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Why aren’t the Cowboys running more counters in 2010?

Jonathan Bales

In the preseason, I placed a point of emphasis on running more counters this season.  In many of my game plan articles, I suggested (over and over) that Dallas run more counters.

The reason was the success with which the Cowboys ran counters in 2009.  As you can see below, the ‘Boys averaged a ridiculous 7.9 yards-per-carry on their 36 counters last year.  Felix Jones alone tallied 220 yards on 22 counters.

While the rate of negative runs was a bit higher (as is to be expected with a slower-developing play), the percentage of 10, 20 and 40+ yard runs was all significantly higher on counters as compared to non-counter runs.

This season, the disparity between counters and non-counters is even greater.  The ‘Boys are averaging 8.71 yards-per-rush on their counter attempts in 2010.  That number is even more impressive when you consider the overall failures of the team’s running game this season.  While the Cowboys averaged 5.0 yards-per-carry on non-counters last season, that number has dropped to 3.2 in 2010.

What’s most incredible to me is the similarities in the counter stats from last year to this one.  Compare the chart above with the one below.  The counter average, negative play rate, and big play percentages are all remarkably similar from one year to the next.

Note: Only designed runs were included. Quarterback scrambles and fumbled snaps were disregarded.

Despite the continued success and overall consistency on counters, however, Jason Garrett is not calling them as frequently as he should.  While the team averaged 2.25 counters-per-game in ’09, that number has dropped to just 1.55 this season.

The struggles of the offensive line are certainly a factor in Garrett’s decision.  Counters are generally more “dangerous” than other run plays that take less time to develop and necessitate fewer moving parts.  With the inconsistencies the offensive line has displayed this year, Garrett might be scared to risk a negative run and put the offense in long-yardage situations.

With a negative run rate that is only three percent higher on counters, though, that potential fear appears unjustified.  Certainly the slightly higher risk of a negative run is offset by the gigantic increase in big play probability.  Take this stat for example:  of the Cowboys’ four 20+ yard runs this season, three have come on counters, despite only 7.4 percent of all runs being counters.  75 percent of big runs from 7.4 percent of run plays?  Something isn’t right there.

And with Doug Free replacing Flozell Adams at left tackle, the athleticism of the offensive line is even greater than in 2009–a trait that is suited for counter runs.  At least Garrett recognizes that the left side of the offensive line is the place to run, as 13 of the 17 counters in 2010 have been on the left side behind Free.  The ‘Boys are averaging 9.85 yards-per-rush on those 13 runs.

So Coach Garrett. . .please, please call more counters moving forward.  They will surely increase the offense’s rushing efficiency, which will make it easier to do the thing you love most–throw the football.

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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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Cowboys’ 2010 Play-Calling Based on Personnel



Jonathan Bales

The largest flaw in Jason Garrett’s play-calling, in my opinion, is his tendency to call a specific play (run or pass) based on the personnel on the field.  For example, take a look at the Cowboys’ 2009 pass rates with specific personnel.

Note that, no matter the personnel grouping, the Cowboys passed or ran the ball nearly three-fourths of the time out of all two-tight end, three-receiver, and four-receiver sets.  We’d of course expect certain personnel groupings and formations to be either run or pass-oriented, but Garrett could probably find more success by calling the “unexpected” a bit more often.  That idea is something I talked about a few months ago in my article on why the Cowboys should throw out of more double-tight end sets:

A few weeks back, I published a breakdown of every formation the Cowboys ran in 2009, including run/pass ratios, success rates, and big/negative play percentages.  Included in that article was a double-tight (two tight ends) formation called “Ace.”

The Cowboys ran 29 plays out of “Ace” last season:

24 passes (82.8 percent)/5 runs (17.2 percent)

11.46 yards/attempt

2.00 yards/rush

12 passes 10+ (50 percent), five passes 20+ (20.8 percent), two negative runs (40 percent)

“Ace” was the Cowboys second-most efficient passing formation, and they also had a ton of success passing out of other double-tight formations.  Not exactly the statistics you were expecting from “run-oriented” formations?  Me neither. . .which is exactly why passing out of it was so successful last season.

I hate to harp on it again (actually, secretly I love it), but run/pass selection is controlled in large part by game theory.  In a nutshell, game theory is thinking one step ahead of your opponent.  Why perform a surprise onside kick?  Why run on 3rd and 7?  Because your opponent will never be expecting it.

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

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

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

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

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

Play selection is dominated by game theory, meaning the actions of other offensive coordinators around the league really should affect those of Cowboys OC Jason Garrett.  It is for this reason that I would love to see the Cowboys do the “unexpected”–pass more out of tight formations (and run more out of spread ones) in 2010.  The theoretical value may be sub-optimal, but the actual value would be maximized.

So, what are the numbers telling us thus far in 2010?  While they are far from optimal, it seems clear Garrett is altering his play-calling to becomes less predictable.  Check out the chart below.

You can see that, outside of four-receiver sets, the Cowboys are at least slightly more balanced in each grouping.  Note that Dallas has implemented four receivers just nine times all season, so you can expect that percentage to change as well.

I’d still love to see the Cowboys run the ball more in three-receiver sets and pass more out of 2 TE, WR, 2 RB (one of those “2 RB” is usually a fullback, by the way).  Garrett is doing a fine job throwing out of two-tight end sets (55.3% of all plays with two tight ends on the field are passes), but the Cowboys are doing the throwing out of a specific type of two-tight end sets, i.e. with two receivers on the field.

With the receiving ability of fullback Chris Gronkowski, you can expect the Cowboys to throw the ball more with a fullback on the field in the coming weeks.  If Garrett finds a way to efficiently run the ball without a fullback on the field as well, the Cowboys will take huge strides in becoming a much more unpredictable, and potent, offensive football team.

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Dallas Cowboys at Redskins Week 1: Final Film Study Observations


Jonathan Bales

I’ve already posted my initial game reactions and post-film study Cowboys-Redskins game review.  Today, I will discuss my film study and stat findings in even greater depth.

  • The Redskins’ blitz package was the primary reason the Cowboys had trouble on offense.  As I mentioned in my post-game notes and post-film study review, I thought Jason Garrett’s play-calling was actually pretty good.  However, the Redskins confused the Cowboys’ offensive line with constant stunts and surprise blitzes.  They showed blitz on 27 of 69 plays (39.1 percent) and also blitzed 15 times when they didn’t even show it.  Thus, they blitzed or showed blitz on a ridiculous 60.9 percent of plays.
  • You might be saying, “But Tony Romo is solid against the blitz, isn’t he?”  Yes, but Washington’s blitzes were much more difficult to block than “normal” blitzes.  Nearly every blitz came from players other than who was showing it, creating problems for Dallas and Romo.  Overall, I was really impressed with what I saw on film out of Washington.  I can honestly say that was one of the more innovative single game blitz packages I have seen in awhile.
  • One of my favorite plays of the night was the play the Cowboys ran with Barber, Jones, and Choice all in the backfield (below).  They motioned Jones into the backfield pre-snap to form a Power I, then handed the ball off to Choice on the weak side with Barber lead blocking. Meanwhile, Jones was trailing Choice as a pitch man. Choice ended up hanging onto the ball for a six-yard gain, but the ‘Boys could come back to that play down the road.

Disregard the fact that this diagram looks like it was drawn by a six-year old.

  • I’ve heard a lot of media and fans claiming that Marion Barber would have run for a touchdown on the team’s 3rd and 1 toss play on which Coach Phillips called a timeout.  This is simply not true.  Disregarding the fact that Barber doesn’t exactly have game-breaking speed, it was obvious that he wouldn’t have even broken into the open.  Of course it is impossible to tell if Barber would have broken a tackle, but even if he did, he would have presumably slowed up enough for another defender to reach him.  All in all, it probably would have been, at most, a 10 or 12-yard run.
  • Andre Gurode played well most of the night, but he did yield a sack.  Redskins linebacker Rocky McIntosh acted like he was going to drop into coverage pre-snap, then came on a slightly delayed blitz.  Gurode was fooled and lost his leverage, eventually holding McIntosh–a penalty which Washington declined because he sacked Romo anyway.
  • It appears the Cowboys will shift more this season.  There were three pre-snap shifts on Sunday night after only 15 in all of 2009.
  • The Cowboys called one particular play a few times, including twice in a row near the end of the third quarter.  The personnel is two tight ends, a wide receiver, a tailback, and a fullback.  The Cowboys lined up in 3 Wide Strong (shown below), with Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett both lined up out wide on the same side of the formation.  Bennett then motioned into a traditional tight end spot, and the offense ran a power run to the strong side.

The point of the play was to show a passing look before shifting into a more run-oriented formation, hopefully confusing the defense on their responsibilities in the process.  It also allowed for more “big boys” at the point of attack.

The play can be successful, but the ‘Boys need to be careful not to overdo it.  Look for a playaction pass out of the same formation within the next few weeks.

Random (and perhaps useless) stats

Yards by Down

  • First Down: 33 plays for 187 yards (5.67 yards-per-play)
  • Second Down: 23 plays for 104 yards (4.52 yards-per-play)
  • Third Down: 13 plays for 54 yards (4.15 yards-per-play)
  • Fourth Down: 1 play for 31 yards

Red Zone Play-Calling

  • Inside five-yard line: One run for zero yards, one pass for four yards (TD)
  • Inside 20-yard line: Three runs for 20 yards, three incomplete passes

Personnel

  • Base (TE, 2 WR, RB, FB): Seven plays
  • 2 TE, 2 WR, RB: 17 plays
  • 2 TE, WR, RB, FB: 10 plays
  • TE, 3 WR, RB: 26 plays
  • TE, 4 WR: Nine plays
  • TE, WR, 3 RB: One play

Formations

As you can see below, Garrett did a really nice job of mixing up the formations.  The Cowboys lined up in an incredible 25 different formations on the night.

3 Wide Strong Right (1), 3 Wide Weak Left (1), Ace (4), Double Tight I (1), Double Tight Right Ace (1), Double Tight Left (or Right) Strong Left (or Right) (3), Double Tight Right Weak Left (1), Gun 3 Wide Pro (5), Gun Spread (1), Gun TE Quads Left (1), Gun TE Spread (4), Gun TE Trips (8), Gun TE Trips Empty (9), Gun Trips (4), Gun Trips Empty (1), I-Formation (3), Power I (1), Strong (8), TE Spread (5), TE Trips (1), Twins Left Strong Right (1), Twins Right (1), Unbalanced Ace (1), Weak (4), Wildcat (1)

  • The Cowboys motioned on 33 of 69 plays, gaining 160 yards on those plays (4.85 yards-per-play).  My 2009 study on Cowboys motions shows they weren’t particularly efficient then either.
  • As I detailed in my game recap, the Cowboys ran predominantly to the left on Sunday night (away from Alex Barron).  The chart below details the exact holes in which they called runs.

  • I predicted the Cowboys would run less draws this season, and they dialed up just three against Washington.  They went for a total of 14 yards.  The efficiency of draws will increase this season as they are called less often.
  • The Cowboys’ five playaction passes went for a total of 19 yards and a touchdown.
  • I counted eight of Romo’s passes as being off-target.  In my 2009 study of Romo’s throws, I noted he threw just over seven off-target passes per game.
  • The Cowboys were obviously concerned about their pass protection, because Jason Witten stayed in to block on 15 of the 47 passes (31.9 percent).  That’s up from last year’s rate.

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From the Archives: Double Tight Strong and Tipping Plays Via Formation

By Jonathan Bales

In my original study on the Cowboys’ Double Tight Right Strong Right formation (and other versions of it, shown to the right), I found that the Cowboys ran a strong side dive out of the formation 73.3 percent of the time through the first 14 weeks of the season.  As the season progressed, opposing defenses clearly noticed this trend on film, as the average yards-per-rush on the play decreased from 7.8 in the first five games to 5.0 yards per carry over the next eight games (including just 3.2 YPC against all non-Oakland-based squads).

Further, the Cowboys play-calling was even more predictable when they motioned into the formation, as they ran dive 34 out of 40 times (85 percent) when using motion.

I expected the Cowboys’ play-calling out of this formation to become less predictable as the season progressed, but unfortunately this was not the case. Over the final three weeks, the team lined up in the formation 26 times, running a strong side dive 17 of these plays.  The results were even worse than in Weeks 6-14, as the team averaged only 3.1 yards-per-carry. With those kind of numbers and the success Dallas had on other running plays, teams clearly were clued in on what the team was trying to do.

Over these final three weeks, the teams also motioned into the formation nine times, and ran the same strong side dive on all but one of these plays (88.9 percent, as compared to 85 percent in the first 14 weeks).

Further evidence Dallas was tipping their plays via the formation

If teams truly were noticing these tendencies on film and stacking against one particular play, we would expect the Cowboys to have success running plays other than the strong side dive out of the formation.  In fact, this is just what we see over the final three weeks. Though they averaged just 3.1 YPC on the strong side dive out of Double Tight Right Strong Right during this time, they averaged over twice that number, 6.7 yards per tote, when running weak side out of the formation.

It is quite clear that the Cowboys were, at least at times, too predictable in their play-calling.  If I was able to spot this trend on film, then you can bet the Cowboys’ opponents (other than the Raiders) noticed it as well. The numbers don’t lie.

Final Double Tight Right Strong Right (and variations) statistics

Weeks 1-5 (Dallas ran the formation just five times per game over the first four weeks, so defenses likely had yet to recognize it as a trend): 7.8 yards-per-carry

Weeks 6-17: 4.4 yards-per-carry, including just 3.2 YPC against all teams but Oakland

Weeks 1-17: Ran strong side dive out of the formation 83/116 times (71.6 percent), including an incredible 42/49 times (85.7 percent) when motioning into it

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Cowboys Film Study: 3rd Down Play-Calling

Note: This is a two-page entry.


Perhaps our favorite statistical analysis of 2010 was the study we conducted on the Cowboys’ 2nd down play-calling in 2009.  We discovered that offensive coordinator Jason Garrett was extremely predictable in his play-calling on 2nd down–so much so that he was 2.95 times more likely to run on 2nd down after a 1st down pass than after a 1st down run, even when the distance-to-go was identical.

In that particular analysis, it is important to note we are not criticizing the team’s run/pass ratio in general.  Garrett could dial up a pass on 2nd down 95 percent of the time and we would have no qualms–as long as that percentage remains stable in similar situations whether the previous play was a run or a pass.

Unfortunately, that stability is not apparent.  We concluded this was the result of Garrett attempting to “mix it up.”  Human beings naturally tend to think the next item in a random sequence will be different from the previous one.  This is not the case, however, meaning Garrett’s attempt to “mix it up” with his play-calling has (quite ironically) led to his predictability.

The strength of correlation between Garrett’s 1st and 2nd down play-calls led us to question the relationship between his 2nd and 3rd down play-calls.  Before delving into the results, it is important to note that these relationships (that between 1st and 2nd down play-calls and that between 2nd and 3rd down play-calls) are not identical.  Plays on 1st down are (almost) all run in the same situation–1st and 10.  2nd down play-calls, however, are more closely linked to the ‘distance-to-go’ due to the varying nature of this distance on 2nd down.

For example, 2nd and 1 plays are likely to be the result of a 1st down pass–a nine yard gain is more likely from a pass than a run.  On 3rd and 1, however, the previous play is more of a mystery.  The chances of the preceding play having been a run are probably just as likely as it having been a pass.

Nonetheless, we can still draw meaningful conclusions from our film study-derived results.  Those findings are below.

The first thing we notice is that the discrepancy between 3rd down passes after a run and those after a pass is nowhere near as great as those on 2nd down (shown below).  For example, while the rate of passes on 2nd and 3 to 7 was 2.95 times as high after a 1st down run as opposed to a 1st down pass, the largest discrepancy between 3rd down play-calling occurred on 3rd and 1 to 2, when the Cowboys were 1.75 times as likely to pass after a 2nd down pass as opposed to a run.

2nd down run rate is directly related to 2nd down pass rate, as the pass percentage is simply (100-run percentage).

Another interesting characteristic of Garrett’s 3rd down play-calling is that the relationship between passes after a 2nd down run and those after a 2nd down pass is positively correlated, i.e. as one increases, so does the other.  This occurs in each distance-to-go subset of 3rd down plays and is in direct opposition to the negative correlation displayed in the ‘2nd and 3 to 7’ subset of 2nd down play-calls.

A final intriguing note is that, while the type of play (run or pass) that Garrett dialed up on 2nd down was in opposition to his 1st down call, his 3rd down play-calls were more likely to be the same as those on 2nd down.  Put simply, the Cowboys were actually more likely to pass on 3rd down after a 2nd down pass than after a 2nd down run.

All of that is basically a complicated way of saying Garrett was much less predictable in his play-calling on 3rd down than on 2nd down.  Still, he wasn’t perfect.  Like we said, he was 1.75 times as likely to pass on 3rd and 1 to 2 after a 2nd down pass as opposed to a 2nd down run.  The situation is identical, so a perfect play-caller would have an identical pass rate regardless of the call on the previous play.  We by no means expect Garrett to be perfect, but we would certainly hope for a more closely linked relationship.

Click Page “2” to read the rest of this analysis.

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Dallas Cowboys Film Study: Empty Set Formations

An Empty Set formation, such as the one shown below, is any formation in which there is no one in the backfield. This does not mean there can be no running backs on the field, but simply that no player is lined up more than a yard or so behind the offensive line (other than possibly the quarterback in Shotgun).

Teams employ Empty Set formations in a variety of situations, but almost always in an effort to spread the defense.  The formation is a common one in goal line situations with the subsequent play being a quarterback draw.  Offenses also implement the formation in hurry-up and long-yardage situations, particularly if they are not expecting a blitz.

See Gallery below to enlarge.

As you can see in the chart to the left, the Cowboys ran an Empty Set formation just 27 times in 2009, or 2.7 percent of all meaningful plays (non-spikes, non-kneel downs, and so on).  They were slightly more likely to line up in the formation during goal line situations–‘goal-to-go’ scenarios made up 11.1 percent of Empty Set plays, compared to just 7.4 percent of all plays in general.

As you might expect, the Cowboys dialed up the formation on a large percentage of second and third down plays (77.8 percent of all Empty Set plays were on these downs, compared to just 54.2 percent of all plays in general).

Surprisingly, the ‘distance-to-go’ during plays in which Dallas employed an Empty Set formation did not vary greatly from all other plays.  On Empty Set plays, the Cowboys average distance remaining to achieve a first down was 9.96 yards, compared to 8.83 yards on all other plays. It is worth noting the team was 2.45 times as likely to implement an Empty Set formation in situations where the ‘distance-to-go’ was more than 10 yards.  Still, the overall ‘distance-to-go’ averages are close enough that we would expect to not find any inordinate differences between the success of Empty Set and non-Empty Set plays.

However, the Cowboys were rather unsuccessful in 2009 when they did not have a player in the backfield. The team averaged just 5.44 yards-per-play out of Empty Set.  This is over three full yards worse than the 8.83 yards-per-pass average the Cowboys maintained on all other plays in 2009 (all 27 plays called out of Empty Set were passes, so we should compare the average yards-per-play out of the formation to the team’s yards-per-pass average instead of the yards-per-play average).

See Gallery below to enlarge.

Surprisingly, the Cowboys were particularly woeful when they motioned a man out of the backfield (and thus created an Empty Set formation).  They averaged just 3.4 yards-per-play after motioning into Empty Set. While the sample size of 10 plays is rather small, these results do fit well with our findings from a previous study that the team performed rather poorly on motion plays in 2009 (we highly recommend checking out that article).

Conclusions

There are certainly limitations to this study.  Firstly, the sample size of 27 total Empty Set plays is far from ideal (although we would still expect the yards-per-play average to more closely match the overall yards-per-pass number).

Secondly,the situations in which the Cowboys employed the formation may be a factor contributing to the team’s poor success when using it.  The higher rate of goal line plays and the larger ‘distance-to-go’ average both limit the upside of plays out of Empty Set formations.

Overall, though, it does appear there is a (at least somewhat) statistically significant correlation between Empty Set plays and a low yards-per-play average. This is probably mostly due to the lack of options a team possesses when running a play out of the formation–no players in the backfield means only one possible run play (a quarterback draw).  Defenses generally succeed when they limit an offense’s options.  With Empty Set formations, the offense is doing that to itself.


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Double Tight Strong and Tipping Plays Via Formation

By Jonathan Bales

In my original study on the Cowboys’ Double Tight Right Strong Right formation (and other versions of it, shown to the right), I found that the Cowboys ran a strong side dive out of the formation 73.3 percent of the time through the first 14 weeks of the season.  As the season progressed, opposing defenses clearly noticed this trend on film, as the average yards-per-rush on the play decreased from 7.8 in the first five games to 5.0 yards per carry over the next eight games (including just 3.2 YPC against all non-Oakland-based squads).

Further, the Cowboys play-calling was even more predictable when they motioned into the formation, as they ran dive 34 out of 40 times (85 percent) when using motion.

I expected the Cowboys’ play-calling out of this formation to become less predictable as the season progressed, but unfortunately this was not the case. Over the final three weeks, the team lined up in the formation 26 times, running a strong side dive 17 of these plays.  The results were even worse than in Weeks 6-14, as the team averaged only 3.1 yards-per-carry. With those kind of numbers and the success Dallas had on other running plays, teams clearly were clued in on what the team was trying to do.

Over these final three weeks, the teams also motioned into the formation nine times, and ran the same strong side dive on all but one of these plays (88.9 percent, as compared to 85 percent in the first 14 weeks).

Further evidence Dallas was tipping their plays via the formation

Offensive Coordinator Jason Garrett is, at times, much too predictable in his play-calling.

If teams truly were noticing these tendencies on film and stacking against one particular play, we would expect the Cowboys to have success running plays other than the strong side dive out of the formation.  In fact, this is just what we see over the final three weeks. Though they averaged just 3.1 YPC on the strong side dive out of Double Tight Right Strong Right during this time, they averaged over twice that number, 6.7 yards per tote, when running weak side out of the formation.

It is quite clear that the Cowboys were, at least at times, too predictable in their play-calling.  If I was able to spot this trend on film, then you can bet the Cowboys’ opponents (other than the Raiders) noticed it as well. The numbers don’t lie.

Final Double Tight Right Strong Right (and variations) statistics

Weeks 1-5 (Dallas ran the formation just five times per game over the first four weeks, so defenses likely had yet to recognize it as a trend): 7.8 yards-per-carry

Weeks 6-17: 4.4 yards-per-carry, including just 3.2 YPC against all teams but Oakland

Weeks 1-17: Ran strong side dive out of the formation 83/116 times (71.6 percent), including an incredible 42/49 times (85.7 percent) when motioning into it