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Should the Cowboys Throw More Deep Passes? A Follow-Up Analysis

Jonathan Bales

Around the midway point of the 2010, I published an article detailing why teams that throw deep more often generally find more success in the passing game.  As I pointed out, there was a somewhat strong correlation between deep pass percentage and yards-per-attempt.  I detailed why I think this is the case in that article:

Over the years, defenses have adjusted as to not allow big plays–you see it in Tampa 2 schemes and even Coach Phillips’ defense. Make teams beat you again and again underneath.

If you’ve noticed, more and more teams have transitioned to spread offenses (like the Patriots, Saints, etc.) to combat Cover 2 schemes.  The high-percentage passes that are a staple of spread offenses work because of the defenses’ philosophy–don’t give up the big play.  Spread offenses are an answer to the Cover 2 scheme.

In recent years, however, I think we’ve started to see defenses adapt.  Less and less teams are playing Cover 2, instead emphasizing aggressive play and forcing turnovers.  The Saints are again the perfect example, as their scheme is one that will yield the occasional big play, but it creates big play opportunities for their defenders as well.

So, how does all of this relate to how often offenses should throw the ball downfield?  I raised the previous points to exemplify that game theory dictates that there is no inherently optimal strategy, simply one that is best at any particular time against your opponent’s specific strategy.  Thus, there is no “X” percentage of plays at which it is optimal to go deep, or run the ball, or anything else.

Think of it as a giant game of rock, paper, scissors.  When the majority of the league is throwing a rock, it’s pretty obvious that you can take advantage of that by throwing paper.  But as the league transitions, so must you.  When Cover 2 defenses were in vogue (which is still the case with many teams), the spread offense exposed weaknesses.  As more and more teams abandon that scheme, though, offenses must change.  The first team to recognize trends and adapt will win.  The NFL is really like a huge stock market.

At that point in the season, we saw quarterbacks with a deep ball percentage (defined as throws 15+ yards downfield) of 23+ checking in with 5.17 yards-per-attempt.  Of quarterbacks in the 20-23 percent range, the average YPA was slightly lower–5.00.  Finally, of quarterbacks with less than one deep throw in every five passes, the YPA plummeted to 4.31.

2010 Quarterback Efficiency by Pass Depth

Of course, there were certainly limitations to this data.  First, YPA isn’t the only stat that matters in deciphering a quarterback’s value.  We might expect the YPA of quarterbacks with few downfield throws to be slightly lower than other quarterbacks, but those passers also have fewer negative plays.  One might hypothesize that the sack rates and interception rates would be greater for quarterbacks who throw it deep more often.  Thus, the short-throwing passers might make up for a decrease in YPA by completing more passes and putting their teams in more manageable down-and-distances.

When we analyze the data, however, we see this isn’t the case.  The success rate and AYPA (adjusted yards-per-attempt) for quarterbacks with less than 20 percent deep throws is lower than that for passers with 23+ percent deep throws.  Note: Success rate is the percentage of throws that lead to an increase in expected points, while AYPA takes into account sacks and interceptions.  One of the reasons the AYPA for deep passers is greater than that for quarterbacks who throw short more often is that, as you can see, the short passers actually throw more picks.

So is this data enough to conclude the Cowboys should air it out more frequently?  The key, in my view, is personnel.  With a starting quarterback who lacks elite “traditional” accuracy (Romo’s completion percentage is tremendous because he’s able to buy time to allow receivers to become wide open, but I wouldn’t describe him as having top-notch accuracy) and receivers who excel at getting deep and attacking the football (Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, and even Roy Williams all possess outstanding body control and ball skills, but none are incredible route-runners), it’s clear to me that a higher percentage of big play opportunities would benefit this team.


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.


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.


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?


A Look at Jason Garrett’s Use of Playaction Passes in 2010

Jonathan Bales

Last season, I conducted an in-depth study of the Cowboys’ 2009 playaction passes.  Here are a few points of interest from that study:

  • Of the 83 playaction passes, only FOUR were attempts of 20 yards or more That is 4.8 percent of all pass plays attempted.  The Cowboys threw the ball downfield 20 yards or more on 46 of the other 467 attempts, or 9.9 percent of all passes.
  • Dallas ran screen passes on 33 of their 467 non-playaction passes (7.1 percent).  That screen rate more than tripled on playaction passes to 22.9 percent (19 of 83 passes).
  • Of the 83 playaction passes, 53, or 63.9 percent, were to the right side of the field (compared to just 37.0 percent on other passes).
  • The Cowboys ran only four (FOUR!) playaction passes all season with 1-4 yards-to-go.  The number of plays on the season in that range: 132.  Thus, Dallas ran playaction on just 3.03 percent of plays in situations with just 1-4 yards to go for a first down (situations with a legitimate threat of a run).
  • With 10 yards remaining, however, the Cowboys dialed up 54 play-action passes (59.3 percent of all playaction passes came on this ‘distance-to-go’).
  • The Cowboys actually ran one more playaction pass (five total) with 20+ yards-to-go than with 1, 2, 3 or 4 yards-to-go.
  • They also ran just 18 play-action passes with less than 10 yards left for a 1st down.  Thus, just 19.8 percent of playaction passes came with less than 10 yards-to-go.

So, has Jason Garrett’s use of playaction passes improved in 2010?  Kind of, but not enough.  Here are some comparable notes from the 2010 season:

  • Of the 98 playaction passes, 13 have been thrown 20+ yards downfield (13.3 percent).  This is certainly better than last year, but it is also one of the only areas in which Garrett has significantly improved.
  • Dallas has run screen passes on 48 of their 462 non-playaction passes (10.4 percent).  That screen rate nearly doubled on playaction passes to 19.4 percent.
  • Of the 98 playaction passes attempted, just 38 (38.8 percent) were to the right side of the field.  I think last year’s rate of 63.9 may have been an aberration.
  • The Cowboys still ran just FOUR playaction passes with 1-4 yards-to-go.  That is only 3.2 percent of the 124 overall plays in that range.
  • 59 of the 103 total playaction passes (five were sacks) have been with exactly 10 yards-to-go.  That rate of 56.3 percent is comparable to that in 2009.
  • The Cowboys again ran more playaction passes with 20+ yards-to-go (five) than with 1-4 yards-to-go (four).  Stunning.
  • Only 22 of the 103 total playaction passes came with less than 10 yards-to-go.  That’s just 21.4 percent.

Overall, it’s shocking to me how incredibly similar these stats are from year to year.  What are the odds the Cowboys would run the EXACT same number of playaction passes with 1-4 yards-to-go AND 20+ yards to go from 2009 to 2010?  The rate of playaction looks from other ranges and the number that result in screen passes are eerily similar as well.

Garrett’s play-calling has certainly improved in a bunch of areas, but in the realm of playaction passes, the man needs an intervention.


Cowboys vs. New Orleans Saints Film Study Observations: What We Learned About Dallas

Jonathan Bales

If you haven’t read my initial post-game notes/observations, please do.  I uncovered a lot of interesting information after reviewing the Cowboys-Saints film this week, so enjoy. . .

  • Marion Barber is out for at least a week or two.  I never want players to get injured, but this is one of the best things that could happen to the Cowboys.  Barber looked awful again on Thanksgiving, stumbling on an incredible three handoffs before even getting touched.  He tries to run around defenders now instead of through them, but he doesn’t possess the agility to do that effectively.  His only above-average quality is his pass protection ability.
  • Tashard Choice will be the recipient of an increased workload during Barber’s absence.  I can say with full confidence that you’ll observe a noticeable difference between Choice’s explosion, balance, and vision and that of Barber.  Choice may not be “incredible” at anything, but he’s really solid at everything. This is his chance to prove he deserves a larger role in 2011, and I expect him to perform well.
  • The Cowboys lined up with an unbalanced offensive line on three plays against the Saints.

  • As you can see, the “Unbalanced Right Strong Right” formation above employs Martellus Bennett as the left tackle and Doug Free as the tight end.  Bennett is obviously not an eligible receiver on the play, but I still love the look.  For one, Bennett is one of the team’s best blockers, regardless of position.  Any drop in blocking ability from Free to Bennett is made up for by the fact that the look is confusing to the defense.  It can cause alignment problems and just gives a defense more to think about pre-snap.
  • One knock on this formation is that it gives away too much information before the snap.  Bennett must stay in to block, and it’s unlikely the Cowboys would ask him to protect Jon Kitna’s blind side by himself.  Thus, whatever play the ‘Boys call will almost certainly be a run.  Secondly, do you think the team is more likely to run behind Bennett and Kyle Kosier, or Leonard Davis, Marc Colombo, Doug Free, and Jason Witten?
  • So how did the Cowboys overcome these issues?  Jason Garrett did an excellent job of using the first two plays from the formation as “set up plays” early in the game.  On these plays, the Cowboys ran just where you’d think they would–in the “4 hole” behind all of the big boys.  On the third and final play, however, the Cowboys faked the lead to Felix Jones and handed the ball off to Miles Austin on an end-around.  The result?  A 60-yard touchdown run.  Tremendous design and execution.
  • The illegal shift penalty called on Dez Bryant (the one over which he was fuming) was the correct call.  He mistakenly lined up off of the line of scrimmage, leaving the right tackle uncovered.  When he noticed it and moved up, Sam Hurd was already in motion and never came to a stop (if he had, Bryant’s movement would have been a legal shift).
  • The Cowboys ran a season-high 74 offensive plays on Thanksgiving.
  • Dallas had 14 plays in the red zone–five passes for 26 yards and nine runs for 12 yards and two touchdowns.
  • 33 of the Cowboys’ plays came out of Shotgun, although many of those were out of necessity (the team’s final 11 plays were from Shotgun).
  • Garrett obviously tried to confuse the Saints before the snap.  The Cowboys motioned on exactly half (37) of their offensive plays–a rate much higher than the 30.3 percent clip at which they came into the game.  That included 21 of the first 31 plays.
  • Kitna again showed he can recognize a defense’s weaknesses and check into the proper play.  He did so four times–two runs for eight yards and two passes for 27 yards.
  • The Cowboys got lucky with Reggie Bush.  Even though his production was nil, he was open a few times and either didn’t get targeted or dropped the ball.  Perhaps Dallas knew something I didn’t, but placing Sean Lee on Bush never seems like a good idea.
  • Dallas attacked the middle of the Saints’ defense on the ground.  One of the guards (either Kosier or Davis) was at the point-of-attack on 22 of the team’s 26 designed runs (84.6 percent).  It isn’t uncommon for a guard to be at the point-of-attack, but that rate is unusually high.
  • In my pre-game notes, I predicted the Cowboys would run a lot of draws, counters, playaction passes, and screens to take advantage of the aggressiveness of New Orleans’ defense.  They did all four quite often.  They dialed up eight draws for 24 yards and four counters for 67 yards.  Kitna also faked a handoff on an incredible 11 passes (for 90 yards) and threw a screen eight times for 42 yards.  All in all, 29 of the Cowboys’ offensive plays (39.2 percent) were either a draw, counter, playaction pass, or screen.
  • We saw the return of the dreaded “Double Tight Right Strong Right” formation (or a variation of it, such as “Double Tight Left Strong Left” or “Double Tight Right I”).  Garrett called it 12 times, and all but three were strong side dives.  Those nine plays went for 12 total yards.  Meanwhile, the three non-strong side dives from the formation (two passes and a toss) went for 23 total yards.  Unfortunately, the toss play was the early 4th down attempt to Barber that went for no gain.

Read my full analysis on the formation here.

  • With the abundance of screens and playaction passes came few downfield throws.  Remember, the Cowboys rarely throw the ball downfield following a play-fake–of their 83 playaction passes last year, only FOUR were thrown 20+ yards.  Of Kitna’s 42 passes against the Saints, only FIVE traveled 10+ yards, and only one went 20+ yards.  Meanwhile, 26 of the passes traveled five yards or less.  I’m by no means an expert on NFL offenses, but I think the Cowboys should probably throw the ball 10+ yards more than 11.9 percent of their passes (and 6.8 percent of all plays).
  • Kitna really had an up-and-down game.  He only had 12 incompletions, but nine of those were the result of off-target passes.  Nine off-target passes is way too many when you’re asked to throw the ball downfield only five times all game.  He also failed to throw a touchdown.
  • Of the team’s 47 called passes, Witten was in a route on 34 of them (72.3 percent), which is about average for him.  Dallas gained only 53 total yards on the 13 plays he stayed in to block, and 24 of those yards came on one play.
  • Garrett obviously made a conscious effort to “protect” struggling right tackle Marc Colombo.  Of the 66 plays with a tight end lined up next to one of the offensive tackles, 44 of them (66.7 percent) were “right-handed,” i.e. the tight end(s) was next to Colombo.  I realize Dallas is a right-handed team, but it’s clear an effort is being made to “hide” Colombo.
  • A reader pointed out that, after the game, Drew Brees stated he was able to beat Terence Newman deep because the Cowboys played the same coverage a bunch of times in a row and he knew it was coming.  His claim seems truthful since the Saints had the courage to throw the ball deep on a crucial 3rd and 1 play.  Although Paul Pasqualoni has done a nice job of employing some unique looks and more zone coverage to help the secondary, I thought his play-calling on Thursday was unoriginal and predictable.  The Saints obviously agree.
  • I was shocked that the Saints didn’t blitz Dallas early in the game.  Of the Cowboys’ first 64 offensive plays, New Orleans blitzed only eight times.  I was even more stunned by their strategy late in the game, as they blitzed on the final 10 plays.  They weren’t just simple A-gap blitzes either, but unique, exotic blitzes in which defenders came from unexpected places.  I’m positive the Saints had a “two-minute defense” installed for this game that was radically different from their approach in the first 58 minutes of the game, as they weren’t running the same play, even as Dallas was in a no-huddle offense.  What an incredibly innovative and unexpected move.
  • Despite the blitzes, I thought Garrett’s play-calling on the final three plays was horrible.  Bryant was targeted on all three passes despite not recording a reception all game.  Further, the Cowboys had just burned the Saints over and over by slipping Witten into the flat.  With the offense needing only five yards or so to give David Buehler a realistic field goal look, why not go to Witten again?  I watched Buehler’s missed field goal again and again, and I think it would have been good if it was from 54 yards instead of 59.

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Cowboys vs. Packers Week 9 Post-Film Study Review: What We Learned About Dallas

Jonathan Bales

  • By my count, Packers cornerback Charles Woodson blitzed 11 times–all on the same play.  Like I mentioned in my post-game notes, outside linebacker Clay Matthews would twist way outside, forcing Marc Colombo to follow him.  Woodson would blitz from the slot into the vacated area.  It took until the final drive of the game for Dallas to realize they should throw hot to the slot receiver.  On the majority of offensive formations, the running back should have recognized the blitz and stepped up.  The reason it worked so well for Green Bay was because this guy had his worst game as a pro. . .

  • Felix Jones.  He played absolutely horribly.  He continually missed assignments in pass protection and got his quarterback killed.  I attributed two of the four sacks to him (the others went to Colombo and Doug Free), but he blew his assignment on a bunch of other plays that just didn’t result in sacks.  He was playing so poorly that he needed to come out of the game in the fourth quarter, only to be replaced by. . .
  • Marion Barber. . .not Tashard Choice.  Despite being told he would receive a “heavy workload” this week, Choice didn’t get into the game until midway through the final quarter.  He received only three carries, all coming with the Cowboys down 38 points.  To me, this is one of the worst mistakes the coaches made this season.  If you don’t want to play the guy, then fine, but don’t tell him he’s going to receive significant playing time.  You never lie to your players.  Choice was reportedly nearly in tears after the game, wondering why the Cowboys didn’t implement the gameplan they installed all week.
  • I won’t say too much about this because I think it is clear now, but Wade Phillips must go.  His car isn’t at Valley Ranch this morning (as of 10 a.m.), so there’s a good chance he’s already been canned.  As soon as I find out more I will post it here.
  • The Cowboys ran only 10 plays in Packers territory, and just five until the last drive.
  • 40 of the 48 offensive plays came with the same personnel package: one tight end, three receivers, and one running back.
  • 35 of the 48 offensive plays came out of Shotgun.
  • Sticking to form, the Cowboys motioned early in the game–on 10 of the first 14 plays.  They motioned only twice in the final 34.
  • Jon Kitna hasn’t been afraid to call audibles.  He checked out of six plays on Sunday night–three passes for 20 yards and three runs for 10 yards.  Two of the three runs were draws, helping to prove that the high frequency with which the Cowboys run a draw play following an audible is a result of Jason Garrett, not Tony Romo.  In my 2009 wacky stats article, I noted that 77.3 percent of Romo’s run audibles were draws.
  • Dallas ran 10 total draws for 33 yards, two playaction passes for eight yards, and six screens for 10 yards.
  • Kitna threw the ball 15+ yards on six occasions, and those plays totaled 86 yards (and an unnecessary roughness penalty on Green Bay).  Maybe the Cowboys want to read this article on throwing the ball downfield.
  • The Cowboys again refused to run counters.  They called one on the first drive.  It was unsuccessful, so they didn’t run another all game.  Nice.
  • I counted seven of Kitna’s passes as being off-target.
  • Jason Witten came out of the game late, but he was in for 25 of the Cowboys’ pass plays.  He went into a route on 15 of them (60 percent).  The ‘Boys yielded three of their sacks when he was in a route.
  • The Packers blitzed or showed blitz on 29 plays, even coming after Kitna up until and including the final drive.  It must have been like child’s play for Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers.  The Cowboys gained only 91 yards on Green Bay’s 20 blitzes, but 71 of those came on two plays.  That means that the Cowboys gained an incredible 20 total yards on the Packers’ 18 other blitzes.
  • One the nine plays that Green Bay showed blitz but didn’t come, the Cowboys gained 37 total yards, giving up one sack and throwing one pick.

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Should the Cowboys throw it deep more often? Analyzing how NFL trends affect team philosophy

Jonathan Bales

I’m a big believer in being super-aggressive in football games, and part of that is throwing the football down the field.  It’s very difficult to continuously drive the ball down the football field and then score a touchdown (as the Cowboys’ offense has exhibited over the last few years).  Quick scores are incredibly advantageous to offenses.

Over the years, defenses adjusted as to not allow big plays–you see it in Tampa 2 schemes and even Coach Phillips’ defense.  Make teams beat you again and again underneath.

If you’ve noticed, more and more teams have transitioned to spread offenses (like the Patriots, Saints, etc.) to combat Cover 2 schemes.  The high-percentage passes that are a staple of spread offenses work because of the defenses’ philosophy–don’t give up the big play.  Spread offenses are an answer to the Cover 2 scheme.

In recent years, however, I think we’ve started to see defenses adapt.  Less and less teams are playing Cover 2, instead emphasizing aggressive play and forcing turnovers.  The Saints are again the perfect example, as their scheme is one that will yield the occasional big play, but it creates big play opportunities for their defenders as well.

So, how does all of this relate to how often offenses should throw the ball downfield?  I raised the previous points to exemplify that game theory dictates that there is no inherently optimal strategy, simply one that is best at any particular time against your opponent’s specific strategy.  Thus, there is no “X” percentage of plays at which it is optimal to go deep, or run the ball, or anything else.

Think of it as a giant game of rock, paper, scissors.  When the majority of the league is throwing a rock, it’s pretty obvious that you can take advantage of that by throwing paper.  But as the league transitions, so must you.  When Cover 2 defenses were in vogue (which is still the case with many teams), the spread offense exposed weaknesses.  As more and more teams abandon that scheme, though, offenses must change.  The first team to recognize trends and adapt will win.  The NFL is really like a huge stock market.

This is one of the reasons I prefer a young, cutting-edge head coach for the Dallas Cowboys.  To win, the Cowboys need to spot and analyze trends, adapt their own personnel and schemes to succeed against those trends, and perfect the execution of their new scheme–and they have to be one of the first teams to do it.  Otherwise, there will be too many teams doing the same thing they do (which seems to be the case now), and it will be easy for the opposition to adjust.

The Cowboys’ 3-4 defense, for example, was initially successful because they were one of only a few teams in the NFL using it.  In that way, Bill Parcells was very cutting-edge.  He recognized a weakness in NFL offenses and exploited it.  As more than half the league has transitioned into a 3-4 defense, however, its effectiveness has worn off.  Offenses see 3-4 schemes all the time.  So, perhaps it is time for a shift in defensive philosophy?  A 4-3?  A 3-3-5?  An entirely innovative concept?  The possibilities are endless.

And yes, I realize I still haven’t answered the question about throwing the ball downfield, so here you go. . .YES.  Yes, I think the Cowboys should throw the ball down the field more often.  Right now, defenses (as a whole) are sort of in a state of limbo.  Some run Cover 2, some run aggressive man-coverage schemes, and so on.  I think the general trend, though, is shifting from the former to the latter, meaning there are increasingly more opportunities for big plays.

I checked out the deep ball percentage (15+ yards) of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks on Advanced NFL Stats.  Of the passers with a deep ball percentage higher than 23 percent, the average yards-per-attempt is 5.17.  Quarterbacks in this range include Vince Young (leading the league in deep throws), Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, and Philip Rivers.

Of quarterbacks in the 20-23 percent range, the average YPA is slightly lower–5.00.  Top passers in this range are Matt Cassel, Michael Vick, Matt Ryan, and Peyton Manning.

Of quarterbacks with less than one deep throw in every five passes, the YPA plummets to 4.31.  Guys in this area are Matt Schaub, Tony Romo, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees.

Of course, there are certainly limitations to this data.  First, I simply randomly chose the deep pass percentage parameters to create relatively even groups of passers (in terms of numbers).  With a fairly small sample size, the final YPA stats could be altered by a slight change in parameters (although random selection is as “fair” as for what one might hope).

Secondly, YPA isn’t the only stat that matters in deciphering a quarterback’s value.  Notice that a couple of the quarterbacks in the bottom tier–Tom Brady and Drew Brees–are two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.  Their YPA may be slightly lower than other quarterbacks, but they also have fewer negative plays.  Their completion rates are so high because of their accuracy and the nature of their offenses, meaning you might take a small hit in YPA in exchange for less incomplete passes (which create 2nd and 3rd downs which are difficult to manage).

Still, I do see an alteration in general offensive philosophy on the horizon.  As defenses become more aggressive, look for offenses to do the same, throwing the football downfield at a higher rate.  The future success of the Cowboys relies on their ability to recognize trends like these, determine the proper manner in which to proceed, and be the first to do it.  The NFL is in the midst of a paradigm shift, and only the most innovative, forward-thinking teams will survive.

Please Jerry, bring in a coaching staff that has the knowledge and intelligence to recognize and analyze relevant trends, the creativity to discover innovative ways in which to proceed, and the (pardon my language) “balls” to trust their own judgment and enforce change.


Cowboys vs. Packers Game Day Manifesto: DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas

Jonathan Bales

DON’T blitz Aaron Rodgers too often, but send exotic blitz looks when you do bring extra pressure.

Rodgers is one of the top quarterbacks in the league against the blitz.  His mobility is what makes him so dangerous–it’s such a difficult task to bring him down one-on-one, and if you bring extra defenders and miss, Rodgers will kill you with his arm.  I watched four of the Packers games so far this week, and Rodgers has made some of the best throws I’ve seen in my life.

Of course, Dallas can’t simply sit back in zone coverage on every single play.  If Rodgers always knows what is coming, he’ll pick the ‘Boys apart.  Instead, I think Dallas should fake a lot of blitzes and bring some pressure when they don’t show it pre-snap.  They’ve been incredibly obvious in their blitzes this season and confusing Rodgers will be imperative this week.

DO play a lot of Cover 2.

I think the Cowboys’ base defense this week should be Cover 2.  Cover 2 is safe, but it still allows for the cornerbacks to make plays by squatting on certain routes.  It will also limit the responsibilities of both Alan Ball and Gerald Sensabaugh.  Instead of letting Ball roam free in Cover 1 (in which he’s made very few plays), he’ll only have half of the field to worry about in Cover 2.

Another reason Cover 2 will work against the Packers is due to Donald Driver’s absence.  He frequently works the middle of the field–the major weakness of Cover 2 (particularly when you have inside linebackers like Keith Brooking in coverage).  Add that to Jermichael Finley’s injury, and you might expect the Packers to try to test the edges of the Cowboys’ defense a bit more to accommodate their own strengths.

A final reason to play Cover 2 is the Packers’ lack of a running game.  The Cowboys haven’t been able to stop anyone on the ground this season, but Green Bay’s passing attack is far more potent than their ground game.  I have doubts that the Packers can stick with the run all game, even if it is working.  Plus, at a certain point, the guys on defense just need to step up.

DO give Tashard Choice at least 20 snaps.

Choice finally got some playing time last week, but it was still just nine snaps.  Detractors point out that Choice isn’t great at anything.  But he is really good at a lot of things and can provide a nice change-of-pace from Felix Jones.  If Jones is going to continue to receive the bulk of the reps, they need to come from Marion Barber’s total, not Choice’s.

And let’s not forget Barber may not even be in Dallas next season.  Barring a trade, Choice will.  See if he is ready for a larger role in 2011.  And if you want me to save you the suspense. . .he is.

DO place Mike Jenkins on Greg Jennings for much of the game.

I originally contemplated doing just the opposite: Terence Newman (like it or not) has been the Cowboys’ best defensive back all season, so he should cover Green Bay’s top receiver, right?

Well, Driver is going to be out with an injury.  That means James Jones is going to start, and I actually don’t see a tremendous difference in talent between Jennings and Jones.

The primary reason the Cowboys might want Newman on Jones is smoke screens.  The Packers love to throw wide receiver screens, and there’s no way in the world the Cowboys can expect Jenkins to tackle the 6’1”, 218 pound Jones.  Jenkins would probably whiff on Martin Gramatica in the open-field, and Jones is 20 pounds heavier than Jennings.  Plus, at some point, Dallas must expect Jenkins to rebound from his poor start to the season.

DO throw the ball in the red zone, and stop running draws there.

You can see the Cowboys have found a lot more success through the air in the red zone than on the ground.  Of their five passes inside the five-yard line, four have gone for touchdowns.  They’re also averaging nearly six-yards-per-pass and have scored three touchdowns when passing between the opponent’s 10 and 20-yard line.  Those numbers aren’t extraordinary, but remember the upside of all plays is severely limited in the red zone.

Meanwhile, Dallas is averaging just over two yards-per-carry on red zone runs.  They’ve punched it into the end zone just twice on runs, both from the one-yard line.

Some of the Cowboys’ struggles in red zone running may be coming from the fact that they continue to run draws, even inside the five-yard line.  Part of the reason you run draws is to get the linebackers to drop into their coverage responsibilities.  But down by the goal line, everything is squashed together.  The linebackers are basically already in their drops.  Where are they really going to go?  Running draws in the red zone, particularly inside the five-yard line, forces the linemen to hold their blocks longer and makes it more difficult for the running back to gain momentum.

DO run a ton of double-tight sets to help the offensive tackles block Clay Matthews.

Martellus Bennett was frustrated with his lack of playing time last week.  According to my numbers, the Cowboys used two tight ends (or more) on just 19 plays against Jacksonville.

This week, they are going to need as many people as possible blocking Matthews.  He’s an absolute beast and a tremendous challenge for Bennett.  Bennett won’t have huge numbers this game, but this is the matchup during which he’ll earn more reps in the future.

DON’T try to throw too often out of obvious passing formations.

This is a good rule in general, but the Cowboys will have big-time problems providing protection with 3+ wide receivers on the field.  Clay Matthews singled up + Jon Kitna at quarterback= Trouble for Dallas.

Instead, I think the ‘Boys should pass from a bunch from double-tight formations and use three-receiver sets primarily for plays like screens, draws, and so on.

DO run more screens than normal.

The Packers employ a lot of innovative blitz packages, including their “Psycho” look which implements just one down-linemen and a bunch of linebackers flying around pre-snap.  The Cowboys already struggle with stunts, so this package could create a lot of problems for them.  The Packers normally utilize it on 3rd down, so expect that to be the time you see a lot of Cowboys screens.

DON’T run to the weak side as often.

I normally support a lot of weak side runs.  Early in the season, Jason Garrett was listening, dialing them up at nearly twice the rate as in 2009.  That number has since decreased quite a bit, but it’s still higher than last season.

This week, however, the Cowboys would be running right into the heart of the Packers’ defense if they went weak side.  Matthews is just as solid against the run as the pass, and 340-pound mammoth defensive end Ryan Pickett also provides a challenge for the Cowboys’ offensive line.  If you want to run weak side, get the defenders out of position with counters.

DO attempt a double-move on Charles Woodson.

Woodson is such an incredible playmaker, but he does gamble a lot.  He’ll jump routes to make plays, meaning the Cowboys can certainly beat him deep on a double-move.  The problem will be providing adequate protection.  Perhaps a single-man route from a run-oriented formation would allow the ‘Boys to protect Jon Kitna long enough for one of the receivers to take advantage of Woodson’s aggressiveness.

DO put Dez Bryant on the field more often–ahead of Roy Williams.

Williams started off hot this year and certainly appears to have regained his confidence, but Bryant is the future for the Cowboys.  He needs to start soon, but at the very least, he must get on the field in some base personnel looks.  Right now, he’s nothing more than the No. 3.  His talent is so glaringly obvious that any failure to get him on the field is completely unjustified.

DON’T keep letting the same players make the same mistakes.

Marc Colombo gets beat by Clay Matthews for a sack.  Alan Ball misses a tackle in the secondary.  Brandon Jackson beats Keith Brooking in the open-field and runs for a touchdown.  Marion Barber tackled for a loss.

These sort of mistake cannot continue, at least not from the same old faces.  Give the inexperienced players a chance to show the future is bright in Big D.  Yes, that might mean hurting some feelings, Wade.

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Dallas Cowboys’ 2010 Draw Play Analysis

Jonathan Bales

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

Now that the Cowboys have played seven games, we are starting to creep into “statistically significant” territory as far as a lot of trend analysis goes.  In other words, we can know the statistics we find (of many, but not all trends) are due to something inherent to the team and not simply random variance.

The Cowboys ran 121 draw plays last season and averaged 4.51 yards-per-carry.  This rate isn’t poor, but still far worse than their 5.52 yards-per-rush number on all non-draws.  In my Ultimate Guide to Dallas Cowboys Draws, I noted this decrease in efficiency was due to dialing up the draw too often.  I later predicted they’d run far less draws in 2010.

Another method by which I predicted the Cowboys could have more success with draw plays (aside from calling them less) was to run them out of “passing” formations and situations.  Last season, the team averaged nearly 1.5 times the yards-per-carry on draws from “spread” formations (3+ wide receivers) as opposed to “tight” formations (any formation with two tight ends and/or a fullback).

Further, the yards-per-carry for draws from spread formations was still significantly higher than those in tight formations even after I corrected for changes in down-and-distance.  For example, when I removed the draws that came during situations with 11+ yards-to-go, the Cowboys still averaged 1.24 yards more per carry on spread draws.

This season, the Cowboys have shockingly called only 28 draws all season–or four-per-game.  That rate is just over 50 percent of that from last season.  The Cowboys have gained only 109 total yards on the 28 draws–3.89 yards-per-carry.

Despite the lack of success on draw plays, I actually think offensive coordinator Jason Garrett is calling them in the right situations and with the proper personnel.   If you take a look at the chart below, you can see the Cowboys have called more than twice as many draws from spread formation as from tight formations.  Last season, the number of spread vs. tight draws was nearly identical (63 to 60).  The ‘Boys are averaging 5.05 yards-per-rush on draws from spread formations, but just 1.44 yards-per-carry on tight draws.  The Cowboys obviously have to improve that latter number, but Garrett has clearly made a conscious effort to run the ball more often from “passing” looks.

You’ll also see in the chart above that the Cowboys are running more draws on 3rd downs.  Last season, just about one draw in 10 was on 3rd down, while this season that rate is nearly doubled.  The Cowboys have converted on three of their five 3rd down draws in 2010.  If you haven’t already read, here is why the Cowboys should run more often on 3rd down.

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Analyzing Jason Garrett’s 2nd Down Play-Calling in 2010

Jonathan Bales

We are just five games into the 2010 season, but already offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has displayed much improvement in a number of areas.  The casual fan will look at the Cowboys’ mediocre 20.4 points-per-game (16th in the NFL) and conclude that Garrett is having a horrible season.  With all of the weapons Dallas possesses on offense, shouldn’t they be averaging, like, 28 points-per-game?

Yes, they should.  But a five game sample size is hardly enough to convince me that Garrett isn’t superior in his play-calling from a year ago.  I’ve told you all season that Garrett has been much, much less predictable with his play-calling.  He’s dialing up more weak side runs (see study on weak side runs here), more 3rd down runs (see study on 3rd down runs here), and less predictable play-calling based on personnel (see personnel-based play-calling stats here).

As I analyzed my database of Cowboys’ 2010 plays this morning, I realized perhaps Garrett’s largest improvement has come in the way of play-calling on 2nd down.  You may remember I conducted a study on Garrett’s 2009 play-calling trends on 2nd down awhile back, noting the Cowboys’ run/pass selection was highly correlated with their previous play-call (even after adjusting for specific situations).  This is from that article:

On 2nd and 3 to 7, for example, Garrett dialed up a run on only 23 of the 78 (29.5 percent) plays that followed a 1st down run. After 1st down passes, though, the Cowboys ran on 2nd down on 26 of 34 plays (76.5 percent). Thus, Dallas was 2.95 times more likely to run on 2nd and 3 to 7 after a 1st down pass than after a 1st down run.

On 3rd and 8 to 10, that trend, surprisingly, did not get much better. The team ran on only 10 of 50 plays (20.0 percent) in these scenarios following a 1st down run. After passes, Garrett called a run on 32 of 58 2nd down plays (55.2 percent), meaning the team was 2.76 times more likely to run on 2nd and 8 to 10 after a pass than a run.

On 2nd and 11 or more, the team was still 2.33 times more likely to run after a 1st down pass than after a run. Obviously Garrett did some things right in the past few years, but this sort of predictability is unacceptable.

I’ve posted a graph to the left detailing the information above.  Note that I am not criticizing the overall rate of runs/passes.  Garrett could pass 95 percent of the time, but if his current play-call is dependent on the previous one, there will be a problem.  Again, the issue is not with the overall run/pass ratio, but rather the fact that it gets skewed based on previous calls.

For a play-caller to maximize his effectiveness, we’d want the run/pass ratio to be equal in comparable situations following a particular call.  Note that I am not advocating a 50/50 balance.  I am simply stating that it is in an offensive coordinator’s best interest to retain his particular run/pass ratio in specific down-and-distances regardless of the previous call.  If he passes 90 percent of the time on 2nd and 3-7 following a 1st down pass, he should pass 90 percent of the time in the same situation following a run.  Don’t let previous calls affect current ones.

As far as the graph above, we’d want to see the red and blue lines be as close together as possible.  The specific run/pass ratio is irrelevant–what’s important is that the lines match up, wherever that may be.

As I analyzed the Cowboys’ 2nd down plays in 2010, it is very obvious Garrett has made a conscious effort to clean up the mess from last season.  Check out the graph below.

Note how much closer the lines are to converging as compared to 2009.  On 2nd and 3-7–plays on which Garrett “mixed it up” last year in an attempt to be random (only to, ironically, become very predictable)–his run/pass ratio is nearly identical, regardless of his call on 1st down.  That’s as much as any fan could ask from an offensive coordinator.

There are still some issues, which is to be expected (it is unreasonable to think an offensive coordinator, in the heat of a game, can perfectly equalize all ratios).  Although the run ratio on 2nd and 8-10 looks about equal, the Cowboys have actually been nearly 3.5 times as likely to run after a 1st down pass as compared to following a 1st down run.  In fairness to Garrett, the offense has only run nine plays on 2nd and 8-10 that followed a run (just one was another run).

There also appears to be a large gap between 2nd and 1-2 run ratios, but note that the Cowboys have had just six total plays in that down-and-distance.  Hardly a significant sample size.

Overall, Garrett’s improvements in his 2nd down play-calling are remarkable.  Looks like someone has been visiting DC Times. . .

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