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Dallas Cowboys Playbook: Ultimate Guide to Draw Plays

Jonathan Bales

Part I: The Numbers

The Cowboys are thought of as one of the best draw-running teams in the NFL.   A lot of their success is due to the footwork of Tony Romo.   His quickness and athleticism allows him to effectively fake slant passes before handing the ball off to either Marion Barber, Felix Jones, or Tashard Choice.

As I progressed through the 2009 game film, I noticed that defenses began to become accustomed to this fake and (it seemed) were able to more efficiently defend the Cowboys’ draw plays.   I sorted through our database to uncover the offense’s draw statistics and what I discovered is below.

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

Before I tallied the final numbers, I wanted to eliminate any draw plays that could be considered “give up plays”–those draws on 3rd and long that the Cowboys ran simply to gain field position and punt.   There were actually only two times all season that Dallas ran a draw on 3rd and 7 or more and these two plays were discredited (even though I’ve shown that running is actually about as efficient as passing on 3rd and 5 to 10).

The Cowboys ran 121 other draws for 547 yards last season (4.51 yards-per-carry).   This average is well below the 5.52 yards-per-carry the Cowboys maintained on non-draw plays.

But why would the Cowboys’ average be so low on a play which they are thought to run better than just about any other team in the league?   One possible explanation is the frequency with which Dallas runs draws out of the formation “Double Tight Right Strong Right.”

Remember in my study on Double Tight Right Strong Right, I noticed the Cowboys ran a strong side dive out of the formation 71.6 percent of all plays and 85.7 percent of the time when motioning into it.   The success of the dive decreased as the season progressed.   Dallas averaged a stout 7.8 yards-per-carry over the first five games but, as defenses became accustomed to the formation, the Cowboys were only able to manage 4.4 yards-per-carry on these dive plays the rest of the season (including just 3.2 against all teams except Oakland).

Of the 116 dive plays they ran out of Double Tight Right Strong Right, 23 of them were in the form of a draw.   The Cowboys gained just 87 yards on these plays for a per-carry average of 3.78 yards.

While this isn’t particularly efficient, the sample size of 23 plays is not enough to significantly alter the overall results of the overall draw plays.  Even if we disregard these Double Tight Right Strong Right draw plays, the Cowboys still averaged only 4.69 yards-per-carry (460 yards on 98 runs) on the remaining draws.

Ultimately, it appears as though the Cowboys’ poor average on draw plays is due more so to dialing up the draw too often than to them simply not being an effective draw team.   There is no doubt that draws can be extremely useful, but perhaps offensive coordinator Jason Garrett could maximize their effectiveness by calling them just a bit less often in 2010.

In the case of the Cowboys’ draw plays, the old euphemism holds true: you really can have too much of a good thing.

Part II: Timing is Everything

The point of running draw plays is to fool the defense into thinking you are going to pass the ball.   The play itself is slow-hitting and even perhaps inherently sub-optimal, but it works because the linebackers and secondary see pass and begin to drop into their coverages.

This same idea–running plays based on the defense’s expectations–was the basis of my articles on why the Cowboys should run more out of passing situations and formations (and on the other side of the coin, pass more out of running situations and formations).   Calling a running play on 3rd and 5 might not be intrinsically optimal, for example, but it is statistically equal to passing in terms of efficiency due to the defense’s strategy.

After combining the two notions, I decided to sort the Cowboys’ 2009 draws based on formation.   If my theory is correct, we would expect Dallas to have more success running draws out of passing formations as opposed to running ones.

But what is a “passing formation”?   I defined it as any formation which implements 3+ wide receivers (3 Wide I, Gun Trips, etc).  All of the “running formations,” on the other hand, utilized a fullback (Double Tight I, Full House, etc.).  The chart to the right displays the results.

You can see the Cowboys were much more successful running the ball out of spread (passing) formations in 2009.   The ‘Boys averaged nearly 1.5 times the yards-per-carry when running draws from formations which are generally considered “passing” ones.

A quick side note: I also thought the Cowboys would be more successful running draws to the left side of the formation, as they are less common and more difficult for a defense to decipher.   Overall, Dallas averaged 4.96 yards-per-carry when running draws to the left, compared to just 4.31 yards-per-carry to the right.   The sample size of plays isn’t tremendous, but there may (or may not) be a relationship there.

As far as running draws out of spread vs. tight formations, there are a variety of reasons the Cowboys may have accrued superior statistics out of spread formations (outside of those formations actually being “better” from which to run draws).

The most logical explanation is that offenses generally line up in spread formations during situations which are more suitable for running the football.  The defense is more likely to allow a seven yard gain on a 3rd and 9 draw play as opposed to the same play on 3rd and 5, for example.

I computed the average down and distance for all draw plays from both spread and tight formations.  The average down on spread draws was 1.65 with an average of 9.27 yards-to-go.  For tight formation draw plays, the average down was 1.37 with an average of 7.82 yards-to-go.   Additionally, the Cowboys ran 13 draws with a distance-to-go of 11+ yards, all of which came out of spread formations.

Thus, it is obvious the Cowboys ran draws from spread formations in different situations from when they ran them out of tight formations, but it is difficult to say how influential this disparity was on the results.   It is my opinion, however, that the differential is not enough to account for the vast disparity in yards-per-carry for each formation type.

The primary reason for my opinion is that when we remove the draws which came during plays with 11+ yards to go (13 runs for 95 yards), the draw statistics out of spread formations (50 runs for 246 yards–4.92 yards-per-carry) are still far superior to those out of tight formations.  Even after accounting for “outliers,” the Cowboys averaged 1.24 yards more per carry on spread draws than tight draws.

Part III: Influence on 2010

The increased frequency and corresponding decreased efficiency on draw plays in 2009 should impact how the ‘Boys call them this season.

First, offensive coordinator Garrett must decrease the number of draws he runs until the Cowboys obtain optimal efficiency.  The 4.51 yards-per-carry the Cowboys averaged on draws in 2009, while not horrendous, was anything but optimal.  They ran 123 total draws last season, or 7.69 per game.  If the offense can decrease that number to about five or six per contest, they should see the yards-per-carry increase.

Secondly, the Cowboys might be well served to call not only more draws during “passing” situations, but more runs in general during these times.  Running draws out of untraditional formations (non-tight ones) may also be advantageous.  Dallas called far too many draws (and regular strong side dives) out of Double Tight Right Strong Right last season.  A 3rd and 5 draw play out of Gun Spread, for example, could be superior to a pass.

Of course, calling plays is all about strategic randomization and game theory.  Remember, true randomization isn’t simply “mixing it up”–a mistake Garrett has made before.  Instead, if the Cowboys can pass when the defense expects a run, and run (draws) when the defense anticipates a pass, they have the offensive firepower to be unstoppable in 2010.


Your Ultimate Playaction Pass Guide: Dallas Cowboys Style

By Jonathan Bales

**Note:  This is a combination of two previous studies I have conducted on the Cowboys’ 2009 playaction passes.

As a team whose offensive core is a power running attack, the Cowboys should and do incorporate the playaction pass into their offensive repertoire. Teams generally have success running when the defense anticipates pass, and vice versa, and the playaction pass is one of the most successful tools a team can utilize in exploiting a defense which incorrectly guesses the play-call.

One might think, then, that the Cowboys would try to take advantage of an over-aggressive defense by running effectively and then taking shots deep using playaction passes.  As I studied the 2009 game film, however, this did not seem to be the case.

The Cowboys had no more success on playaction passes than on straight dropbacks. As the graph to the left shows, Romo averaged 8.3 yards-per-pass on playaction passes throughout the season, compared to 8.1 yards-per-attempt on all other pass plays.

This difference is not statistically significant, particularly when we take into account two factors.   First, the Cowboys gave up eight sacks on the 91 playaction passes, or 8.7 percent of all playaction pass plays, compared to 26 sacks yielded on the other 467 pass attempts (5.6 percent).   Thus, the .2 yard difference in average between playaction and non-playaction passes is negated by the increased sack rate.

The reason for the increased sack rate seems apparent enough.  With his back turned to the defense, Tony Romo is less likely to be able to elude defenders who may sneak through the protection.  Further, offensive linemen frequently fire off the ball during playaction passes as to resemble their blocking on run plays, and this difference in pass protection technique could be a factor in the increased sack percentage.

The second reason one might assume the yards-per-pass difference is not significant is because the playaction average should be higher (and by more so than just .2 yards) since the Cowboys are more likely to use these plays in situations where a big play can be had.  Playaction passes are utilized to draw linebackers and safeties up toward the line of scrimmage, opening holes behind them in which to throw.

But did the Cowboys really utilize playaction to take shots down the field?   Not at all.  In fact, of the 83 playaction passes, only four, FOUR, were attempts of 20 yards or more That is 4.8 percent of all pass plays. In comparison, the Cowboys threw the ball downfield 20 yards or more on 46 of the other 467 attempts, or 9.9 percent of all passes.

It is quite apparent that Dallas did not take enough shots downfield on playaction passes, doing so at less than half the rate of regular dropbacks.  This surely had an impact on the sub-par yards-per-play playaction average.

The most shocking statistic of all, however, is the dramatic increase of screen passes used during plays when the Cowboys showed playaction.  According to my film study (stats shown below), 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).

Dallas threw an inordinate amount of screens and passes to the right when showing playaction.

While the increased rate of screen attempts during playaction passes may or may not contribute to the relatively low overall playaction pass average, it surely did nothing to reverse the perception of Jason Garrett as a predictable play-caller.

This ‘predictable’ label is perpetuated by the high percentage of playaction passes which were thrown to the same area of the field.  Of the 83 passes, 53, or 63.9 percent, were to the right side of the field (compared to just 37.0 percent on other passes).

While Jason Garrett is certainly not always completely responsible for where the ball gets thrown, Romo’s reads are premeditated.   This stat shows that Romo’s first read, as called by Garrett, is generally to the right side of the field on playaction passes.  The massive differential between throws to the left and throws to the right is large enough for it to be statistically significant.

Ultimately, whether or not Garrett’s playcalling is indeed predictable, the fact that Dallas did not utilize the playaction pass to garner big plays appears indisputable.

Other Thoughts and Wacky Stats

A few weeks ago, I published five wacky stats from my 2009 Cowboys Play Database.  The first stat in that post dealt with playaction 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).   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 (59.3 percent of all playaction passes came on this ‘distance-to-go’), making it the most frequent ‘distance-to-go’ for all playaction passes (relative to the number of overall plays from that distance).

The Cowboys ran so few playaction passes in short yardage situations that they actually ran one more playaction pass (five total) with 20+ yards-to-go than with 1, 2, 3 or 4 yards-to-go.  Like I mentioned above, the offense ran a playaction pass on just four of 132 plays (3.03 percent) with 1-4 yards-to-go.  The Cowboys were in situations with 20+ yards-to-go 100 less times–32 total–yet still ran one more playaction pass (the 15.6 percent playaction pass rate in this range is five times that in the 1-4 yard range).

I could be wrong, but defenses seem a bit more likely to jump up on playaction when there is a legitimate threat of run (as opposed to 20+ yards-to-go).

Not only did the offense run only four playaction passes with 1-4 yards to go, but 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.

As I pointed out in a previous study on playaction passes (which I highly recommend), the Cowboys were not particularly successful (or terrible) with their play-action passes last season.  They averaged just 0.2 more yards-per-attempt on them as compared to regular passes, but they also yielded more sacks. The situations in which the Cowboys ran playaction passes are likely a major factor in their mediocre numbers.

Ultimately, I would rate the Cowboys’ 2009 playaction attack as average.  One would expect a higher yards-per-attempt on playaction passes (due to the situations in which they are generally run), but the Cowboys averaged just 0.2 yards more per pass on playaction passes as compared to all other pass attempts.

However, the Cowboys threw the ball downfield (20 yards or more) just four times on playaction passes.  Meanwhile, they attempted screen passes following a playaction look at over three times the normal rate.  These factors surely contributed to the relatively low playaction pass average.

One final note

The Cowboys did have success with play-action passes out of one formation in particular: “Ace.”  I’ve spoken before about why the ‘Boys should throw more out of “Ace” and other “running” formations.

Of the 29 total plays out of “Ace” formation, 18 (62.1 percent) were playaction passes. This may be a bit high, but Dallas did average 10.3 yards-per-attempt on the plays.  Of course, everything seemed to work out of “Ace”–the Cowboys averaged 14.3 yards-per-attempt on non-playaction passes out of the formation.


From the Archives: Should Jason Witten Block Less? A Statistical View

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys at Broncos, October 4, 2009. There are just seconds left on the clock with Dallas at Denver’s two-yard line, down seven. The Cowboys have two plays left to score and are sure to try to get the ball to their top playmakers.  Right?

Right, if you think the Cowboys’ best option is Sam Hurd.  The Cowboys force two slants to Hurd on 3rd and 4th and Goal and lose the game.  Don’t get me wrong–Hurd is a great bench player and has improved vastly, but, with Roy Williams out of the game, the Cowboys needed to target their Pro Bowl tight end.  Surely he had to be open on just one of the two plays.

The yards-per-pass average was significantly higher with Witten in a route.

But Witten couldn’t be open, because he was left in to block on both the 3rd and 4th down plays.  These two plays in particular got me to thinking:  how effective are the Cowboys on pass plays when Jason Witten is out in a route versus when he stays in to block?  I tracked every play of the 2009 season, and the results are to the right.

Witten was in the lineup for 485 pass plays (this includes sacks and Romo scrambles). c Of these plays, he was out in a pass route 374 plays, or 77.1 percent 0f the time.  Intuitively, it seems as though Witten must be out in a route more than about three out of four pass plays, but this was not the case.

As you can see, the Cowboys were more successful by leaps and bounds when Witten went into a route.  They averaged a stout 9.3 yards-per-attempt during these situations, compared to just 7.4 yards-per-attempt on the 111 pass plays where Witten blocked.

But why is this the case?  Is it purely due to Witten’s supreme receiving skills, or could there be another reason?  If Witten was out in a route more often during pass-friendly situations, such as when an opposing defense is playing a prevent, for example, then these numbers might be a bit inflated.

This was not the case, however.  Often times the Cowboys would be in a formation called “Gun 3 Wide Pro” (pictured left) during these situations, where Witten lined up next to Romo in the Shotgun.   He would frequently stay in to block, and only sneak out into a route if the protection was sound. Thus, this does not seem to be a reason for the higher passing average when Witten was a receiving option.

Another possible reason for a decrease in average is that the Cowboys frequently would keep Witten in to block when trying to go for the big play.   Opposing defenses often key the tight end to decipher run or pass, and when linebackers and safeties see Witten staying in to block, they tend to sneak up toward the line of scrimmage. Dallas loves to run one and two-man routes during these times, attempting to sneak a receiver behind an over-aggressive defense.

So why would this cause a lower yards-per-pass average with Witten blocking?   Perhaps attempting a big play gives the Cowboys a shot at a quick score, yet ultimately lowers the average because of the low chance of hitting on such a play.

If this is the case, though, we would expect the percentage of big plays to be significantly higher when Witten remains in to block versus when he is in a route.  Again, I dove into the film, and here are the numbers:

The Cowboys had slightly more big plays when Witten was not in a route.

The percentage of 15+ yard plays in the two scenarios is virtually even, while the percentage of 30+ yard plays is slightly higher when Witten remains in to block. These are the sorts of number that might be expected, but not a significant enough difference to explain nearly a two-yard difference in yards-per-play average (9.3 vs. 7.4).

Yet another possible explanation for the difference is that, when Witten stays in to block, there is a good chance the Cowboys are expecting blitz.  Blitzes could force bad decisions and lower the average.  The problem with this idea, however, is that Romo is one of the most effective quarterbacks in league history against the blitz.

If opposing defenses blitz and the Cowboys have proper protection, which would most likely be the case when they leave a tight end in to block, Romo would generally pick them apart (meaning this cannot be a correct explanation for the decrease in average).

One last potential explanation of the greater success displayed with Jason Witten in a pass route is that these situations are just generally safer than when Witten remains in to block.  The Cowboys are more likely to not be blitzed during these times, and if they are, Romo has his favorite option available for a hot route.   The numbers, though, do not seem to support this theory either.

When Witten did not go in a route, the Cowboys gave up eight sacks on 111 plays (7.2 percent), but Romo threw zero interceptions.  When the Cowboys’ top tight end did not stay in to block, however, the Cowboys yielded 25 sacks  on 374 plays (6.7 percent) and Romo threw all nine of his interceptions.  This 0.5 percent difference in sacks is not statistically significant enough to conclude that there is any real difference, while the eye-popping difference in interceptions proves that putting Witten out in a route is not necessarily a safer option.

Once the yards-per-pass with Witten blocking vs. in a route reaches the Nash equilibrium, perhaps 85 or 90 percent, Dallas will maximize their overall yards-per-pass.

Thus, we must conclude that the 9.3 yards-per-attempt during pass plays in which Witten was in a route is actually due to his ability to get open and make plays.

So, how do all these numbers affect the Cowboys’ future play-calling? The greatest success rate would arise through a steady increase in the percentage of plays that Witten is in a route that only stops once the “Nash equilibrium” is reached. While I won’t bore you by going into great detail about this term, know that it is basically when the average yards-per-play for both scenarios (Witten staying in and going out) is maximized.  At this point, the Cowboys will attain the greatest overall yards-per-pass average.

Thus, the best solution for next season’s playcalling would be for Jason Garrett to increase the “Witten-in-route” percentage until the Nash equilibrium is reached, reminding Romo to continue to limit turnovers, particularly when Witten is not in to help secure protection.


Should the Cowboys Run More on 3rd Down?

By Jonathan Bales

I’ve spent some time talking about Jason Garrett’s 3rd down play-calls in the past, but only as they relate to the previous play.  I found that, unlike during his 2nd down play-calling, Garrett is actually rather unpredictable on 3rd down (that’s a good thing, of course).

In a recent post on why the Cowboys should pass out of “running” formations (and also in one on why teams should attempt a lot more 4th down plays), I spoke briefly about run/pass efficiency on 3rd down.  In short, NFL offenses fair much better when running the ball on 3rd and short (particularly 3rd and 1-3, but up until 3rd and 5).  Incredibly, running the ball is just as effective as passing up through 3rd and 10.  You can click the link above to read more about why this is so and view a graph displaying the conversion rates.

Nonetheless, I wanted to compare the Cowboys’ 2009 results with the league-wide numbers.  How effective was the offense when they ran the ball in “obvious” passing situations?  Note that these results (left) may be (very slightly) off from the numbers of Stats, Inc. or other unofficial stats companies because I did not use the televised ‘down and distance.’  For example, the televised version of a game may have mislabeled a play as ‘3rd and 1’ when it was really closer to ‘3rd and 2,’ and I have corrected for these mistakes to the best of my ability.

Notice the Cowboys’ yards-per-carry steadily rose (other than on 3rd and 6) as the yards-to-go increased.  This is obviously due to personnel and the game situation.  A defense which has substituted dime personnel on a 3rd and 10 is much more likely to yield a significant gain on the ground.  Of course, the yards-per-carry means nothing if the Cowboys are not achieving first downs.

The chart to the right displays the conversion rate of all Cowboys’ 3rd down plays (of 10 or less yards-to-go) in 2009.  As you can see, the Cowboys were more efficient on 3rd and 1 or 2 when running the ball.  They converted 17/21 (81.0%) plays in these situations, compared to only 7/11 (63.6%) when passing.

As the distance-to-go increased, however, the conversion rate on runs dropped.  The Cowboys converted zero 3rd downs when running the ball with 8+ yards to go (although they attempted just four).

Interestingly, the conversion rate of 3rd down passes remained relatively stable, regardless of the distance-to-go.  You can see a very slight drop in the Cowboys’ 3rd down passing efficiency, but for the most part, the conversion rate was flat.  This is probably due more so to the team’s success in 3rd and long situations rather than an inability to convert on 3rd and short (when passing).

I give offensive coordinator Jason Garrett a lot of flack, but his 3rd down play-calling is generally outstanding.  I’d still love to see him run more on 3rd and medium (the ‘Boys ran just seven times on 3rd and 3-6 all season, compared to 42 passes).  Of course one would expect more passes in this range, but a slight increase in “surprise” runs would be in-tune with league-wide 3rd down conversion rates and could perhaps significantly aid the offense.

And this really has nothing to do with anything I just wrote, but Tashard Choice was at a waterpark today with his family. . .


X’s and O’s With Dallas Cowboys Coaches

As a site whose material is primarily based around film study and statistical analysis, we love when coaches get into the “X’s and O’s” of football.  Yesterday afternoon, coaches Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett did just that, spending about an hour with the media going over just three basic plays from that morning’s practice.  Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas explains:

The Cowboys, who requested that we keep the specifics of the session private, pride themselves on having simple systems. But it’s still pretty complex stuff. For example, typical offensive play call still consists of three parts that are between two and four words apiece: the formation, the blocking scheme and the routes/run. And many play-calls have a run/pass option, so double that.

We mention this because a few days ago, we emailed a few members of the Cowboys organization with some statistics we thought would be of use to them.  We received a prompt response from none other than Wes Phillips–the quality control coach and Wade’s son.  He wrote:

Thanks for the info, but I can assure you that we look at all of these stats and more on a weekly basis as well as a complete offseason study of every run/pass/protection from every formation/D&D/situation. We get much more in depth than you may realize and our goal is to not only be a top 5 offense but be the #1 offense in the NFL. Take care and go Cowboys.

This short response prompted us to write this post explaining why we do what we do.  We spend hundreds of hours breaking down film and completing statistical analyses not because we think the Cowboys are short-changing themselves, but rather because we want to obtain objective, non-biased information regarding the team.

We know that the Cowboys called a pass on 63 of 64 plays out of “Gun Trips” last season and that Tony Romo checked to a draw on 34 of 44 run audibles, for example, because we put in the time to break down the film.  While we do think some components of the Cowboys’ film study/stat department could be altered, that is not why we do this.  We do it because the Dallas Cowboys are our passion and we love uncovering innovative statistics which (perhaps) reveal something of interest to you.

Now, we have no idea what relationship our emails played in the media film study invite (probably none at all).  Nonetheless, we wanted to clear up any notions that we think the Cowboys “aren’t trying” when it comes to studying film and analyzing tendencies.  Nearly everyone within the organization spends countless hours reviewing film and attempting to improve.

Of course, maximum effort is useless if it is directed the wrong way.  Are the Cowboys spending their time studying the right statistics and trends?  We aren’t exactly sure, but there are certainly areas for improvement, particularly in the area of play randomization.

While there are certainly some things within the Cowboys’ play-calling and general philosophy which we would change, however, that is undoubtedly the case for every NFL team.  Just know the complexity of the Cowboys offense, defense, and special teams is far greater than most casual fans realize.


Dallas Cowboys 16 Best/Worst Running and Passing Formations in 2009

We recently detailed the Cowboys success running and passing out of every formation they ran in 2009.  Today, we will briefly explain why the Cowboys prospered in some formations, yet failed in others.  You can see diagrams of every formation listed below by clicking here.

Note:  To be listed, a formation had to have a sample size of at least 10 runs/passes.

Best Running Formations

1.  I Left/Right (18 runs for 124 yards–6.89 YPC)

The Cowboys had a ton of success out of the standard I-formation (including passing the ball as well).  This could be because the position of the fullback (directly behind center) makes running weakside quite easy.

2.  Wildcat (16 runs for 108 yards–6.75 YPC)

We absolutely love the Wildcat (or Razorback, as the Cowboys call it).  The formation is particularly useful in goal line and other short-yardage situations because its largest weakness, the lack of big-play potential due to the absence of a legitimate pass-thrower, is limited.

3.  Double Tight I (31 runs for 208 yards–6.71 YPC)

The only difference between “Double Tight I” and a standard I-formation is personnel–an extra tight end is substituted for a wide receiver.  This version of Double Tight was much more successful than the Double Tight Strong variety (again likely due to the ease with which the team can run weak side).

4.  Gun Tight End Spread (27 runs for 166 yards–6.15 YPC)

We detailed the effectiveness of Gun TE Spread a few days ago.  The Cowboys do a tremendous job of running out of this “passing” formation–something they don’t do out of Gun Trips.

Worst Running Formations

1.  Weak Left/Right (11 runs for 29 yards–2.64YPC)

We admit 11 carries is not a huge sample size, so we must take this particular statistic with a grain of salt.  In theory, “Weak” should be a useful running formation for Dallas as there is no true “strong side”–and thus the offense can easily run in any direction.

2.  Tight End Trips Left/Right (15 runs for 46 yards–3.07 YPC)

This formation is similar to Gun Tight End Spread, with the exception of an extra wide receiver lined up on the strong side.

3.  Double Tight Left/Right Ace (22 runs for 72 yards–3.27 YPC)

The primary reason for the lack of success running out of this formation, we believe, is the absence of fullback Deon Anderson.  If Anderson is off the field, it might be a good idea for the Cowboys to run out of formations which spread the field to a greater degree than Double Tight.

4.  Strong Left/Right (49 runs for 196 yards–4.00 YPC)

The Cowboys simply had little success running out of any Strong formation, whether it employed two tight ends or not.  We think the reason for this is due to the unbalanced nature of the formation.  With the fullback lined up all the way behind the tackle on the same side as the tight end, it is extremely difficult to run weak side.

To see the best and worst Cowboys passing formations, click page 2 below.


Cowboys Playbook: Gun Trips Left/Right

Play fantasy football? Check out our 2010 Fantasy Football Package.

In our 2009 Dallas Cowboys Formation Breakdown, we listed the statistics for every formation the Cowboys ran last season.  Included in that collection was a formation called “Gun Trips Left/Right” (shown below).

The formation stuck out like a sore thumb, as 63 of the 64 total plays run from it were passes. 63 of 64.  63.  Of.  64.  That is a 98.4 percent clip.

Further, the one run from “Gun Trips Right” came on 3rd and 18–a “give-up play.”

Now, we have seen offensive coordinator Jason Garrett be predictable in his play-calling before.  One such example was play-calling from “Double Tight Right Strong Right”–a formation from which the Cowboys ran the same play (a strong side dive) 71.6 percent of the time, including 85.7 percent of the time when motioning into the formation.

Still, no other formation contains the incredible imbalance between run and pass like “Gun Trips Left/Right.”

Of course, this 63:1 ratio could mean nothing if the Cowboys only lined up in the formation during obvious passing downs. In situations such as 3rd and long when the defense knows you are going to pass anyway, the particular formation can do little to tip them off.

We looked into our database to see exactly when the Cowboys were lining up in the formation, i.e. if they did so on any potential running downs.  For the sake of argument, we will label a play as occurring on a “potential running down” if it came on 1st and 10 or less, 2nd and 10 or less, or 3rd and 5 or less with more than two minutes left in a half.

Of the 64 plays out of “Gun Trips Left/Right,” an incredible 38 of them met these requirements (including 14 on 1st and 10 and 10 on 2nd and 7 or less).  Thus, 58.5 percent of the plays the Cowboys ran out of the formation came during a situation in which the team could have easily run the ball.

You think opposing defensive coordinators didn’t catch on to this trend by season’s end?  While we are almost positive this was the case, we try not to make grandiose statements without backing them up, so here you go. . .

The Cowboys managed a pedestrian 7.48 yards-per-attempt out of the formation. To determine if defenses truly recognized the Cowboys’ rather unimaginative play-calling out of the formation, however, we must examine the seasonal progression of the yards-per-attempt, as opposed to an overall mean.

According to our statistics, the offense’s success out of “Gun Trips Left/Right” dropped dramatically as the season progressed.  As you can see in the graph to the right, Dallas averaged an impressive 14.00 yards-per-attempt out of the formation during the first quarter of the season.  That number dropped considerably in games 4-8, settling all the way down at just 4.95 yards-per-attempt during the final quarter of the season.

Of course, there could be (and probably are) other factors at play, but such a tremendous decline in production is quite likely with a 63:1 pass/run ratio.