectation of run.

Overall Playaction Efficiency

You can see below that the Cowboys simply aren’t getting the job done on playaction passes.  The 6.29 yards-per-play is atrocious, particularly when you consider the situations in which playaction passes are generally run: ones with high upside.  With Garrett calling so many playaction passes with 10 yards-to-go (56.9 percent), we know the Cowboys are generally in “normal” down-and-distances–not short-yardage, and not too many 2nd or 3rd and longs.

The sack rate on playaction passes is down from 8.7 percent last year, but the sack rate in general decreased in 2010.  You can also see quite a nice completion rate on playaction passes, but looks can be deceiving. . .

Screen Passes Following Playaction

As I mentioned above, Garrett loves to dial up screen passes following playaction looks, doing so 19.3 percent of the time in 2010.  That’s about double the screen rate on non-playaction passes (and certainly a major reason for the high completion rate).

One of the reasons Garrett utilizes a playaction look before many of his screens is because, often times, he isn’t running “traditional” screen passes to the running back.  Instead, Garrett likes to suck the defense in toward the running back by showing playaction, then throw a quick screen or bubble screen to a receiver.  Actually, 71.4 percent of playaction screen passes went to a player other than a running back.  That rate dropped to just 40.0 percent on non-playaction screens.

Conclusions

It was relieving to see Garrett take some shots downfield following playaction looks this season, but I’d still like to see more than 12.8 percent of playaction passes travel 20+ yards.  The Cowboys could probably maximize their playaction effectiveness by stretching the field on closer to 25 percent of playaction passes.  At worst, the increased rate of deep pass attempts would open things up underneath.

It’s also obvious the ‘Boys desperately need more playaction passes in running situations.  A less than three percent playaction rate in short-yardage situations (1-4 yards-to-go) is a joke, as is the 22 percent of playaction passes with less than 10-yards-to-go, and the 56.9 percent rate of playaction looks with exactly 10 yards-to-go.  These numbers have remained uncannily stable from 2009, proving we’re witnessing something inherent to Garrett’s play-calling rather than an aberration.

Those of you who know me know I like the Garrett hire and I think he’ll improve considerably as a head coach.  He’s certainly shown the ability to adapt in other areas of his coaching, but he’s late to the table on this one.  Garrett is young, confident and aggressive, but if he doesn’t show the willingness to aggressively change his playaction calls, it will be difficult to reverse the team’s fortunes in 2011.

By Jonathan Bales

2010 Weak Side Runs: Using Game Theory to Call Plays

Jonathan Bales

Throughout my film study articles, I have chronicled the trends of the Cowboys in specific situations, attempting to isolate the cause of their success or failure.   Some statistics are subjective, such as missed tackles, but I strive to obtain statistics that are objective as possible.

In this study, I will analyze the Cowboys’ weak side runs.  Like prior pieces, there is some “gray area” here.  What is a weak side run?  Is the weak side always opposite the tight end?

For this analysis, I have designated the weak side of the formation as that which is opposite the tight end and has less than three skill position players.  Thus, in “Twins Left,” the right side is the strong side. In “Twins Left, Weak Left” (below), however, the left side is strong.

If a formation has no tight end, the strong side is simply the side with the most skill position players.  Also, a multitude of formations have no strong or weak side, such as “Ace” (below).

The findings I gathered are listed below.   The Cowboys averaged 4.72 yards-per-carry on weak side runs, compared to just 3.67 yards-per-carry on strong side runs, and 4.23 yards-per-rush on runs from balanced formations.

Why did the Cowboys have more success running weak side than strong?   One possibility is that it surprises the defense.  Dallas ran weak side on just 22.8 percent of all run plays (up from 19.5 percent in 2009). Thus, with the defense generally anticipating a strong side run, the success rate of running weak side increases despite a lesser number of blockers.

The lack of blockers to the weak side can also be a good thing because defenses generally line up according to the formation.   Less blockers, then, means less people to block, and less chance for mistake.

If this theory is correct, we might expect the Cowboys percentage of big plays to increase significantly when running weak side.  This is exactly what we saw in 2010 (although not in my 2009 results).  The Cowboys ran for a play of 10+ yards on 13.8 percent of all weak side run plays in 2010, compared to only 6.5 percent on all strong side runs.

Further, the yards-per-carry, big play percentage, and negative play rate of runs from balanced formations (such as “Ace”) all fall between the corresponding numbers for weak and strong side runs.  This is evidence that weak side runs are generally superior to strong side runs because hybrid formations (balanced formations are a sort of “hybrid” of strong and weak ones) create hybrid results.

How should this information affect the Cowboys and Jason Garrett’s play-calling?  Well, as I detailed in my 2009 Witten blocking study, the play-calling should shift until it reaches the “Nash Equilibrium.”   Simply put, this is the point when the overall yards-per-rush will peak.

Note that Garrett cannot simply call all weak side runs because football is a game of opposing minds.   A drastic increase in weak side runs would obviously be met by a large percentage of defensive weak side blitzes.

Instead, game theory suggests Garrett should slowly increase the number of weak side runs until the average yards-per-carry is maximized.

But how will we know when that number is reached?  The answer would be simple if we assumed those people drawing up plays to try to stop the Cowboys offense–the opposing defensive coordinators–were perfectly rational.   In that scenario, the defense would call an increasing number of weak side blitzes until they minimized the overall yards-per-carry.   They would in effect create their own Nash equilibrium.

Of course, defensive coordinators do not always call plays in a rational manner. Their knowledge is not unlimited, and so sometimes they may call too many weak side blitzes or not enough.  Perhaps sometimes the number of weak side blitzes they dial up has no correlation at all with the offenses’s weak side running rates or successes.

Garrett’s job, then, must be to take into account the thoughts and tendencies of defensive coordinators (perhaps easier said than done), and then adjust his play-calling accordingly.   If Team X calls an inordinate amount of weak side blitzes, for example, then the Cowboys own Nash equilibrium will be shifted to include more strong side runs (and vice versa).

Thus, play-calling (or effective play-calling anyway) is not simply about knowing your own players.   It is about successfully predicting the calls of defensive coordinators by knowing their tendencies.   This may sound extremely difficult (and it is from the standpoint of one individual play), but aberrations tend to flatten out over the course of a game in such a way that, despite not knowing individual play calls, a team can assume a “regression to the mean” of sorts where a team’s overall tendencies will always eventually shine through.

For Garrett, this means being one step ahead of the game.  Instead of simply knowing what you want to do, you have to know what your opponent thinks you are going to do, then adjust accordingly.  When playing against a really stealthy coach, you may have to know what he thinks that you think that he thinks about what play you are going to call.

If you are an offensive coordinator and have called three straight weak side runs in a row, for example, your natural inclination may be to deviate from this tendency.  You might do this in an effort to “mix it up.”   But game theory suggests you should take into account the opposition’s thoughts before making a decision.

Perhaps you know that he is thinking that you are thinking that he will call a weak side blitz to combat your recent success. Knowing this, you would assume he may call a strong side blitz (or none at all), and you would be correct.   Thus, despite three straight weak side runs, the best play call is yet another weak side run.

Being “unpredictable” isn’t about changing play calls just for the sake of changing the play, but about adjusting your tendencies according to your opposition’s tendencies to create an environment where potential success will be maximized.

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys 2010 Motion Statistics

Jonathan Bales

Last offseason, I argued that the Cowboys should use pre-snap motion less often.  In my 2009 study on Cowboys motions, I found the offense was generally less successful on motion plays, averaging 0.7 less yards-per-pass and a full yard less per run.  As a result of those findings, I wrote:

Garrett should steadily decrease the motion rate until the defense compensates enough that the Cowboys’ yards-per-play reaches its peak.  My 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, creating situations of generally optimal efficiency for the Cowboys’ offense.

Garrett used motion on 42.5 percent of snaps in 2009.  As I suggested, that rate dipped this past season.  Here are the Cowboys’ 2010 motion numbers. . .

Right off the bat, you can see the Cowboys’ motion rate dropped to 34.4 percent–not quite the 25.0 percent I suggested, but still an improvement.  With that fall came an increase in efficiency, at least in the passing game.  The Cowboys averaged over 0.8 “extra” yards-per-pass on motion plays and garnered a higher rate of big plays (10+ yards)–31.3 percent versus 22.3 percent on non-motion plays.

Once again, the Cowboys motioned on a higher rate of run plays than pass plays.  The 175:176 ratio is incredible, and those 175 runs represent 45.8 percent of all Cowboys’ runs–very similar to the team’s 48.9 percent rate from 2009.  Note that the “actual” run totals are slightly skewed because I count only “called” runs, not quarterback scrambles, kneel downs, etc.

The reason for the increased motion rate on run plays seems simple enough; the Cowboys frequently remain static pre-snap in situations where the defense knows they are going to pass.  For example, Dallas motioned on only 12 of the 197 plays they lined up in “Gun TE Spread” (left)–that’s a rate of just 6.1 percent, down from 12.5 percent in 2009.

Thus, while the run/pass ratio after motions is a bit “off,” it creates no real competitive advantage for the defense.

So we know the Cowboys motion more on run plays, but is there any causation behind this correlation?  My initial thought was that the the drop in yards-per-rush 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 (which I defined as three yards-to-go or less), the Cowboys motioned just 12 times out of a possible 97–only 12.4 percent of the time.  That’s far below the overall rate of 34.4 percent.  Thus, while it is good that Garrett effectively spreads out motions among various downs and distances, the low yards-per-rush on motions cannot be attributed to an abundance of short-yardage plays.

Another possibility for the lack of success on motion runs is predictability.  After watching as much film as I do, there are times when I can predict with great precision what play the Cowboys are going to run.  How and where they motion is a big factor in my ability to do this.  Dallas will frequently motion the fullback to the play-side just before the snap, for example.  Only rarely does the fullback motion to the side of the formation opposite the play-call.

If I can read these tendencies, NFL defenses can do it.

Of course, the Cowboys simply need to run the ball more effectively on all types of plays.  They weren’t particularly dominant on non-motion runs either.

Conclusions

I love that I saw a decrease in motions from Garrett and the ‘Boys in 2010.  The Cowboys found much more success via the pass on plays which invoked a pre-snap motion, and, although the team’s run efficiency plummeted, the relationship between motion and non-motion runs actually converged.

We also saw a greater rate of big pass plays and a lower sack rate (by far) on motion plays as compared to 2009.  The rate of total negative plays remained steady at 11.1 percent.

Ultimately, I still think 25 percent is the magic number.  If the Cowboys can motion around one-in-four plays in 2011, I think they’ll see an increase in overall offensive efficiency.

Of course, regression to the mean tells us we’ll probably see that anyway.

By Jonathan Bales

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.

————————————————

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

————————————-

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

By Jonathan Bales

Grading the ‘Boys in 2010, Part VIII: Wide Receivers

Jonathan Bales

Already graded: Defensive lineinside linebackersoutside linebackerssafetiescornerbacks, tight ends, and offensive line.

————————————

The 2009 season saw the simultaneous emergence of one star–Miles Austin–and the decline of another–Roy Williams.  2010 was similar in that the Cowboys discovered rookie Dez Bryant is the real deal, while Austin (many claim) plummeted in terms of efficiency.  Let’s examine.

My 2010 wide receiver rankings are based less on totals and more on efficiency.  A team’s No. 1 wide receiver will get more opportunities than the No. 2, who will get more than the No. 3, and so on.  Thus, reception and yardage totals (although very important to a team) are less indicative of a player’s efficiency than yards-per-attempt or reception percentage.

Notes

  • Chart Key:  TA=Thrown at, Yds/Att=Yards-per-attempt, TD and Drop %=Percentage of attempts which resulted in a touchdown or drop, respectively, YAC/Rec=Yards after catch per reception
  • The best stats are circled in blue and the worst in red.
  • Some of the stats are courtesy of ProFootballFocus.com.
  • The final grade is weighted 4:1 in terms of receiving versus run blocking.

Grades

  • Roy Williams

Receiving:  C

Snap Counts: Williams-690, Austin-1019, Bryant-431, Hurd-214

Although Williams’ reception total decreased in 2010, he was much more efficient.  Williams was targeted only 59 times but recorded superior stats (as compared to 2009) in yards-per-attempt, touchdown rate, drop percentage, and YAC-per-reception.  There’s something to be said for a player who puts the ball in the end zone, and Williams’ touchdown rate of 13.5 percent is outstanding.

Run Blocking: B

Williams has always been an adequate blocker.  He doesn’t possess the ferocity of Hines Ward, but he does do a good job of positioning his body between the ball-carrier and the defender.

  • Miles Austin

Receiving: B

Although others are claiming Austin was horrible this season, that wasn’t the case.  Austin certainly took a step back, as he was targeted 23 fewer times and caught 23 less balls as compared to 2009.  Austin’s efficiency stats decreased as well, but not as greatly as some might assume (YPA down 1.3 yards, YAC/rec down 0.9 yards).

The real reason people are so down on Austin is his drops.  After dropping only three balls in 2009, Austin mishandled 11 this past season.  Even worse, they generally came at inopportune times.

Many of you know, however, that I consider drops to be a poor barometer of a receiver’s worth.  Not only are they not as costly as some people assume, but they’re also a fluky stat.  Austin doesn’t have the league’s best hands, but he certainly doesn’t have awful hands either.  My guess is that Austin dropped a few passes early and it got into his head.  Expect him to rebound in that department next season.

Run Blocking: C+

Austin has a good attitude when it comes to blocking, but for whatever reason he appeared to regress in 2010.  He missed a couple “easy” blocks and just didn’t seem to put himself in proper position at times.

  • Dez Bryant

Receiving:  B

Bryant is a future All-Pro who showed flashes of brilliance as a rookie, but there are still plenty of things he needs to work on.  First, he needs to get upfield immediately.  On certain passes, particularly quick screens, he tends to dance around too much, expecting to overpower defenders without first building momentum.  He possesses dynamite after-the-catch ability, but he needs to realize he’s not at Oklahoma State anymore.

Bryant did prove that his hands are as good as billed.  He led the receivers (in a good way) with a 4.2 percent drop rate.  Don’t worry about his yards-per-attempt and YAC-per-reception numbers–those stats will improve when Jason Garrett learns how generally ineffective quick screens are.

Run Blocking: B-

Bryant will need to work on this aspect of his game.  It isn’t that he’s not a willing blocker, but rather he needs to learn technique.  He too often goes for kill shots when, as a receiver, he really only needs to “get in the way.”

  • Sam Hurd

Receiving:  C-

We don’t have an amazing sample size here, but I think we’re all starting to realize that Hurd is a great special teams player and a good teammate, but an average (at best) wide receiver.  He doesn’t have great hands and doesn’t seem to ever create tremendous separation.

Run Blocking: B+

Hurd is the best blocking receiver on the team.  This is evidenced by the fact that he is the “closer” at receiver for Dallas.  In the few games that Dallas had a late lead, Hurd was the only receiver on the field in single-receiver personnel groupings because of his blocking ability.

2010 Cowboys Wide Receiver Grades

1. Dez Bryant: B (84.6)

2. Miles Austin: B- (83.4)

3. Roy Williams: C+ (77.0)

4. Sam Hurd: C (75.8)

Wide receiver is one of the few positions that isn’t a big concern for Dallas.  I personally think they could benefit from a small, quick slot receiver, but that need isn’t pressing.

Of course, that could all change in a hurry.  The futures of every receiver other than Austin and Bryant are cloudy.  Williams rebounded pretty well in 2010, but it wasn’t like he was incredible.  Rather, low expectations made people believe he played better than what was the case.  The Cowboys could go either way with him right now (and no, a trade is not possible due to his contract).

The same is true of Hurd, Kevin Ogletree, Jesse Holley, and Manuel Johnson.  Of those players, I believe Holley deserves a roster spot the most.  He possesses some upside as a receiver and his special teams play is great.  Ogletree has potential, of course, but he seems to have a poor attitude and doesn’t fight on special teams.  For a No. 4 or 5 receiver, that isn’t going to cut it.

Don’t rule out the possibility of the Cowboys selecting a receiver in the late rounds of the draft.  Although the ‘Boys generally favor big, strong pass-catchers, a small burner could really benefit the offense and return game (so Bryant doesn’t have to risk injury).  Kentucky’s Randal Cobb, USC’s Ronald Johnson, TCU’s Jeremy Kerley, and San Diego State’s Vincent Brown could all be possibilities.

By Jonathan Bales

Grading the ‘Boys in 2010, Part VI: Cornerbacks

Jonathan Bales

So far this offseason, I have handed out grades to the Cowboys’ defensive lineinside linebackersoutside linebackers, safeties, and tight ends for their 2010 play.  Today, I’ll take a look at the cornerbacks.

As is the case with every position in football, the success of the defensive backs is very dependent on the play of other positions, particularly those rushing the passer.  Thus, it can become difficult when comparing CBs from different teams because the efficiency of their respective pass-rushers is directly correlated to the cornerbacks’ own success.

It is easier to compare cornerbacks on the same team, particularly if they do not match up with specific receivers.  This is the case on the Cowboys, as Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins generally play one side of the field regardless of where the opposition’s receivers line up.

Playing in the slot can be a bit different, and so we must be careful when comparing Orlando Scandrick’s stats with those of Newman and Jenkins.  The percentage of snaps that Scandrick is targeted, for example, will be higher than the starting cornerbacks because he is on the field in all passing situations, but not necessarily on running downs.

Still, we can gather the numbers and effectively isolate a player’s success to the best of our ability.  Below are the results of the Dallas cornerbacks’ 2010 play and the corresponding Dallas Cowboys Times grades.

Notes

  • Chart Key: TA=Thrown At, Rec=Receptions Yielded, PD=Passes Defended, Yds/Att=Yards Per Attempt Thrown At
  • The best stats are circled in blue, the worst in red.
  • Some of the stats were provided by Pro Football Focus.
  • The final chart details my own custom statistic, the Dallas Cowboys Times Pass Defense Rating.  It incorporates the factors I believe are most valuable in evaluating the success of a cornerback.  The amount of points a player scores in each category is less important than the difference between his score and the average score.  For example, a point total of 20.0 in a category where the league average is 5.0 helps a player more than a score of 100.0 in a category whose league average is 90.0.
  • The final grade is weighted 4:1 in terms of pass defense versus run defense.

Grades

  • Terence Newman

Pass Defense:  C-

Despite being targeted less often in 2010, Newman yielded more receptions, yards, and touchdowns than in 2009.  Over 65 percent of balls thrown his way were completed, which was sadly the top rate of any cornerback.  That alone tells you everything you need to know about the Cowboys’ cornerbacks in 2010, as the worst completion percentage yielded in ’09 (62.9 percent by Scandrick) was still better than the best this past season.

Newman was targeted on 11 percent of snaps–a bit higher than in ’09.  The amount of yards he allowed per attempt (9.33) and snap (1.03) were also far worse than in 2009 (when they were 7.66 and 0.72, respectively).

Newman’s Pass Defense Rating (below) was 170.3–a far fry from the 236.4 mark he posted in ’09.

Run Defense:  A-

Some people don’t seem sold on Newman’s tackling ability, but I’m not one of those people.  Newman has long shown he’s capable of making difficult tackles in the open field.  Although he isn’t a punishing hitter, that’s one of the primary reasons I believe he could benefit from a move to free safety.  Newman missed only 5.1 percent of tackles he attempted in 2010.

  • Mike Jenkins

Pass Defense:  D

I gave Newman a “C-” for his pass defense this season, and Jenkins was worse in just about every category.  His 11.17 yards-per-attempt-against is horrific, as is the 1.07 yards-per-snap number.  Jenkins was still able to get his hands on some balls, but he wasn’t able to reel them in as he secured only one interception.  On top of all that, Jenkins’ seven penalties nearly led the league and is a huge sign that he was frequently out of position.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of Jenkins’ decline is the fact that he allowed over two-thirds of passes his way to be complete after yielded just 49.1 percent in 2009.

In my opinion, Jenkins became overconfident after his stellar ’09 campaign.  He disregarded technique and thought he could get by on pure talent.  He found out the hard way that’s not how it works.

Run Defense:  D-

The only reason I didn’t give Jenkins an “F” for his run defense is that, after the game in Green Bay, we did see an increase in effort.  Should we see 100 percent effort all the time?  Of course, but the fact that Jenkins took responsibility and played decently against the run for the remainder of the year is a good sign.  Plus, he actually missed tackles at a lower rate than in 2009.

  • Orlando Scandrick

Pass Defense:  B

Scandrick began the season poorly, but his play really picked up over the final 10 weeks or so.  His Pass Defense Rating is the worst of any cornerback, but that’s really due to the nature of his position.  He’s on the field during passing situations, meaning the rate of passes he is targeted will naturally be higher.  The 0.88 yards-per-snap that he surrendered was down from 0.95 in 2009.

Run Defense: C+

Scandrick tallied 11 less tackles last season as compared to ’09, but part of the reason for that is that he gave up fewer receptions.  His 11.4 percent missed tackle rate is neither stellar nor horrendous, although it could certainly improve.

Final 2010 Cornerback Grades

1.  Orlando Scandrick:  B- (83.4)

2.  Terence Newman:  C+ (77.0)

3.  Mike Jenkins: D (64.6)

The Cowboys clearly need an upgrade at the cornerback position.  Newman will be 33 this season and has already begun what appears to be a sharp decline.  While others may not like the idea, I think he could move to free safety.  He still has speed and he’s already a better tackler than Alan Ball.  Plus, it isn’t like he needs to be a wrecking ball back there.  A sound tackler who can be the team’s last line of defense is fine.

Also at free safety, Newman would be asked to do little man coverage and would be free to face the quarterback.  The majority of his struggles seem to come when his back is turned to the passer.  He has trouble turning, locating the football, and still maintain proper position to make a play on it.  Being “free” to read the quarterback and drive up on passes could help him.

Jenkins’ 2010 struggles are perplexing.  He certainly has the skill set to thrive, so the key with him will be regaining mental focus and confidence.  And he absolutely needs to become a more willing tackler.

I liked Scandrick’s improvement over the course of the season, but I believe any thoughts of placing him in the starting lineup are a misinterpretation of his skill set.  He’s a small, quick player who is really suited to play the slot.  I think he could get abused outside.

The Cowboys will certainly be looking for an upgrade at cornerback during the draft.  An early-round pick at the position seems likely.  First-round options include LSU’s Patrick Peterson (although he will probably be off the board) and Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara.  The ‘Boys could also trade down and still secure a player like Miami’s Brandon Harris.

I personally believe the easiest way to obtain better cornerback play is to get to the quarterback faster.  Thus, acquiring a pass-rushing defensive lineman might aid the secondary just as much as a fresh face at cornerback.  Whatever method the Cowboys employ, an improvement from the secondary is absolutely vital to their 2011 playoff hopes.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys 2010 Initial Drive Statistics

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 he sometimes struggles with adaptability.  We’ve certainly seen him improve with his abundance of weak side runsplay-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 Cowboys’ 2010 stats on initial and “non-initial” drives.

A few points of interest. . .

  • You can see Garrett improved in his initial drive play-calling, at least statistically.  Overall, the Cowboys averaged 5.42 yards-per-play on all initial drives (both first and second half) in 2009.  That number jumped to 5.78 this season.
  • More importantly, the points-per-drive increased.  In 2009, the points-per-drive on initial drives was significantly lower than the overall points-per-drive rate.  In 2010, however, the Cowboys scored more points-per-drive on both first and second half initial drives (2.13) than on all other drives (1.90).
  • It’s still possible the sample size is too small to draw meaningful conclusions.  This season alone, the ‘Boys had a three-play 75-yard drive, a three-play 71-yard drive, and a two-play 68-yard drive coming out of the half that skewed results.  Overall in 2009 and 2010, Dallas averaged 5.60 yards-per-play on initial drives–lower than the 6.02 yards-per-play on all other drives.

Do you think Garrett has improved in his adjustments and his overall ability as a play-caller?