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The DC Times

A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football

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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.

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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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Dallas Cowboys 2009 Offensive Player Efficiency Comparisons

Last week, a reader suggested we perform a value-based statistical analysis (similar to our 2009 Player Grades) which could be used to determine the worth of one player over another.  For example, how much better would the Cowboys be if Felix Jones played every snap at running back (disregarding fatigue)?  How costly would an injury to Jason Witten be?  Essentially, how much does each player contribute to a win?

This task is easier said than done (and since it isn’t even particularly easily said, it sure isn’t easy to do).  As the reader points out, one would have to “normalize” the conditions outside of the player to determine his true worth.  This is rather easy to do (relatively speaking) in a sport like baseball where the circumstances are basically always the same.

In football, though, no two plays are ever really identical.  Statistical comparisons among players on different teams are rather pointless, as the nature of each player’s system plays an incredible role in his statistical capabilities.

Nonetheless, there have been some attempts to “normalize” outside factors and assign an objective value to players.  In fact, we are in the process of making such an attempt right now.  Until then, we wanted to take a look at the values of Cowboys players gathered by some other leading football statistics gurus (and compare them to our own 2009 Player Rankings).

One such source (and perhaps the most well-known) is Football Outsiders.  The primary FO statistic with which we are concerned is DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average.  FO describes DVOA as “representing value, per play, over an average player at the same position in the same game situations.”

DVOA is an excellent statistic to use to compare with our own player rankings, as both represent efficiency, not overall value.  For example, Roy Williams had a greater overall value to the offense than Kevin Ogletree in 2009, but most would argue Ogletree was more efficient during his snaps.

Another source of efficiency-based value rankings is Advanced NFL Stats–a site we refer you to a lot.  Advanced NFL Stats implements a statistic called Expected Points Added.  We’ve spoken about ‘expected points’ in the past, and ANS talks about it here.

In short, EP (expected points) is the value of a certain situation in football.  EPA (expected points added) is the difference between one situation and another.  If the Cowboys have a 1st and 10 at their own 30-yard line, for example, the EP of that situation is +1.0 point, i.e. on average, they can expect one point from that drive.  If Miles Austin catches a pass for 50 yards, the Cowboys’ EP shoots up to +4.0 (the expected points of a 1st and 10 at the opponent’s 20-yard line).  Thus, the EPA for that play is +3.0.

We are concerned with EPA/play–the amount of expected points a player adds to his team’s point total per play.

A final source for efficiency-based values is Pro Football Focus.  PFF is different from FO and ANS in that they do not necessary use the outcomes of plays to formulate rankings.  Instead, they break down each play and assign values based on their interpretation of how well each player performed his job on that play.  You can read more about their methodology here.

It is important to note that all three sites use a value of “0” as a baseline for average play.  Players in the negative are worse than average, and players with positive values are better than average for DVOA, EPA, and PFF’s values.

Click to enlarge.

The chart above displays the rankings and values for the Cowboys offense from all three sites (Football Outsiders, Advanced NFL Stats, and Pro Football Focus), along with our own grades.  A few notes before we analyze the data:

  • NR=Not Rated (likely due to insufficient sample size)
  • The statistics circled in blue are a player’s highest rating; those in red are his lowest.
  • Comparisons among players at different positions are meaningless due to the nature of the data.

Observations

  • Only two players, Martellus Bennett and Flozell Adams, were unanimously voted as “below average.”

Shockingly, ANS rated Roy Williams as slightly above average.  We love Williams’ attitude right now, but we couldn’t disagree more about his 2009 play.

  • Tony Romo’s highest rating (from FO) put him at just 7th among all quarterbacks.  PFF had him all the way at 15th.

We had Romo rated as the 7th-best quarterback in the NFL in our 2010 Starting Quarterback Power Rankings.  We would have ranked his 2009 play, though, as top-five.

  • It’s unanimous: Felix Jones is one of the NFL’s most efficient running backs.  He was ranked 5th, 6th, and 9th, respectively.

Jones’ lowest grade would actually probably come from us.  He has a long way to go to prove he can hold up over an entire season, but as far as efficiency, he’s one of the league’s best.  We provided him a B+ in short-yardage running, an A in overall running, a B in receiving, and a B in pass protection.

  • Two out our three sources agree with us that Barber was about average last season.  FO ranked him as a top 15 back.  Meanwhile, Tashard Choice checked in with a higher efficiency rating than Jones from two of the sites.

We rated Barber as an average running back in 2009 (77.2 percent).  We were also very high on Choice, rating him just 2.5 percentage points behind Jones.  Choice would have ranked as one of the league’s top running backs on Football Outsiders and Advanced NFL Stats had he played more snaps.

  • Jason Witten was ranked all the way from the league’s top tight end to No. 11.

Witten was the No. 1 tight end in our NFL Tight End Rankings.  There’s simply no doubt about it.

  • Opinions on Deon Anderson varied from slightly below average to the league’s 6th-best fullback.

We tend to agree with the latter.  The Cowboys averaged nearly two yards more per rush with Anderson in the game (as compared to John Phillips) and .2 yards more per pass.  Click here to see our in-depth study on Anderson’s 2009 play.

  • Miles Austin has arrived.  He was rated from 5th to 9th.

We gave Austin the third-highest grade of any Cowboy due to his low 2.2 percent drop rate and incredible 10.4 yards-per-attempt.

  • Ratings of both Patrick Crayton and Roy Williams varied.

Two of the three sources had Crayton as a top 16 receiver (in terms of efficiency).  Williams wasn’t high on anyone’s list, but PFF had him ranked all the way down at No. 100.

  • PFF was the only site to rank individual linemen, but their ratings fell in line with ours.

We were a bit higher on Leonard Davis and Andre Gurode and slightly lower on Kyle Kosier (who they listed as the Cowboys’ top lineman last season).  We gave Davis and Gurode “A-” grades and Kosier a “B.”  All three linemen made our list of Dallas’ top 15 overall players last season.

Conclusion

There is obviously quite a bit of work left to be completed in the area of advanced football statistics, particularly objective efficiency rankings.  Still, the difficulty of the task is no reason to concede.  The more we learn which statistics contribute to a team’s success (and how much), the closer we will be to “normalizing” subjective factors in an attempt to acquire objective player ratings.

Up Next: 2009 Defensive Player Efficiency Comparisons

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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. . .

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Why Cowboys Should Throw Out of ‘Ace’ (And Other Double-Tight Formations)

By Jonathan Bales

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

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

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

11.46 yards/attempt

2.00 yards/rush

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

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

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

This latter scenario (running the ball on 3rd and medium to long) is one I’ve already examined.  The graph to the left (from AdvancedNFLStats.com) displays the conversion rates of teams on 3rd down in various situations.  The excerpt below is one I wrote in my article on why teams should attempt a lot more 4th down plays, but it explains the graph.

In 3rd and 1 situations, offenses obtain a 1st down on 70% of runs, compared to just 58% of passes. In fact, running the ball on 3rd down actually yields the most success (in terms of achieving 1st downs) up until 3rd and 5. Surprisingly, passing the ball never becomes significantly advantageous over running the ball in any situation up through 3rd and 10.

The reason behind this has to do with game theory. If defenses were to remain in their base personnel regardless of the down and distance, running the ball in medium-to-long yardage situations would be generally unsuccessful. Since defenses substitute their nickel or dime personnel and dial up a play designed to defend a pass, however, offensive coordinators could increase their 3rd and 4th down conversion rates by calling far more runs in those situations.

Another way to look at it is that the play-calling of other offensive coordinators around the league affects that of Garrett. The two are not independent of one another. Running the ball on 3rd and short-to-medium is the optimum strategy not because of anything inherent in the game of football, but because of the play-calling of other offensive coordinators. If other OCs suddenly started calling a bunch of 3rd and 4th down runs, defenses would adjust, perhaps making passing the ball in those scenarios the optimum strategy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cowboys Play-calling Following Big Gains: Time to Strike?

By Jonathan Bales

I’ve always believed one of the best times to strike on offense is immediately following a big play.  The defense is already reeling and the opposing defensive coordinator is more likely to call a blitz to “make up” for the prior play.  What better time to call a play-action pass, for example?

There is another school of thought on the matter, however, which emphasizes a safer approach.  This could allow a running back or wide receiver to catch his breath, assuming he is still in the game.  Running the ball is also a more effective way to allow an offense to utilize its strength against a tired defense.

Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett certainly falls in the latter group.  I took a look at the Cowboys “big plays” in 2009–those of 20+ yards.  On the following play, Garrett called a run 43 out of 63 opportunities (68.3 %). 

However, to my surprise, the Cowboys actually were far more successful on these runs than the 20 passes, averaging 5.77 yards-per-rush compared to just 4.70 yards-per-attempt.  It is also worth noting that Garrett dialed up a play-action pass on five of these pass attempts, although none went for big yardage.

In any event, kudos to Garrett for apparently making the right decision on plays following big gains.  While the sample size of 63 plays isn’t completely significant and I still believe there are opportunities to strike down-field in these situations, Garrett obviously made intelligent decisions on these first down plays–many of which led to another first down or a very manageable second and short.

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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.

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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.

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Fantasy Football: Learn How to Predict Running Backs’ Yards-Per-Carry

– Jonathan Bales

If you missed it (which is likely since we have yet to talk about it), we recently launched our 2010 Fantasy Football Package.  It is a collection of everything I use to dominate fantasy football leagues each year, including my personal projections, rankings, draft plans, players to target, and so on.  You can read more about the service by following the link above.

I understand it is a risk to take another person’s advice on a subject as serious (<— is that a joke?) as fantasy football, so I think it is important to detail the methodologies I implement to arrive at my final projections.

In my bio on this site, I wrote:

I have always been fascinated by the way mathematics and statistics, if used properly, can thoroughly explain seemingly complex phenomena.  Like the motion of the planets or the path of an ant, I truly believe football can be perfectly represented by numbers (the difficult part is determining which numbers are significant and why). . .I implemented the same sort of approach to playing (and winning) fantasy football.  Fantasy football is nothing more than risk analysis; like playing the stock market, a sound use of game theory can work wonders for your team.

This particular article is a sample of how I implement statistical analysis to determine future performance.

Running Backs’ Yards-Per-Carry

I recently visited New York City and passed a “psychic” in Times Square.  She told me she could tell me anything about the future that I wanted to know (for $99, of course).  I asked her if she could tell me how likely it is that Chris Johnson will repeat his stellar 2009 yards-per-carry (YPC).  She walked away, and I never got my answer.

Nonetheless, I think statistical analysis and film study will give me a far more accurate prediction of Chris Johnson’s YPC than any psychic.  Predicting the future isn’t about knowing conclusively what will happen, but rather deciphering the chances that a particular event will occur.  Not to get too philosophical (hey, it’s what I do), but if the universe runs not through deterministic events, but rather random happenings, then it is impossible to “know” the future.

Stats gathered from Pro-Football-Reference.com

That doesn’t mean accurate predictions cannot be made, however.  Weathermen often get a bad rap, but they are generally very good at what they do.  Weather systems don’t function in a deterministic manner, such as balls on a pool table, but through random occurrences.  Likewise, the 2010 YPC for each running back in the NFL is not somehow “determined” beforehand–but the probabilities of certain averages for particular players, I believe, are already written in stone.

So how are we to determine these probabilities?  While they may “just come” to the New York psychic, I, unfortunately, have to do a lot more work.  My methodology includes statistical analysis, so let’s take a look at some numbers.

First, we must note that the league-wide yards-per-carry average has skyrocketed in the past 13 years.  After remaining relatively steady from 1974 to 1996, the yards-per-carry average has increased .2 yards since–a 5.11% increase.  That number might not appear large, but it is rather staggering for a sample size of carries as large as the entirety of NFL running backs over an extended period of time.

Thus, there is a difference in YPC among eras, meaning if we are going to use the statistics from prior eras to broaden our sample size, we must account for this disparity.  After correcting the YPC of “the old-timers” to more appropriately relate to the league-wide averages during their eras, we see that there is a rather significant correlation between a player’s YPC in year N and his YPC in year N+1 (the next season).

To see this formula and continue reading, please visit page 2 of 2.

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Re-Analysis of 4th Down Attempts: The Impact of Momentum

Optimal 4th Down Decisions via mgoblog.com

A couple days ago, we published a study on the Cowboys’ 2009 4th down attempts, explaining why the offense, along with most others around the NFL, does no attempt nearly enough 4th down plays.  The Cowboys attempted just 11 plays on 4th down last season, converting on only four of them (36.4%).

Last night, I came across another study on 4th down attempts.  The conclusions of their original study were similar to those we discussed in our own article.

  1. Don’t punt on the opponent’s side of the field.
  2. Really consider going for it on 4th down after crossing your own 40.
  3. Field goals only make sense if there are more than 5 yards to go and you are between the 10 and 30 yard lines. If you’re in opponent territory and these two criteria aren’t true, you should be going for it.

However, they also raise (and rebut) a couple of objections to the “go for it” dictum.  They are listed below.

  • Failing on a 4th down attempt gives the opposing offense momentum they would have otherwise never received.

Offenses have no advantage if their drive is the result of a 4th down stop.

This was initially our biggest qualm with the notion of adhering to a (seemingly risky) 4th down chart.  The methodology seemed like it may work in principle but be less representative of reality when human emotions came into play.

However, the graph to the left shows that 4th down stops actually do not generate momentum for opposing offenses.  In fact, from 2007-2009, the total points obtained by drives following 4th down stops (2523) is less than the projected points for any drives starting at the same field position (2580).  Thus, “the big mo” appears to be more like “the big no,” at least as it relates to 4th down stops.

  • The model does not account for game-specific situations.

This is actually a valid objection.  MGoBlog.com points that out, writing:

The main flaw with the expected points model is that for most of the game all points are largely equal but at the end of the game, a field goal or even time can become crucially important.  If a field goal can tie a game, take the lead, or move said lead from one possession to two (or vice-versa), the decision-making process suggested above can shift radically.  This could mean punting near midfield to prevent a short field goal drive for the other team or taking a field goal instead going for it on fourth in field goal range.

However, the effect of situational 4th down calls is not as great as you may assume.  Until the 4th quarter, a coach’s decisions cannot be strongly correlated with the outcome of the game.

For example, when a team is down by four points with 30 seconds to go, the decision to go for it on 4th down is easy.  In the 3rd quarter, however, there are enough possessions left that there is less predictive power regarding the coach’s decision and the final score.  Thus, the 4th down chart is at least viable into the 4th quarter, and probably a bit beyond.

In any event, offenses around the league could benefit vastly from a more aggressive approach to 4th down play-calling.  Failures to convert appear to have little impact on game momentum, squashing our biggest fear of the real-life application of the model. Further, game-specific decisions are not nearly as common as people may believe.