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

Jonathan Bales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me neither.

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

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

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

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Cowboys 2010 Pass Rates from Specific Personnel Groupings

Jonathan Bales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2010 Weak Side Runs: Using Game Theory to Call Plays

Jonathan Bales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Will the Cowboys be more aggressive moving forward?

Jonathan Bales

I’ve written frequently (specifically in the “Comments” of posts) about how and why the Cowboys should be much more aggressive moving forward in 2010.  At 1-6, there’s really nothing to lose, and Dallas could use the remainder of the season to answer important questions about their squad.  For example. . .

Playing Phil Costa is the aggressive move.  Will he remain the starter once Kyle Kosier returns?

Inserting Akwasi Owusu-Ansah into the starting lineup is the aggressive move.  Will that happen once he overcomes his high ankle sprain?

Sitting veterans such as Marc Colombo, Marion Barber, and Keith Brooking (at least in certain situations) is the aggressive move.  But will it happen?

And going for it on 4th and 4 from your opponent’s 40-yard line is the aggressive move. . .and we know what Coach Phillips has recently elected to do in such situations.

I bring this up because this organization is going to have a major problem if the current coaching staff continues to coach to “save face” instead of doing what is best for the Dallas Cowboys in 2011.  It’s clear that Phillips has recently made in-game decisions in an effort to “soften the blow” so to speak.  Why?  I know many of you think Jerry Jones already has too much power, but he needs to step in right now and make sure the 2010 version of the Cowboys is actually focused on becoming a better team in 2011.

I’m not at all in support of a mid-season coaching change.  Unless JJ thinks the future Dallas Cowboys head coach is already in the organization (which I sure hope isn’t the case), firing your current head coach and defensive coordinator makes no sense. . .UNLESS.

Unless said head coach knows his job is already out the window and is making important decisions based on appearing “respectable” in 2010.

I’m a competitor.  I want the Cowboys to win all the time and anything less than a championship, in my view, is a failure.  So while I want the Cowboys to win every remaining game this year, the future cannot be sacrificed in an effort to do that.  It’s almost irrelevant to me if Dallas ends up 1-15 or 8-8 this year. . .both records will be a failure.  I want the Cowboys to be true winners–the best of the best–and they need to realize that opportunity has passed this season.

Thus, they need to do everything in their power to prepare for a championship run in 2011.  If it means sacrificing the present, then so be it.  But if the goals of the current staff result in punting the ball on 4th and 4 from the opponent’s 40-yard line (or 4th and 3 from the 39-yard line last week), then something needs to change, and it needs to change now.

For those who are frequent visitors to DC Times, you know I try to back up everything I write with statistical proof that is highly relevant to my views.  So here we go. . .

On 4th and 4 from the opponent’s 40-yard line, the decision to punt the ball is incredibly detrimental to the Cowboys.  Statistically, they should go for it on all 4th down plays in that range up until and including 4th and 10.

Evidence of this comes in Advanced NFL Stats Win Probability graphs (which I highly recommend).  They take thousands of results from very specific game situations in the past and determine a team’s chances of winning a game at any particular moment.  What is the probability of a team winning a game when having a 1st and 10 at their own 20-yard line, down four, with three minutes left to play?  I’ve been amazed at the accuracy with which these graphs can provide that sort of information.

If you look at the Win Probability graph for the Cowboys-Jaguars game, you’ll see the Cowboys’ chances of winning decreased from 14 percent to 13 percent after their 4th down punt.

But this alone isn’t evidence that Phillips made a poor decision.  The effectiveness of a choice isn’t determined by how much it increases or decreases a team’s chances of winning, but rather how much it does so in comparison to the alternative.  If the Cowboys went for it on 4th down and gained just the four yards needed for a 1st down, the chances of them winning the game would have actually been closer to 20 percent.  Meanwhile, if they went for it on 4th down and failed, their chances of winning would have decreased to around 12 percent.

I’ll save you the monotonous math, but for the decision to punt to be the correct one, we’d have to assume that the Cowboys had less than a 25 percent chance of converting on that 4th and 4.  That’s clearly not the case.  Actually, the Cowboys have been 7 of 17 (41.2 percent) on 3rd or 4th and 4 dating back to the start of last season.  Of course that sample size isn’t huge, but the pool of data suggesting punting on 4th and 4 from your opponent’s 40-yard line is a horrible decision is statistically significant–meaning Phillips’ decision to do so isn’t just the “conservative” play, it’s also the wrong one.

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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.


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From the Archives: Cowboys’ Motion Statistics

Jonathan Bales

NFL teams use motion for a variety of reasons: to uncover defensive coverages, to get defenders out of position, to exploit positive match-ups, and so on.  The frequency of motions also differs greatly among teams.   Some, like the Bengals, like to motion very frequently.  Others, such as Peyton Manning’s Colts, almost never motion.

I analyzed our film database to determine just how many plays the Cowboys motioned in 2010 and exactly how effective those plays turned out. The results, shown below, were a bit surprising.

As you can see, the Cowboys tend to run the ball at higher rate after motions than on plays where there is no pre-snap movement (46.4 percent runs after motion versus 36.2 percent non-motion).

However, this is not necessarily a knock on Jason Garrett, as the Cowboys frequently remain static pre-snap in situations where the defense knows they are going to pass.

For example, when the Cowboys lined up in “Gun TE Spread” (shown to the right), a formation that they threw out of 83.3 percent of all plays, the offense motioned only 12.5 percent of the time (as compared to a 42.8 percent motion rate on all plays).   Thus, while the run/pass ratio after motions is a bit skewed, it creates no real competitive advantage for the defense.

More significant than the rate at which Dallas runs or passes after motioning is the efficiency (or lack thereof) of the post-motion plays.  As you can see, the Cowboys gained significantly less yards-per-play on both runs and passes after motions (.7 yards less on passes and a full yard less on runs).

Why is this the case?  Are the Cowboys simply less effective on offense when they motion?

It is tough to say, but my initial thought was that the the drop in yards-per-play was caused by a possible tendency to motion on short-yardage plays.  Thus, the upside would be limited and the averages would suffer.

However, on short-yardage plays (which I defined as three yards-to-go or less), the Cowboys motioned just 44.8 percent of the time–barely more than the 42.5 percent overall rate.  Thus, while it is good that Garrett effectively spreads out motions among various downs and distances, the low yards-per-play on motions cannot be attributed to an abundance of short-yardage plays.

Another possible explanation is that, because the Cowboys rarely motion in their hurry-up offense, the yards-per-play might be greater on non-motion plays because defenses are more likely to play soft and give up yardage.

The Cowboys poor running average on motion plays is not due to an abundance of short-yardage situations.

However, this could only explain the difference in passing average between motion and non-motion plays, as teams rarely run the ball in hurry-up scenarios.

Further, the Cowboys actually only ran a true hurry-up offense only 80 times in 2009, or just 8.0 percent of all plays. Thus, it appears that the Cowboys success when not motioning is actually due to something meaningful rather than just down and distance or game situation.

This notion is strengthened by both the rate of big plays garnered and negative plays yielded in motion and non-motion situations.   As the chart shows, the Cowboys had their highest rate of big plays (10+ yards) out of static formations.

While this statistic could be affected by the aforementioned tendency of Dallas to not motion in hurry-up situations, the most surprising and meaningful statistic, in my opinion, is the rate of negative plays given up in each scenario.   The Cowboys actually gave up a sack after motions at nearly 2.4 times the rate they yielded a sack on non-motion plays. The sample size of both types of plays makes that number statistically significant.

Further, the rate of overall negative plays (sacks, negative runs, and negative passes) was nearly twice as high on plays where the Cowboys moved a player pre-snap.

But why is this the case?  Why do the Cowboys have a larger downside without an increased upside on plays that they motion, despite not running these plays in “low upside” situations?

The answer is not entirely clear.  Perhaps Tony Romo is just much better at reading defenses than anyone thought.  Maybe motions give him no advantage in reading coverage.  I don’t want to put him on the same level as a Peyton Manning just yet, but perhaps he is approaching a portion of his career where, like Manning, he can effectively read a defense without resorting to pre-snap motions.

The Cowboys may be better off motioning less so defenses cannot decipher their play calls.

Another possibility (and the most likely, in my opinion) is that the Cowboys’ motions are giving the defense an idea of where the play is going to be run.  After watching as much film as I do, there are times when I can predict with great precision what play the Cowboys are going to run.  How and where they motion is a big factor in my ability to do this.

This last explanation would explain the significant gap between motion and non-motion run average, as it is easier for a defense to decipher a particular run play from a motion than a pass. Dallas will frequently motion fullback Deon Anderson to the play-side just before the snap, for example.  Only rarely does Anderson motion to the side of the formation opposite the play-call.

Conclusions

The Cowboys are quite obviously less effective on plays which involve a pre-snap motion.  The reason for this does not seem to be due to particular game situations.

So where should the Cowboys go from here?   Should they scrap motioning completely and resort to an Indianapolis-esque offense?

Like my solution to many of Dallas’ woes, I believe the “Nash equilibrium” should be implemented.  Again, this is the point where the Cowboys’ total yards would be maximized.

Thus, Garrett should steadily decrease the motion rate until the defense compensates enough that the Cowboys’ yards-per-play reaches its peak.  My guess is that this is around 25.0 percent. At this point, it is likely the rate of big plays and negative plays will also be maximized and minimized, respectively, creating situations of generally optimal efficiency for the Cowboys’ offense.

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

By Jonathan Bales

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

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

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

If a formation has no tight end, the strong side is simply the side with the most skill position players.  Also, a multitude of formations have no strong or weak side, such as “Ace” (below).   These formations were not counted toward my results.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Are Cowboys’ Play-action Passes Too Predictable?

By Jonathan Bales

A few weeks ago, I published five wacky stats from our 2009 Cowboys Play Database.  The first stat in that post dealt with play-action passes:

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

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

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

The peculiarity of these numbers pushed me to research the Cowboys’ 2009 play-action passes a bit more in-depth.  Before I continue, I must note that I made a mistake in that last post (above).  The Cowboys did run 54 play-action passes with exactly 10 yards-to-go, but that number represents 59.3 percent of the total play-action passes, not 40.9 percent.

Nonetheless, the Cowboys ran so few play-action passes in short yardage situations that they actually ran one more play-action 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 play-action 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 play-action pass (the 15.6 percent play-action 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 play-action when there is a legitimate threat of run (as opposed to 20+ yards-to-go).

Not only did the offense run only four play-action 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 play-action passes came with less than 10 yards-to-go.

As I pointed out in a previous study on play-action 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 play-action passes are likely a major factor in their mediocre numbers.

Of course, two other statistics regarding play-action passes contributed to the offense’s lukewarm success when implementing them, both of which I addressed before.  The first has to do with a lack of downfield pass attempts:

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.

**Note that the 83 play-action passes mentioned above and in the previous article are non-sack plays.  There were eight sacks on play-action passing plays, adding up to the 91 total play-action passes.

One of the major reasons the Cowboys only attempted a pass downfield on 4.8 percent of all play-action passes was because of the high rate of screen passes:

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

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 playcaller.

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).

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

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

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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. . .