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.
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 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.
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.