The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

Predictability Remains in Jason Garrett’s Play-Calling

Jonathan Bales

Over the years, I have detailed much of the predictability within Jason Garrett’s play-calling.  Everyone here knows about the frequency of strong side dives from “Double Tight Strong,” the lack of efficient playaction passes, the predictable 2nd down play-calling, and so on.  I often discuss how the goal of any offensive coordinator is to fool the defense and ultimately exploit a mismatch, and predictability can really kill one’s ability to do that.

One thing I do not discuss as often, however, is how predictability can be useful to an offense.  When used properly, an offensive coordinator can take advantage of previous tendencies to garner big plays for his team.  Well, I took a look at this idea in a recent article for Advanced NFL Stats. Head over there to take a gander, and feel free to comment there or here.

As it relates to Dallas, Garrett does not seem to take advantage of his tendencies.  He has dialed up a deep pass on less than 5% of passes from “Double Tight Strong” over the past 39 games, and only eight (EIGHT!) playaction passes since the start of the 2009 season have come with 1-4 yards to go for a 1st down–a time when defenses are likely anticipating a run.  Actually, more playaction passes (11) have come with 20+ yards to go.  Garrett is surely leaving a lot of potential yards out there due to an inability to capitalize on specific scenarios which create favorable defensive expectations.

“Double Tight Strong” and other run-oriented formations are specifically good options from which to pass.  A playaction look from the formation on 2nd and 1, for example, forces the defense to line up with base or “heavier” personnel, perhaps call a play to stop the run, think the run is coming due to the playaction look, and then potentially get beat deep. . .except Garrett isn’t calling playaction passes from the formation.

The goal of NFL coaches is to maximize the chance of success for their team, and until Garrett abandons the concept that his players are so well-coached and talented that they can execute any play at any time, the Cowboys will continue to lose football games they should be winning.

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By Jonathan Bales

Jason Witten’s 2010 Red Zone Performance

Jonathan Bales

A couple days ago I posted a study detailing one of the reasons the Cowboys were successful in their 2010 red zone performance.  I argued that Jason Garrett’s first down play-calling more appropriately fit with advanced red zone statistics, namely that teams should run the ball more on first down only when inside their opponent’s 10-yard line.  The analysis was the result of a look back at a 2009 article in which I stated three ways by which the Cowboys could improve their red zone performance in the upcoming season.

In addition to first down play-calling, I also argued that the team needed to find Jason Witten more often while in the red zone.  Witten’s two touchdowns in 2009 were surpassed by a remarkable 21 tight ends that year.  Even though touchdowns can be a fluky stat, there is no reason a player with the talent and size of Witten should ever have just a pair of touchdowns in a season.

At first glance of Witten’s 2010 statistics, you might conclude the ‘Boys did a better job of finding him in the red zone.  Witten caught a career-high nine touchdowns, eight of which came in the red zone (the other one was 22 yards).  On closer inspection, however, we see that Garrett targeted Witten only a bit more in the red zone in 2010 than in 2009, and not more at all as compared to the rest of the field.

Although Witten was out in a route on 77.5% of 2010 red zone plays (up from 69.4% in 2009), that rate is barely higher than the 76.2% of overall passing plays in 2010.  The ‘Boys were slightly more effective in the red zone when Witten was in a route, averaging almost a yard more per play and scoring on 27.2% of dropbacks.

Despite the success, Witten was actually targeted just 14 times in the red zone all season. That equates to just 19.7% of all red zone dropbacks–lower than the 20.9% overall rate at which Witten was targeted.  Witten’s low red zone target numbers means a ridiculous 57.1% of his red zone targets resulted in touchdowns. Incredible efficiency, but not nearly enough looks.  Expect that to change in 2011.

By Jonathan Bales

Assessing Cowboys’ 2010 Red Zone Play-Calling

Jonathan Bales

Before the 2010 season, I wrote an article detailing three ways by which the Cowboys could improve their poor 2009 red zone performance.  In addition to targeting Jason Witten and simply getting to the red zone more often, I argued that then-offensive coordinator Jason Garrett should call more first down runs inside the opponent’s 10-yard line and more first down passes between the 10 and 20-yard lines.   The reason for this was evidence from Advanced NFL Stats that the expected points of first down passes far outweighs that of first down runs on all areas of the field except inside the opponent’s 10-yard line.

While football minds have labeled the area inside the 20-yard line as the ‘red zone,’ the “real” red zone–the one in which play-calling must change–is actually inside the 10-yard line.  Until that point, an offense’s strategy shouldn’t really alter.  The graph to the left exemplifies the expected points of running and passing on first down.  Notice that running only becomes a superior first down strategy around the opponent’s 10-yard line.

In 2009, Garrett called a first down run on 21 of 32 plays inside the opponent’s 10-yard line (65.6 percent).  That number wasn’t horrible, and the Cowboys found the end zone on eight of those runs.  Garrett did a nice job of running even more inside the 10-yard line in 2010, doing so on 20 of 27 first downs (74.1 percent).  While the yards-per-carry in this area wasn’t tremendous (upside is limited), the Cowboys gained just one total yard on their seven pass attempts in the same vicinity.

I specifically wanted to see Garrett call more pass attempts outside of the 10-yard line in 2010, and he did.  In 2009, the ‘Boys threw on just 12 of 29 first downs between the opponent’s 10 and 20-yard lines (41.4 percent).  I called for Garrett to increase that rate to around 65 percent.  He ended up calling a first down pass in this range on 17 of 26 first down plays–good for 65.4 percent.  You’re welcome, coach.  You can see in the graph to the right the efficiency on pass plays skyrocketed outside of the opponent’s 10-yard line (on the 13, 14 and 15-yard lines alone, the ‘Boys threw five passes for 50 yards and two touchdowns).  Of course this leap is to be expected with more room with which to work, but even in terms of a relative scale, the Cowboys (and all NFL teams) are more efficient on first down passes than first down runs when outside of the opponent’s 10-yard line.

Note that the black line refers to the run/pass ratio and the red and blue lines indicate the yards-per-play.  Kudos to Jason Garrett on following the statistics and altering his play-calling.  It’s really no wonder that Dallas saw a gigantic leap in red zone efficiency in 2010.

By Jonathan Bales

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.

By Jonathan Bales

Jason Garrett Tipping Plays Via Formation: ‘Double Tight Strong’ Usage in 2010

Jonathan Bales

Note that my results also include "Double Tight I," which is the same as above with the fullback lined up directly behind the quarterback.

In my study on the Cowboys’ 2009 usage of ‘Double Tight Strong’ (left), I noted that the Cowboys ran a strong side dive 71.6 percent of the time they lined up in the formation (83 of 116 plays), including 85.7 percent of the time when they motioned into it (42 of 29 plays).

Defensive coordinators clearly caught on to this trend, as the Cowboys’ yards-per-rush on the strong side dives decreased from 7.8 over the first five weeks of the season to just 4.4 over the rest of the year (including only 3.2 against all teams but the Raiders).  Thus, the opposition was fully aware of this trend of Garrett’s coming into the 2010 season.  The Cowboys’ efficiency on “Double Tight Strong/I” plays is representative of that.

The Cowboys lined up in the formation 81 times in 2010 (35 fewer than 2009, at least), running the ball 82.7 percent of the time.   Of those runs, 52 (77.6 percent) were strong side dives.  The overall strong side dive rate (including passes) was 64.2 percent–down from 71.6 in 2009–but still way, way too high.  Once again, when Dallas motioned into the formation, the rate of strong side dives increased (to 72.7 percent of all plays).

Unlike 2009, however, the Cowboys did not find success on these strong side dives at any point during the season.  The ‘Boys averaged just 2.15 yards-per-carry on the 52 strong side dives in 2010.  On all other runs (almost all to the weak side), the Cowboys averaged 4.87 yards-per-rush.  In 2009, Dallas also found far more success when running weak side out of “Double Tight Strong”–averaging 6.7 yards-per-rush–indicating that defenders truly have been keying in on the strong side dive.

Of course, Garrett loves to use this formation in short-yardage situations, so could this be the culprit for the lack of yardage?  Not really, as the average yards-to-go on “Double Tight Strong” plays was 5.94–lower than the overall rate, but not by an incredibly large margin.  Actually, 37 of the plays from the formation came with exactly 10 yards-to-go.  That’s 45.7 percent.  An additional 15 of the plays came with 5+ yards-to-go, meaning 64.2 percent of the plays came in situations that were clearly not short-yardage.

And it wasn’t as if the Cowboys were thriving on the short-yardage plays either.  Of the 29 plays from “Double Tight Strong” with four or less yards-to-go (and nearly all of them were with exactly one yard-to-go), the Cowboys converted a first down or touchdown just 13 times.  That’s only a 44.8 percent conversion rate on very short-yardage plays. Kind of sick.

One might argue that some predictability can be good if utilized correctly.  The 64.2 percent strong side dive rate might be less detrimental to an offense, for example, if they use playaction passes to take some shots downfield on the other plays.  Thus, an offense could “concede” a strong side dive or two (or 52, apparently) to set up big plays in the passing game.

That sounds great in theory, but Garrett didn’t call many “high-upside” plays out of the formation at all.  Actually, the average distance of the Cowboys’ passes from “Double Tight Strong” was just nine yards.

Ultimately, this formation will continue to haunt Dallas until 1) the strong side dive rate decreases dramatically or 2) Garrett utilizes the predictability from the formation to set up big pass plays.  Garrett has improved in a number of areas as a play-caller over the past few years, but focusing on improving “Double Tight Strong” calls (or scrapping it from the playbook altogether) should be high on his list of priorities.

By Jonathan Bales

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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By Jonathan Bales

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.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs. Colts Week 13: What We Learned About Dallas

Jonathan Bales

DO stay in a nickel defense (or even dime) at all times.

Result: Pass, kind of

The Cowboys came out with their nickel defensive line (a forty front), using DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer as defensive ends and Jay Ratliff and Igor Olshansky/Jason Hatcher/Stephen Bowen/Josh Brent as defensive tackles.  The plan seemed to confuse Indy a bit early, as they likely anticipated the Cowboys’ usual three-man front.

Sean Lee also got a lot more playing time than usual, which clearly paid off.  If I said there’s zero chance Keith Brooking would have made the interceptions Lee did, it would be too much.

DON’T respect the running game or playaction fakes.

Result: Pass

The Colts showed the Cowboys a playaction fake quite a few times, but there was really no reason for the linebackers to respect the run.  Indy ran the ball 17 times for only 40 yards.  I specifically watched the Dallas linebackers’ pass drops late in the game, and for the most part, they remained steady even while Peyton Manning was faking handoffs.

DO focus attention on Reggie Wayne.

Result: Pass

Alan Ball’s early interception was a clue that Dallas was rolling coverage to Wayne’s side of the field.  The Cowboys were in Cover 1 on the play, meaning Ball didn’t have a specific responsibility–he was free to read Manning’s eyes and roam the field.  While Ball made a hell of a play, I doubt he would have made it without shading Wayne’s side before the snap.

Ball was placed over top of Wayne for much of the game, and Dallas seemed content to let him catch balls underneath (specifically on quick screens and ‘in’ routes), but made sure to limit his big-play potential.

DON’T blitz too often early, but do disguise your intentions.

Result: Pass

Like I said, the Cowboys gave the Colts a look they weren’t expecting with their frequent four-man defensive line.  When they did implement only three down-linemen, one of the outside linebackers moved to a middle linebacker spot and either rushed from there or dropped into coverage.

Manning and the Colts eventually figured out how to move the ball on Dallas, but the early confusion Dallas instilled in Indy was enough for the ‘Boys to come out with the win.

Still, I want to see more unique looks out of the Cowboys defense.  Did you see the Steelers and their “Amoeba” defense on Sunday night?  Why can’t the Cowboys be innovators instead of followers?

DO hit Peyton Manning whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Result: Fail

Dallas got almost zero pressure on Manning for much of the contest.  He rarely went to the ground and generally had plenty of time to throw.  The lack of pressure speaks to the incredible play from the linebackers and secondary.  If you told me the Cowboys would intercept Manning four times (and twice return it for a touchdown) without getting in his face, I would have told you that you were nuts.

DON’T place Keith Brooking on Colts tight end Jacob Tamme.

Result: Mostly Fail

Although Sean Lee got a ton of playing time and Gerald Sensabaugh covered Tamme from time to time, Brooking also covered the tight end quite frequently.  Although strong early, Brooking eventually displayed poor hips and zero ability to break down in space.  It’s time to start Lee.

DO twist the defensive ends to create some sort of pressure.

Result: Fail, sort of

I didn’t see any twists from Dallas, but they did something similar in their three-man fronts.  As I said before, one of the outside linebackers lined up in the middle of the defense and would sort of roam around over the center and guards.  Since the offensive line couldn’t be sure from where the backer would rush (or if he would at all), the alignment sort of had the effect of a twist or stunt in that it forced the offensive linemen to respect the potential rush of more than one defender.

DO realize the Colts love to run behind tight end Brody Eldridge, not Tamme.

Result: Pass

I can’t be sure of this, of course, but the Colts’ 2.35 yards-per-rush showed that Dallas was able to sufficiently stop the running game, allowing the linebackers and safeties to focus solely on defending the pass.

DO run a lot of double-tight sets to aid Doug Free and Marc Colombo (specifically the latter) against Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.

Result: Pass

The Cowboys ran a lot of double-tight sets (25) and packages with two tight ends (50).  However, nine of the double-tight plays were runs from “Double Tight Left/Right I.”

Garrett made up for that by using both Witten and Bennett to chip the defensive ends out of a variety of formations, including the new “Gun 5 Wide Tight.”

DO take some shots deep.

Result: Fail

As I mentioned in my film study observations:

Of Kitna’s 26 pass attempts, only nine traveled 10+ yards, and four went 20 yards or more.  Of the former, Kitna completed only three for 34 total yards.  The Colts played much more of their usual Cover 2 scheme than I expected, particularly early, so Kitna simply took what the defense was giving him.

DON’T punt on 4th down in Indianapolis territory unless it is 4th and 10+.

Result:  Fail

The Cowboys made mistakes by punting on 4th and 1 at midfield and  kicking a field goal on 4th and 1 at the Colts’ 12-yard line.  They also decided to kick a field goal on 4th and goal inside the Colts’ two-yard line before the end of regulation, but were bailed out by an Indianapolis penalty.

DO duplicate the Chargers’ game plan from last week.

Result: Pass

In my pre-game article, I wrote:

Last week, you saw a lot of different looks from the Chargers defense.  They did the unthinkable:  confuse Peyton Manning.  A staple of their game plan was the zone blitz–something I think Dallas needs to utilize a lot more.  Zone blitzes this week could trick Manning into thinking more defenders are rushing than is actually the case, forcing him to mistakenly “throw hot” into the waiting arms of a Cowboy.

On offense, San Diego ran the ball a lot more than usual.  It’s no secret that Indy loves to draft “undersized” defensive players who can defend the pass.  This leaves them susceptible to getting overpowered in the run game.  If Dallas can run the ball effectively early (and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to), it will set up big play opportunities later in the contest.

The ‘Boys didn’t zone blitz much (which needs to change), but they did throw some different looks at Manning.  They also ran the ball much more often than usual, and it clearly paid off.

DO be physical early and often–this team doesn’t respond well to getting punched in the mouth.

Result: Pass

The Cowboys blew the Colts off of the ball early, running the rock on 15 of the first 20 plays.  They gained 86 yards on those plays (5.73 yards-per-carry).

DON’T run a strong side dive from “Double Tight Strong,” unless it is in short-yardage situations.

Result: Fail

Nine strong side dives from the 10 times they lined up in the formation?  Only three of those in short-yardage situations?  Five strong side dives from “Double Tight Left/Right I” on 1st and 10?  A 2.44 yards-per-attempt average on the nine runs?  Gigantic fail.

DON’T use Shotgun much unless in hurry-up mode.

Result: Pass

Dallas lined up in Shotgun on only 19 plays (25.7 percent of all snaps).  Plus, the ‘Boys were lined up in “Gun 5 Wide Tight” on 11 of those plays, meaning the tight ends were still in position to chip the Colts’ defensive ends even in most of the Shotgun snaps.

DO give Tashard Choice all short-yardage and 3rd down snaps, at least.

Result: Pass

Choice received all but one 3rd down snap and all but one short-yardage snap (three yards-to-go or less), and they were the same play.  Altogether, Choice was on the field for 29 snaps, and he certainly capitalized on his first significant activity of the season.

Overall Results

I’ll give the Cowboys 10 passes and 6 fails.  They did a really nice job of fighting back, displaying the heart they didn’t always show during the Phillips era.  That’s particularly impressive considering the team knows they’re out of the playoff hunt.  There is always something for which to play, however, and as long as these players remember that and continue to fight, they’ll be fine moving forward into 2011.

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By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys vs. Indianapolis Colts Week 13 Film Study Observations

Jonathan Bales

This week’s film was a joy to review because (aside from the obvious) the Cowboys threw some new looks at the Colts, both offensively and defensively.  Here are some of the most interesting of my observations. . .

  • The Cowboys employed a new formation I will call “Gun 5 Wide Tight.”  It was similar to the normal 3×2 alignment of a five-wide look, but both Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett lined up next to the offensive tackles (in a receiver’s stance).  Before heading out into their routes, both tight ends chipped the Colts’ defensive ends.
  • I drew a diagram of a particular route combination Dallas ran a few times from the formation.  This was the play the Cowboys ran for a 22-yard gain to Roy Williams (the slant route) on 2nd and 19.  As I said, Witten and Bennett both chipped before heading out into the flat.  Dez Bryant ran a backside comeback, while Miles Austin ran an out route from the slot.

  • In my initial post-game notes, I claimed Jason Garrett should have provided more help to Doug Free in blocking Doug Freeney.  After observing the tape, Free actually got a lot more aid than I thought.  The Cowboys ran their new “Gun 5 Wide Tight” formation 11 times–nearly 15 percent of all offensive snaps.  They gained 131 yards on those 11 plays (11.9 yards-per-play), and only one play didn’t gain yardage (the lone incompletion).
  • Garrett also used a new “Tight Spread” formation (below) to help Doug Free and Marc Colombo.  The Cowboys gained 26 total yards on the four plays they ran from the look (6.5 yards-per-play).  Overall, I think Garrett would be wise to implement more new formations into the offense as he has done intermittently thus far in 2010.

  • From my count, the Cowboys wasted 26 seconds on their final drive before halftime.  First, they let 10 seconds run off the clock before using their second timeout.  Later, they decided to spike the ball (inside of 10 seconds) instead of using their final timeout.  It resulted in an illegal shift penalty (which then forced the Cowboys to use that last timeout).  It took 16 seconds to get the offense lined up and (illegally) spike the football.
  • The Cowboys ran 74 offensive plays, tying a season-high.
  • Dallas ran a remarkable 35 plays in Indianapolis territory (46.7 percent of all snaps).
  • Unfortunately, the Cowboys ran the strong side dive from “Double Tight Strong” (read the study here) way, way too often (and one time is already too much).  This week, they ran the majority of the dives from the “I” variation of the formation (which simply places the fullback directly behind the quarterback).
  • Most concerning is that Garrett called the play in a lot of non-short-yardage situations, including five times on 1st and 10 and once on 2nd and 9.  Overall, the Cowboys lined up in “Double Tight Left/Right I” 10 times, running a strong side dive on nine of those plays.  They gained 22 total yards on those runs (2.44 yards-per-attempt), which is simply unacceptable.  Since only three of those runs were in short-yardage situations, there’s no excuse for that kind of predictability.  The six strong side dives in “regular” game situations resulted in only 17 yards–2.83 yards-per-rush.
  • The Cowboys motioned much less than usual–only 18 times.  17 of those plays were runs, and Dallas gained just 38 total yards on those runs.  The one pass went for six yards.  They may have limited their motions, particularly on passes, because they figured they could accurately assess Indy’s intentions without the aid of pre-snap movement.  That seemed to be the case to me, at least.
  • Jon Kitna checked out of four plays–all runs that went for 52 total yards.  I’ve been extremely impressed with Kitna’s ability to recognize defenses and put the offense in high percentage scenarios.
  • Many times this season the Cowboys’ “offensive balance” has resulted from late runs after a lead was already secured.  That wasn’t the case on Sunday, as 15 of the team’s first 20 offensive plays, and 14 of the 18 plays on the final regulation drive, were runs.
  • Six of those runs were draws, and they went for 39 total yards.
  • Kitna was four-for-five on playaction passes for 41 total yards.  He also threw three screen passes for 18 yards.
  • Of Kitna’s 26 pass attempts, only nine traveled 10+ yards, and four went 20 yards or more.  Of the former, Kitna completed only three for 34 total yards.  The Colts played much more of their usual Cover 2 scheme than I expected, particularly early, so Kitna simply took what the defense was giving him.
  • Even with the majority of his throws being short, I’d still characterize Kitna’s day as efficient.  According to my count, he threw only four off-target passes all day–and he barely missed on those.
  • Of the 29 times Dallas dropped backed to pass, Witten was in a route on 23 of them (79.3 percent).  That rate is higher than normal, which means Garrett didn’t regularly double-team either Freeney or Robert Mathis.  Instead, Witten and Bennett generally chipped the defensive ends and headed out into their routes.
  • The Colts didn’t blitz until the Cowboys’ 38th offensive play, but they ended up bring extra pressure eight more times throughout the game.  Dallas gained only 29 total yards on the Colts’ nine total blitzes.  I’m not sure why teams haven’t begun to place more pressure on Kitna.

I am going to take some time to break down the Cowboys’ defense a bit more this week, and I will report back to you tomorrow with my notes and answers to my pre-game DOs and DON’Ts list.

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By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs. Indianapolis Colts Week 13 Initial Post-Game Observations

Jonathan Bales

What a nerve-racking and heart-pounding game for Dallas this week in Indianpolis.  The ‘Boys were able to overcome a multitude of mistakes to take down Peyton Manning and the Colts, due in large part to their four interceptions of the All-World quarterback.  I will break down the game film tomorrow, but take a look at my initial thoughts below. . .

  • Sean Lee was a beast today.  He picked off Manning twice and made a lot of other plays, specifically in the passing game.  He can thank Mike Jenkins for his second pick, but the first was a tremendous play by the rookie in what appeared to be Cover 2.  It’s clear to me that Lee now deserves the opportunity to start over Keith Brooking.

  • Brooking was awful once again today.  There are times when he can stick with guys in coverage, but the consistency just isn’t there.  Too often he’s getting turned around and beaten in space.
  • Dez Bryant has a fractured ankle, and his season is over.  It’s a big blow to this offense, but at least it didn’t happen in a season during which the team held playoff hopes.
  • Tashard Choice’s early score was sick.  The burst he showed is incomparable to that of Marion Barber, and comparing the two is disrespectful to Choice.  I truly believe Barber would have been tackled for a loss on that play because, unlike Choice, he dances in the backfield way, way too much.  By the way, the move Choice made at the five-yard line to juke two defenders was nasty.
  • You may have noticed the Cowboys used a four-man line for the majority of the game.  It was their nickel defensive line–DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer/Victor Butler at defensive ends, and a combination of the regular defensive ends and nose tackles at defensive tackle.  Jay Ratliff was on the field for most of the game, but Igor Olshansky, Josh Brent, Jason Hatcher, and Stephen Bowen all rotated at the other defensive tackle spot.
  • When the ‘Boys weren’t in a forty-front (four-man line), they didn’t line up in their traditional defense.  Instead of placing two outside linebackers on the edges of the defensive line, the Cowboys used one of the outside linebackers in a more traditional middle linebacker spot.  That player (usually Butler or Spencer) would either rush up the middle or drop into coverage.
  • That look gave Indy some trouble early, but I think Manning and the Colts got used to it by the end of the game.  Dallas got very little pass rush late in the contest, and I thought they should have switched up their scheme.  It was a nice job to give Manning a look he wasn’t expecting, but you have to constantly adjust, because you know he will be doing the same.
  • Manning took the Colts into a true no-huddle hurry-up offense for almost the entire game (as opposed to their usual “muddle huddle”) in an effort to keep Dallas from switching personnel.  I think Manning liked the idea of Brooking on the field against any of the Colts’ skill position players.
  • On Manning’s first interception, the Cowboys were in Cover 1.  That’s man coverage with a free safety deep.  It was obvious that Alan Ball was instructed to shade Reggie Wayne’s side heavily, and he did a fair job of doing that.  On that pick, Manning forced the ball to Wayne and Ball did a nice job of reading the quarterback and making a play.
  • On the Cowboys’ second drive, Jon Kitna checked into a draw play on 3rd and 5 in Colts territory.  The Cowboys converted and I loved the decision by the veteran quarterback.
  • On that same drive, Jason Garrett bypassed a 4th and 1 attempt at the Colts’ 12-yard line for a field goal.  Later in the game, the Cowboys punted on 4th and less than a yard at midfield.  They should have gone for it on both occasions, and the statistics bear that out.  Factor in their record, and the decision to be more aggressive becomes a no-brainer to me.
  • I think Orlando Scandrick’s pick-six was the result of film study.  The Colts love to run combination routes with the inside receiver running an ‘out’ or ‘corner’ route.  Scandrick sat on the route and then used his athleticism and instincts to secure the interception and take it for six.
  • I have major issues with Garrett’s play-calling and clock management at the end of the half and game.  The Cowboys showed very little urgency before haltime this week and wasted precious seconds before using their timeouts.  The coach should know whether he will call a timeout or not before a play, not after it while the clock is running.
  • I know David Buehler made the game-winning field goal in overtime, but am I the only person that wasn’t comfortable with a 37-yard attempt?  Once Dallas was in field goal range, they ran the predictable strong side dive from “Double Tight Strong,” telling me they were content with the field goal try.  A lot of teams get ultra-conservative in these situations, but why?  You can be safe and still try to get the ball into the end zone.  When you combine Buehler’s inconsistency with the limited upside of the plays Garrett was calling, I thought settling for a field goal try in overtime was a lower percentage play than being slightly more aggressive and trying to score a touchdown.
  • Speaking of “Double Tight Strong,” the Cowboys ran a strong side dive from the formation at least six times in the 4th quarter and overtime.  Most of them came down by the goal line on their final regulation touchdown drive.  Had the offense not been bailed out by the penalty called on Indy during their field goal try, the predictability of the plays would have cost the ‘Boys the game.
  • I don’t know why teams don’t use a quarterback sneak more when they have less than a yard-to-go for a first down or touchdown.  Dallas had a 2nd and Goal from the half-yard line late in the game and threw a slant to Miles Austin.  Why not sneak the ball, then sneak the ball, then sneak the ball again?  Are you telling me you can’t gain half a yard in three tries?
  • Another major issue I have with the Cowboys’ short-yardage and goal line play-calling is that it nearly always comes out of tight formations.  Sure, you have more blockers, but you also force the offense to block more defenders.  Ever notice how much more successful the Cowboys appear to be when running the ball out of spread formations?  A study on this subject will definitely come this week.
  • I loved the call to bring out the punt unit on a 4th and short, but then line up in “Wildcat.”  It forced the Colts to burn a timeout, although I wish they hadn’t, as Dallas ended up making a mistake by punting.
  • I think I figured out why Marc Colombo is struggling.  He saves his energy during the play so that after it he can rush to the quarterback and help him up from being sacked by the guy Colombo was supposed to block.  I’m sure Kitna appreciates Colombo’s help, but I think he’d appreciate it even more if Marc didn’t get him killed five seconds prior.
  • The Cowboys left Doug Free on an island for most of the game, and he struggled to consistently block Dwight Freeney.  It’s such a difficult task to block that guy one-on-one, and Dallas always has to make sure they aid Colombo first.  There are only so many guys that can stay in to block, but I thought Garrett should have used Martellus Bennett and Jason Witten to help Free a bit more often.
  • The blocked punt appeared to be the fault of Jesse Holley.  He just whiffed on his block.
  • Most of the “offensive balance” the Cowboys have displayed in their wins has been the result of late runs that came after Dallas had already secured a lead.  That wasn’t the case today.  The ‘Boys pounded it all day long, including 14 runs on their 18-play touchdown drive near the end of regulation.  Good idea to take advantage of a very undersized defense.

More observations to come tomorrow after I break down the film. . .