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10 Dallas Cowboys Under Most Pressure This Preseason

Jonathan Bales

This preseason is the most intriguing in years for Dallas due to the abundance of position battles and uncertain roster spots.  Many players are under a lot of pressure to perform well in these exhibition games, whether it is for a starting spot or to simply make the team.  Below are my top 10.

10.  FS Alan Ball

Ball’s roster spot is obviously secure.  The same can probably be said about his starting job, although that is still somewhat debatable.  Nonetheless, Ball is under a lot of pressure to prove the Cowboys made the right decision in cutting veteran Ken Hamlin.  He must show he is physical enough to play safety and hold off the up-and-coming second-year man Michael Hamlin. I previously posted an in-depth breakdown of the Ball/Hamlin battle.

9.  LT Alex Barron

Barron probably won’t play tonight against the Raiders after injuring his ankle in the Hall of Fame game.  It is unclear when Barron hurt himself and how that affected his play, but he sure didn’t perform well.  His roster spot isn’t in jeopardy, but fans want to see enough from Barron to know the Cowboys got the best of the Barron/Carpenter trade.

8.  FB Deon Anderson

Anderson’s legal troubles have prompted some to dismiss him from their 53-man roster projections, but I’ve been saying since the end of last season that Anderson is extremely valuable to the Cowboys offense.  He’s in my latest 53-man roster projection, but his chances actually took a slight hit with the John Phillips injury.

Phillips moonlighted as a fullback, but his loss increases the probability of H-Back/TE Scott Sicko and FB/H-Back Chris Gronkowski making the team.  Both players are more versatile than Anderson, but I think the Cowboys value Anderson’s blocking ability enough to retain him.  Still, he needs to play well.

7.  TE Martellus Bennett

Bennett was in a tight battle with John Phillips for the No. 2 tight end job before Phillips was lost for the season with an ACL tear.  In my opinion, Bennett was going to lose that battle.  He is an excellent blocker( I gave him a “B+” in my 2009 Tight End Grades), but Phillips’ blocking appeared to improve enough that he may have overtaken Bennett.

Some of the pressure was lifted off of Bennett’s shoulders when Phillips went down, but there are still questions about his maturity, work ethic, and commitment to football.  He does appear to be working harder this offseason than in prior ones, but he still needs to show the coaches he can be counted on as the primary backup to Jason Witten.

6.  WR Sam Hurd

Hurd has always been a valuable special teams player in Dallas, but there are some talented wide outs behind him (Jesse Holley, Manuel Johnson, Terrell Hudgins) who may offer more potential on offense.

Further, there is no guarantee the Cowboys will keep six wide receivers.  If they only retain five, Hurd will be battling Kevin Ogletree and the three aforementioned youngsters for that final spot.

5.  NT Junior Siavii

Siavii didn’t perform terribly last season, racking up a tackle percentage that was actually over two times that of Jay Ratliff.  Siavii only racked up two pressures in 189 snaps, however, and didn’t even record a quarterback hit or sack.

The pressure on Siavii just skyrocketed with the supplemental draft selection of Josh Brent.  Brent has a tremendous motor and showed a lot of potential on Sunday night despite just arriving in Dallas.  His play-making ability appears to be greater than Siavii’s.

The Cowboys also selected DE/DT Sean Lissemore in the seventh round of the draft this year, so Siavii has a lot of competition for his roster spot.  If he doesn’t step up, he’ll lose it.

4.  LB Jason Williams

Williams said he learned more in one year from watching Brooking and James than he did in his entire college career.

Williams has so much athleticism and speed that you sometimes wonder if he relies on it too much.  In the NFL, a misstep in any direction spells disaster for any player, regardless of his speed.

Williams did okay in run support in the Cowboys’ first preseason game, but he looked lost in coverage at times.  That is a big problem since he is fighting to become the team’s nickel linebacker.

His battle with rookie Sean Lee will have to wait another week, as Lee is out for tonight’s game against Oakland.  Williams has a big-time opportunity tonight (and the rest of the preseason), and his roster spot is really on the line.  Don’t dismiss the idea of the Cowboys keeping a player like Leon Williams, who has already made some plays this preseason, ahead of Jason.

3.  RT Robert Brewster

Coach Wade Phillips half-heartedly praised Brewster’s play in Dallas’ initial preseason game, but that may have been to boost his confidence.  I intently watched Brewster multiple times on each of his plays, and he really struggled against Cincinnati.  He displayed poor footwork, even at his more natural right tackle position.  At left tackle, he was severely over-matched.

It will be difficult for Dallas to release a second-year player with so little game film, but with roster spots basically guaranteed for Doug Free, Marc Colombo, and Alex Barron, Brewster may be in a competition with rookie Sam Young for a roster spot.  The Cowboys could potentially move Brewster to guard.

2.  CBs Jamar Wall/Cletis Gordon/Bryan McCann

I’ve detailed the fourth cornerback battle in the past.  Gordon is leading the pack right now, but the gap between the three players isn’t enormous.  With Alan Ball and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah at safety, the Cowboys have two “extra” cornerbacks at another position.  Thus, I predict only one of the three cornerbacks listed above will make the final roster.

All three players look uneasy on returns, so the winner of the battle will probably be whoever displays the best combination of coverage ability–both on defense and on special teams.

I personally like McCann to win the job, but his recent injury (along with Gordon’s) has opened the door for Wall (opened the door for Wall, get it?) to step up.  Frankly, Wall has looked awful in coverage in practices and the first game, but the Cowboys did invest a draft pick in him.

1.  K David Buehler

This shouldn’t be a surprise.  In fact, I’ve talked about the pressure on Buehler so much in the past that I’m not even going to add anything here.

If you’re curious about my thoughts on Buehler, click here.  Or here.  Or here.  Or here.


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From the Archives: Analyzing Cowboys Weak Side Runs and Using Game Theory on Offense

By Jonathan Bales

Throughout my film study articles, I have chronicled the trends of the Cowboys in certain 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).   These formations were not counted toward my results.

The findings I gathered are listed below.   The Cowboys averaged 5.2 yards-per-carry on weak side runs, compared to just 4.7 yards-per-carry on strong side runs.

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 19.5 percent of all run plays. 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.

Still, if this theory is correct, we might expect the Cowboys percentage of big plays to increase significantly when running weak side.  This is actually not the case.  The Cowboys ran for a play of 10+ yards on 15.3 percent of all weak side run plays in 2009, compared to 14.5 percent on all strong side runs. This small difference is not statistically significant enough for us to draw meaningful conclusions.

Further, the percentage of negative runs is also approximately the same (9.4 percent on weak side runs versus 11.0 percent on all strong side runs).

With this lack of outliers, it appears as though weak side runs are just slightly more effective for the Cowboys than strong side runs. The results are not simply skewed by a pair of 80-yard rushes, for example.

How should this information affect the Cowboys and Jason Garrett’s play-calling?  Well, as I detailed in my 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.

Jason Garrett will maximize offensive efficiency by always being one step ahead of defensive coordinators.

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.

That may be the motto for the 2010 Dallas Cowboys– “maximize your potential.”   Should they do that, the team might just be playing in the first ever home Super Bowl.


From the Archives: A Statistical View of FB Deon Anderson’s Importance

Deon Anderson's plays per game remained relatively steady, while John Phillips saw a sharp spike in playing time when he was the second TE versus San Diego and New Orleans.

By Jonathan Bales

With training camp on the horizon, I wanted to reexamine an old study I completed on the importance of fullback Deon Anderson.  Anderson’s future in Dallas is cloudy with possible gun charges looming.  Is his skill level vital enough to the Cowboys to justify his stay on a suddenly squeaky clean roster?

The emergence of rookie John Phillips in 2009 seemed to be a road block in Anderson’s progress.   If Phillips’ blocking was at all comparable to Anderson’s, the versatility and pass-catching skill he exhibits might make him a better fit as an H-back type hybrid player.  Thus, the Cowboys could exit training camp without a true fullback on the roster.

As always, I dove into my film study database to determine just how valuable Deon Anderson was this past season in both the running and passing games.   The results were rather shocking.

Deon Anderson’s blocking ability, it appears, was sorely under-appreciated, especially by me.  Meanwhile, John Phillips’ youth shown through, as he was quite over-matched in the run game.

Anderson was on the field for 294 plays in 2009, while Phillips was in the Cowboys’ offensive package on 141 plays (a breakdown of each player’s plays-per-game is above).  Below is a chart detailing the effectiveness of each player.   Note that the sample size of plays for each player is large enough that we can discern meaningful, statistically-significant conclusions.

Dallas' yards-per-rush when Anderson was in the game was enormously higher than when Phillips was in the lineup, yet the yards-per-pass, surprisingly, remained about equal.

As you can see, the yards-per-rush for the Cowboys when Deon Anderson was in the ball game was significantly better than when Phillips was in the lineup. Anderson’s 5.6 average is even more impressive when considering the large sample size of 221 rushes.

Further, defenses are even more likely to be in a “jumbo” package (the big boys) with Anderson in the game, knowing the Cowboys pass the ball less than one-fourth of the time he is in the lineup.  The fact that Dallas still managed 5.6 yards-per-carry against the defenses’ best run-stoppers is stunning.

Phillips’ average of 3.7 yards-per-rush is particularly poor for a team that rushed the ball so well over the course of the season, and the sample size of 92 runs is large enough for us to conclude that the 1.9 yards-per-carry difference is due to a significant drop-off in blocking ability from Anderson to Phillips.

Perhaps even more surprising than these results, however, is the fact that the team’s yards-per-pass average was higher with Deon Anderson in the lineup.  While the .23 yard difference may be negligible, the fact that Deon Anderson provided the necessary protection to average the same yards-per-pass as a pass-catching threat like Phillips is meaningful.

While Phillips did snag seven balls (targeted nine times) for 62 yards (as opposed to Anderson’s one catch for 5 yards), his blocking ability is not yet refined enough to force opposing defenses to stay in their base personnel when he is in the game.  The team’s slightly better yards-per-pass average when Anderson is in the game also shows that his pass blocking makes up for this drop-off in receiving skills.

Thus, we must conclude that Deon Anderson’s blocking ability in both the running and passing games makes him a much better option at fullback than John Phillips at this time.  This is not to say, of course, that Phillips will not improve and become a better blocker, as he was only a rookie last season.  Phillips appears to have the work ethic and demeanor necessary to improve his game, but right now Deon Anderson, contrary to first glance, is much more valuable than any of us had thought.


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.


Cowboys Film Study: Five Wacky Stats From the Database

I often come across trends or “anomalies” in our Cowboys play database that I decide to not post.  These stats are often interesting (to me at least), but simply not wide enough in scope for me to dedicate an entire post to them.

Well, this entry is a collection of “too-small-to-post” statistics from the Cowboys’ 2009 season which I uncovered this weekend.

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

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

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

Perhaps these figures are at least a partial cause of the Cowboys’ lackluster success rate on play-action passes.

  • 34 of Tony Romo’s 79 audibles (43.04%) were to draw plays.

Since 44 of the 79 checks were run plays, an incredible 34-of-44 (77.27%) run plays (which followed an audible) were draws.  While this seems over-the-top, our analysis of Romo’s audibles showed that the Cowboys averaged 5.8 yards-per-carry on these runs.

Nonetheless, the Cowboys would likely have even more success on these runs if the draw rate decreased.  In a previously article, we explained why checking to a run play might be successful:

One possible explanation for the lower productivity in the passing game after checks is that defenses are more prepared to defend the pass after an audible. They may assume an audible by the opposing quarterback means he sees an opportunity for a big play, probably a pass, thus making them more likely to effectively defend the pass.

Before we place all the blame on Romo for the disproportionate draw rate, note that, in almost all circumstances, Romo does not actually choose the “new” play.  The majority of the checks (75-of-79, in fact), are “kill” calls.  We explained how “kill” calls work in a previous article:

Sometimes Romo will actually call an entirely new play at the line of scrimmage, while other times he will simply signal for the team to check into the second play which was called in the huddle (the team often calls two plays in the huddle, planning to run the first unless Romo checks out).

The latter scenario is marked by a phrase many of you have probably heard the Dallas’ quarterback yelling on television, “Kill, Kill, Kill!” When you hear this, Romo sees something in the defense that makes him believe the first play called in the huddle will be unsuccessful. The second play, which is the one run after the “Kill” call, is generally dissimilar to the original call to combat whatever problem Romo noticed.

Thus, on all but four plays in 2009, the Cowboys offense ran a play which was originally called by offensive coordinator Jason Garrett.  If the exorbitant rate of draws-after-checks is to continue, Romo is not the only person to blame.

  • Romo threw the most off-target passes to Patrick Crayton and Roy Williams, missing on 28.4% of throws to both receivers.

The chart to the right lists the off-target passes, attempts, and off-target percentage of throws to all Cowboys’ 2009 pass-catchers.  In our in-depth analysis of Romo’s off-target passes, we noted that we consider a pass to be ‘off-target’ if:

1.  Romo missed a receiver who was relatively open

2.  Romo was giving his best effort to acquire a completion.

Thus, spikes, throw-aways, and passes that were on-target but knocked away by a defender did not constitute ‘off-target passes.’

Of course, the percentages are not comparable among players at different positions, as Romo is more likely to be off-target to wide receivers than tight ends or running backs.

  • The Cowboys ran a true hurry-up offense on just 28 plays last season–less than two per game.

In this instance, we define “hurry-up” as a no-huddle play run with a time-saving mentality.  Of the 28 plays, only two were runs (for 6 total yards).  The 26 passes went for 151 yards, or just 5.81 yards-per-attempt.

25 of the 28 plays were out of a Shotgun formation.

  • The Cowboys completed a pre-snap shift 17 times in 2009–all on first or second down.

A shift is when multiple players change their alignment at once.  Offenses will frequently shift from a run formation to a pass formation, or vice versa, such as Full House (run formation) into Gun Trips Right (pass formation).

The offense ran on seven of these plays for 20 yards (2.86 yards-per-carry), and passed 10 times for 55 yards (5.50 yards-per-attempt).


Cowboys Film Study: 4th Down Attempts and Game Theory

The Cowboys attempted just 11 plays on 4th down last season, converting on only four of them (36.4%).  The average distance-to-go was 2.64 yards, although eight of the 11 plays were either 4th and 1 or 4th and 2.

Despite converting on only four of the plays, the Cowboys gained an average of 6.72 yards-per-play on fourth down. This was due to three outliers–big plays of 53, 19, and 14 yards.

Despite the short distance-to-go on the majority of the 4th downs, Dallas passed the ball on seven of them (63.6%).  All of their conversions came on passes, meaning they were 0-for-4 when running on 4th down.

This lack of success when running on 4th and short could be a problem for the Cowboys if it prompts offensive coordinator Jason Garrett to call even more passes in short-yardage situations.  While Dallas had more success passing during 4th and short last season, this was simply due to a small sample size.

In reality, offenses tend to pass far too frequently in short-yardage situations.  The graph to the left, provided by Advanced NFL Stats, shows the conversion percentages of teams on 3rd downs in various situations.  Of course 4th down plays are different, but no so much so that we cannot draw meaningful conclusions from the comparison of the two.

In 3rd and 1 situations, offenses obtain a 1st down on 70% of runs, compared to just 58% of passes. In fact, running the ball on 3rd down actually yields the most success (in terms of achieving 1st downs) up until 3rd and 5.  Surprisingly, passing the ball never becomes significantly advantageous over running the ball in any situation up through 3rd and 10.

The reason behind this has to do with game theory.  If defenses were to remain in their base personnel regardless of the down and distance, running the ball in medium-to-long yardage situations would be generally unsuccessful.  Since defenses substitute their nickel or dime personnel and dial up a play designed to defend a pass, however, offensive coordinators could increase their 3rd and 4th down conversion rates by calling far more runs in those situations.

Another way to look at it is that the play-calling of other offensive coordinators around the league affects that of Garrett.  The two are not independent of one another.  Running the ball on 3rd and short-to-medium is the optimum strategy not because of anything inherent in the game of football, but because of the play-calling of other offensive coordinators.  If other OCs suddenly started calling a bunch of 3rd and 4th down runs, defenses would adjust, perhaps making passing the ball in those scenarios the optimum strategy.

Now, we should not only factor in conversion rates, but also big play percentages.  For example, while we would love to see the Cowboys’ 36.4% conversion rate on 4th down plays increase, it wouldn’t be advantageous if it increased (even moderately) at the cost of losing big plays. The plays of 53, 19, and 14 yards which the Cowboys obtained on 4th downs were momentum-builders which often led to quick scores.

Thus, the run/pass balance on 3rd and 4th and short is a delicate thing.  Yes, you want to convert the play for a 1st down, but obtaining a 1st down is not the only goal.  Sometimes, it is advantageous to bypass high-percentage 1st down plays for medium-percentage plays which could result in a quick touchdown.

We talked about this quite a bit in our study of 2nd and 1 play-calling.  In those situations, when offenses possess downs left with which to work, it is optimal to open up the playbook and take a shot down field.  On 4th down, however, there is no room for error.  While obtaining a 1st down is still not the only goal, it is much more important than it is on 2nd and 1.

Optimal 4th down strategies, based on results of thousands of plays--provided by Advanced NFL Stats

Let’s return to the Cowboys’ 4th down play-calls.  We have said that game theory suggests teams should run the ball more in 3rd and 4th and short situations. One of the reasons that Dallas may have failed in 4th and short last year was they tried to get too fancy with their play-calling.  Of the 11 plays on 4th down, an incredible seven of them were out of the Shotgun formation. The Cowboys might benefit from simply lining up in a run formation and pounding the rock on 3rd and 4th and short.

Of course, we believe the ‘Boys should generally go for it (much) more often on 4th down. NFL coaches are incredibly conservative and slow to adjust to new information.

Take a look at the graph to the right.  Notice that, no matter your position on the field, it is almost always smart to go for it on 4th and 1 or 2.  In fact, the graph shows that it is even the best strategy to go for it on situations such as 4th and 10 at your opponent’s 35-yard line or 4th and 5 at their 10-yard line.

Plays like these–4th downs in your opponent’s territory–are crucial to a team’s win expectancy.  Of the Cowboys’ 4th down plays in 2009, only one of 11 was in their own territory.  Two of them were 4th and goal situations (and particularly memorable ones at that)–one at Denver and the other versus San Diego.  The results of both plays (an incomplete pass and a zero yard rush) directly affected the outcome of both contests.

Nonetheless, the ’09 failures of Dallas on 4th down should not affect their willingness to go for it in the same situations in 2010. Many people use outcomes to justify choices, but that can lead to poor decisions.  Instead, good decisions are ones that maximize the probability of a wanted outcome. A sample size of just 11 plays is too small to draw meaningful conclusions, meaning the Cowboys would be wise to take league-wide statistics into consideration–leading them to go for it more often on 4th down, particularly with power runs in short-yardage situations.


More Three-WR Sets for Cowboys in 2010? Analysis of Personnel Packages

There is no doubt Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett had a ton of weapons with which to work in 2009.  There are differing opinions on his efficiency in utilizing Jason Witten, Miles Austin, Felix Jones & Co., as the Cowboys ranked 2nd in the NFL in total yards, but just 14th in points.  Is this simply a fluke statistic that will “regress toward the mean” in 2010, or is there something more to it?

Our own film study has shown that the Cowboys offense is far too predictable in a variety of situations.  To improve in 2010, we believe Garrett should vary the play-calling out of Double Tight Right Strong Right, send Witten out in routes on a higher percentage of passing plays, throw more play-action passes to the left, randomize 2nd down and 3rd down play-calling (particularly on 2nd and 1), run more to the weak side, motion less, improve initial drive statistics, run less draws, and run (a lot) more counters.

After listing a wide variety of flaws in Garrett’s play-calling, now is a good time to mention we don’t think he is a terrible offensive coordinator.  Garrett does a commendable job of giving players sufficient freedom to make plays and, while we often critique his play-calling, Garrett is not the only offensive coordinator in the NFL with (what we would describe as major) flaws.

However, while football is a zero-sum game, offensive coordinator vs. offensive coordinator is not.  OCs can collectively get better or worse, meaning the similar failures of others around the league do not justify Garrett’s shortcomings.

Note: RB is either Barber, Jones, or Choice, while FB is Anderson.

The addition of Dez Bryant to the Cowboys’ already potent offensive attack means Garrett will have to alter his playbook to better fit a changing cast on offense.  Garrett appears to sometimes force players to adapt to his system (Roy Williams routes, for example), as opposed to bending the system to more appropriately utilize the skill sets of the players.

To further grasp how Garrett implemented players in 2009, take a look at the list of personnel packages to the right.  Note that, while the Cowboys are often thought to implement two tight ends as their base offense, they actually trotted one tight end, three wide receivers, and a running back onto the field more than any other particular personnel group (they did use two tight ends on 485 plays, however).

The three-wide receiver set is one we would like to see utilized more often in 2010.  There are a few reasons for this:

  • It will allow the Cowboys to get Dez Bryant more involved.  Who do you think represents a bigger threat to the defense, Bryant or Martellus Bennett/John Phillips?
  • With Felix Jones as the primary ball-carrier, the need for a fullback is lessened.  The Cowboys would be wise to run more counters and misdirection plays in which a third wide receiver (who can effectively spread out the defense) could be more valuable than a fullback.
  • The running game in general could thrive out of three-wide receiver sets, as defenses generally implement nickel personnel (an extra defensive back).

We are not sure Jason Garrett agrees with that last statement.  It is no secret that he loves to run the ball with either two tight ends or a fullback on the field.

Unfortunately, Garrett rarely ran the ball out of three-receiver sets in ’09 and it appears the efficiency of these packages was compromised by that improper run/pass balance.  As you can see above, the Cowboys ran 310 total plays with three wide receivers on the field.  Of those plays, just 54 were runs (17.4%)!

Now, we understand the Cowboys are a pass-first team and that three-receiver sets are perhaps ideal for passing, but spreading out the field to run is becoming a hot trend in the NFL.  In fact, the Cowboys averaged a gaudy 5.85 yards-per-carry when running out of three-receiver sets last season.  Whether this is due to a pre-snap open field or the defense substituting nickel personnel, there is no doubt the Cowboys ran the ball effectively in 2009 with three wide receivers in the game.

The incredibly high percentage of passes out of three-receiver sets undoubtedly caused the Cowboys’ yards-per-attempt on those plays to plummet.  Still, Dallas averaged 7.08 yards-per-attempt on passes out of the package, compared to 7.79 yards-per-attempt in general (including sacks) in 2009.

We have a feeling if the Cowboys run the ball (significantly) more out of three-receiver sets in 2010 (35% or so), that 7.08 yards-per-attempt will rise.  Not only does the team simply have better personnel this season, but defenses will be more apt to stay in base personnel to effectively shut down the run.  This will allow the third wide receiver, whoever it is, to garner a big-time mismatch.

If defenses do shift into a nickel package, the Cowboys should be able to utilize their receivers’ above-average blocking skills, a more athletic offensive line, and the shiftiness of Jones to be quite successful in running out of three-receiver personnel packages.


Grading the ‘Boys, Part IX: Outside Linebackers

It is no secret that the Cowboys have one of the best (if not the best) outside linebacker duos in the NFL.  Demarcus Ware is perhaps the most valuable player on the entire team, while Anthony Spencer really emerged last year as a dominant pass-rusher.

Behind Ware and Spencer, however, the Cowboys are a bit thin.  Second-year players Victor Butler and Brandon Williams are the primary backups, with Williams yet to have played a snap in the NFL.  Butler showed some flashes last season as a pass-rusher, but he has a long way to go to become a complete outside linebacker.

That transformation is not impossible, though, as Spencer proved last season.  Unlike Butler, Spencer was a naturally gifted run-defender.  He was still solid against the pass, but had yet to “get over the hump” in terms of sacks.  That changed a few weeks into last season as Spencer erupted, particularly over the final half of 2009.

Spencer’s emergence is proof that if you continue to do the right things and put yourself in position to make plays, the sacks (the glamor stat for 3-4 outside linebackers) will come.

Of course, defending the pass is a two-way street for 3-4 outside linebackers, as they must also drop into coverage from time to time.  Spencer performs this task the most frequently of the Cowboys’ outside linebackers, dropping into coverage on nearly one-fourth (23.9 percent) of all pass plays (and 14.9 percent of all snaps in general).

Thus, our outside linebacker grades will be composed of three parts: run defense, pass-rushing, and pass coverage.  Since pass coverage is a secondary focus of the linebackers, it will be weighted less in the final grades.  The small sample size of of plays in which the linebackers were in coverage, however, means two things:

  • The final grade will be weighted heavily toward run defense and pass-rushing (5:4:1 pass-rushing : run defense : coverage).
  • Pass coverage grades will be one of the few grades we determine by the “eye test”, i.e. game film, as opposed to pure statistics.

As always, the charts below display the best statistics within a particular group circled in blue, and the worst in red.


MT %= Missed Tackle Percentage

  • Demarcus Ware

Run Defense:  A-

Ware’s run defense is often overshadowed by his incredible ability to rush the passer, but it is important to remember that his pass-rushing numbers are the result of his above-average run-stuffing skills.  Ware missed 7.14 percent of all tackles–a solid number and just slightly worse than Spencer.

Pass-Rushing:  A

Ware had a “down year” by his standards and still racked up 15 sacks.  That alone is remarkable.  The most incredible statistic of Ware’s 2009 season (and perhaps the most dominant statistic in the entire NFL last season), however, was his 56 quarterback pressures.  That was by far the best among outside linebackers.  The NFL’s second-best pressure total last season?  36.  Spencer had just over half the pressures of Ware and still finished 9th in the league.  Simply incredible.

Pass Coverage:  A-

Ware is actually very underrated in coverage.  Although he understandably rarely drops back (only 8.1 percent of all snaps), he doesn’t allow big plays when he does.  According to Pro Football Focus, Ware allowed just two yards in coverage in all of 2009.  Two yards.  Let that soak in.

  • Anthony Spencer

Run Defense:  A

Some of you may disagree, but we believe Spencer is superior to Ware (and perhaps the best 3-4 OLB in the league) against the run.  Spencer racked up 67 tackles last season (28 more than Ware), while missing just 6.94 percent of all tackles he attempted. His ability to maintain his top-notch run defense while improving his pass-rushing skills was a major key to the defense’s success in 2009.

Pass-Rushing:  A-

Despite pressuring the quarterback far less than Ware, Spencer actually tallied more hits on the quarterback.  This is a bit of a “fluky” stat, but still important to his success.  Spencer accumulated .055 hits-per-rush last season–1.77 times Ware’s rate.  Expect Spencer’s sack total (9) to take a huge leap forward in 2010.

Pass Coverage:  C

Spencer drops into coverage more than any of the Cowboys’ outside linebackers (14.9 percent of all snaps).  Thus far, Spencer has been just about average when he is in coverage.  Generally matched up against a running back, Spencer is understandably over-matched on just about every snap he drops back, but we’d still like to see him become just a bit more fluid with his hips.  Similar to his early-career pass-rushing results, Spencer is just a hair away from making big plays in coverage.

  • Victor Butler

Run Defense:  D+

We all knew Butler would be a pass-rush specialist to start his career, so this poor grade in his rookie season comes as no surprise.  Coach Phillips used Butler well last season, as he rushed the quarterback on a higher percentage of snaps (63.2 percent) than any other outside linebacker.  Butler’s sample size of tackles is too small to generate meaningful conclusions regarding his missed tackle rate of 20 percent, so this grade is more a result of our film observations.

Pass-Rushing:  B

Butler did a solid job in his rookie season of getting to the quarterback.  Although he only played 125 snaps, his .038 sacks-per-rush was best on the team.  Expect his quarterback pressures and hits to rise in 2010.  It is imperative that either he or Brandon Williams is able to give Ware and Spencer a breather from time to time.  Both of their snap counts were far too high last season.

Pass Coverage:  C

Again, Butler’s snap count was too low for him to accumulate meaningful coverage statistics (particularly because he dropped back on only 8.0 percent of snaps).  He does have the athleticism to become effective in coverage, so right now it is just important for him to gain experience.

Final Outside Linebacker Grades

1.  Demarcus Ware:  A (94.0)

2.  Anthony Spencer:  A- (92.0)

3.  Victor Butler:  C (76.0)


The lack of depth (or at least experience) behind Ware and Spencer made us believe the Cowboys might address the outside linebacker position in the draft, perhaps as early as the first round.  As it turned out, the Cowboys didn’t even select an outside linebacker.

The Cowboys obviously stuck to their board, taking the best player available at each spot.  Thus, it is difficult to say whether the absence of a rookie pass-rusher is more the result of that strategy or their confidence in Butler and Williams.  It is likely a combination of both.

If Ware or Spencer are injured for an extended period of time, we think the Cowboys could be in trouble.  Butler has shown he can be an adequate pass-rusher, but those skills are only useful if you are able to stop the run.  We have a feeling teams will run right at Butler if he is in the game, thus making his ability to get to the passer a moot point.

Butler does have the natural ability to become a solid outside linebacker, assuming he puts in the work.  Brandon Williams is also a bit of an X-factor for Dallas.

Let’s hope that Butler and Williams are able to learn from Ware and Spencer and the mystery that currently surrounds them eventually transforms into confidence in their ability.