The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs. Rams, Preseason Week 3: Game Plan for Dallas

Over at Dallas Morning News, I just posted my first “DOs and DON’Ts” feature for the Cowboys’ Week 3 preseason tilt with the Rams. Here’s a preview:

DO run a lot of double-tight sets.

Through two preseason games, the Cowboys’ first-team offense has run just six double-tight end sets, representing only 29.0 percent of their plays. It will be interesting to see if the loss of Martellus Bennett equates to fewer two-tight end formations during the regular season.

On Saturday night, however, I’d place both John Phillips and rookie James Hanna on the field at the same time on numerous occasions. I know those guys aren’t Jason Witten, but the Cowboys’ offensive tackles are going to have their hands full with perhaps the league’s most underrated defensive end duo. That tandem is led by Chris Long, who pressured the quarterback more often than any player in the NFL last year.

Plus, double-tight sets with max protection could allow the ‘Boys to take some shots downfield—something they should be doing more often anyway.

Check out all of my DOs and DON’Ts here. I’ll once again be doing these throughout the regular season.

By Jonathan Bales

More on Tony Romo’s Deep Passing in 2012

I’ve written about five articles this year on why the Cowboys should throw deep more frequently. This one is the culmination of those:

I’ve tracked all of Romo’s throws from the past three years by location and distance. The peak is on throws of 20-plus yards to the right side of the field. Although those throws represent just 4.0 percent of his passes, Romo has amazingly racked up 17.1 percent of his touchdowns in this area.

Overall, Romo’s passer rating on deep passes is 114.3 since 2009—superior than the 103.6 rating on intermediate throws and the 97.0 rating on short throws.

Read the article at Dallas Morning News.

By Jonathan Bales

What to Expect From DeMarco Murray in 2012

I’ve talked a lot about DeMarco Murray recently, primarily because he has such a high ceiling in 2012. The farther along in the preseason we roll, the more I think Murray will receive a whole lot of touches this year. I’ve talked about if the Cowboys should make Murray a workhorse back and if he can really rush for much more than 1,000 yards. Today, I took a new look at Murray’s projections over at Dallas Morning News:

In his rookie season, Murray played 388 snaps. He rushed the ball 164 times and was targeted 34 times as a receiver, giving him a touch rate of 51.0 percent. Already this preseason, Murray has racked up a carry or target on 61.5 percent of his snaps. It’s a limited sample size, but interesting nonetheless.

Read the entire article here.

If the Cowboys can get the ball to Murray more often while he’s on the field without giving him significantly more than 65 percent of the running back snaps, they might be able to acquire the optimal amount of production from him–giving him a larger percentage of touches but not burning him out and losing efficiency.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs. Giants Week 10 Film Study Observations

Jonathan Bales

  • In my initial post-game notes, I wrote briefly about a new formation the Cowboys ran against New York.  They called it three times, running the same pass play (below) from it each time.  I’ve named the formation “Double Tight Left Ace.”  It’s actually very similar to “Double Tight Left I,” except there is an extra tight end to the weak side instead of a fullback.

Double Tight Left Ace

  • The first time the Cowboys ran the play, it appeared as though Felix Jones was the primary read on the pass.  The Giants were in man coverage, which meant their linebackers ran with the three tight ends who flooded the left side of the field.  Jones stepped up into the vacated area and Kitna quickly hit him for a 12-yard gain.
  • The other two times the Cowboys ran the play, however, the Giants were in a zone.  Instead of running to the middle of the field, Jones headed out into the flat.  The other players’ routes were the same, meaning Jones probably had an option route on the play.  If New York was in man coverage, he ran the route above.  If they were in zone, he headed out into the flat.
  • After reviewing the film, the Cowboys’ clock management prior to halftime was even worse than I thought.  They had a 2nd and 1 at their own 46-yard line with well over a minute to play and two timeouts.  Instead of using a timeout or going into a hurry-up offense, they huddled.  The decision cost them the opportunity to move into field goal range for David Buehler.
  • I didn’t see too many differences between Paul Pasqualoni’s play-calling and that of Wade Phillips.  Pasqualoni dialed up an exotic zone blitz early in the game, dropping both DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer into coverage and sending Alan Ball after the quarterback.  The play worked well, but the Cowboys didn’t come back to it.  I think Pasqualoni is too similar to Phillips for my liking.
  • I’m not sure what sort of effect the Cowboys’ full pads practices had on the outcome of the game, but Dallas did appear much, much more physical on defense.  They looked genuinely excited to be playing football for the first time since Week Three.  I was particularly impressed with the physicality of players in the secondary, especially Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick.
  • Scandrick had a really good game overall.  He was a step ahead of his normal position on most plays, causing Eli Manning to make difficult throws on a number of occasions.  On Alan Ball’s late interception, Manning had to lead the receiver too far because of Scandrick’s tight coverage.  Now he needs to show consistency.
  • Once again, proponents of the run will claim the Cowboys won because they were more balanced offensively, but that’s simply not the case.  Only 12 of the first 33 plays were actually runs (36.4 percent).  The correlation between rushing attempts and winning is generally due to teams running after they’ve already obtained a lead.  As was the case Sunday, that lead usually comes via big plays through the air.  The Cowboys didn’t win because they ran the ball often–they won because they ran it effectively, allowing for big passing plays downfield to Dez Bryant and Miles Austin.
  • Garrett must simply not like Tashard Choice.  Choice again played just one snap–the 3rd and 22 pass to Roy Williams that went for 27 yards.  It was ALL because of Choice.  Well, not really, but why is Marion Barber still getting so many reps ahead of him?
  • Besides “Double Tight Left Ace,” the Cowboys lined up in another unique formation.  You’ve probably all seen the “Pistol” offense run by college teams like Nevada and Indiana.  If not, see below. . .

  • The trademark of the “Pistol” offense is the running back lined up behind the quarterback in a Shotgun formation.  Generally, the running back is to the left or right of the quarterback.  The reason I love the “Pistol” so much is that it doesn’t allow the defense to obtain a pre-snap key as to the play-call.  When a team is in a regular Shotgun formation, running plays are generally designed to the side of the formation opposite the running back.  In “Pistol,” a running play could go either direction.
  • The Cowboys used a variation of the “Pistol” which I have termed “Trips Right Pistol,” running the ball up the middle for a combined 12 yards the two times they called it.  I drew up the formation below. . .

Trips Right Pistol

  • I didn’t see a significant change in Garrett’s play-calling, but the Cowboys did motion a lot more than usual later in the game.  Generally, Dallas has motioned the majority of the time in the first 20 or so plays of games–the scripted plays.  On Sunday, Dallas motioned 11 times in the second half alone, including five of the first six plays to start the half.
  • Of those five plays, four were passes and they totaled 117 yards (29.3 yards-per-pass).  Let’s see if this trend continues into next week.
  • Dallas lined up in a lot more two and three-tight ends sets, even before securing a large lead.  Of their 49 offensive plays (minus two quarterback kneels), the ‘Boys implemented three or more wide receivers only 14 times.  It may have seemed like more because Bryant was targeted so much, but you’ll be happy to know that he’s effectively replaced Roy Williams as the No. 2 receiver.
  • Jon Kitna checked out of a play four times–two runs for five yards and two passes for 13 yards and a touchdown.
  • After running the ball to the outside of formations quite often to start the season, the Cowboys went back to pounding it up the middle against the Giants (as they did in 2009).  15 of their 24 runs were in either the “1″ or “2″ hole–right up the center’s butt.
  • I thought the Cowboys would run more draws than they did (three).  Those runs went for 24 total yards, so the few times they dialed up a draw it was effective.
  • The Cowboys didn’t run a single counter all game.
  • The Cowboys ran four playaction passes.  Only one was completed, but it went for 27 yards.
  • Garrett also dialed up four screen passes and they were extremely successful, thanks to Felix Jones (71 yard screen for a touchdown) and Dez Bryant (46 yard screen).
  • It may have seemed like the Cowboys threw the ball downfield much more often than usual, but that simply wasn’t the case.  Only eight passes traveled over 10 yards.  Kitna & Co. were simply effective when they did take their shots.
  • I counted only four passes as being off-target for Kitna.  He had quite the night.  Imagine what Romo could have done with this sort of protection.
  • Garrett made the offensive line’s job easier by calling three designed rollouts–the most in a single game all season.
  • I was shocked with the lack of pressure the Giants brought.  I counted only five blitzes all game, and the Cowboys totaled only eight yards on those plays.  After the initial success the Cowboys had on offense, I thought the Giants would become more aggressive on defense, but it just never happened.

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By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys vs. Giants Week 10: What to Watch, Jason Garrett Edition

Jonathan Bales

General Questions

Will Jason Garrett call plays differently now that he’s the head coach?

I don’t think this will be the case, but it is possible that Garrett’s increase in power could result in a shift in play-calling philosophy.  The offensive and defensive coordinators are generally supposed to call plays with the grander overall team philosophy in mind.  A team’s offensive philosophy is intricately linked to its defensive philosophy, and vice versa.  With Wade Phillips out, Garrett is completely free to call plays in whichever manner he deems most suitable.

The reason I don’t see major changes on the horizon is that I think Garrett was already free to call plays as he chose.  Even when Phillips was in town, it always seemed like the Cowboys had two head coaches–one for the offense and one for the defense.  Phillips rarely contributed to the offensive game plans, so I don’t think much will change.

This could still be a perfect opportunity for Garrett to alter his play-calling a bit, though.  Even if he did have free reign over the offense prior to Phillips’ dismissal, he can use the firing as a sort of “excuse” for a shift in philosophy.  Specifically, I’d love to see the offense be much more aggressive with deep throws, fourth down attempts, and so on.

How will Garrett perform with in-game tasks such as challenges, timeouts, and so on?

It will be interesting to see what sort of game manager the Cowboys have in Garrett.  I have a feeling he’s going to be far superior to Phillips, whose in-game decisions left much to be desired.  Garrett is far more detail-oriented than Phillips, meaning I expect better clock management skills and use of timeouts/challenges.

Will we see any lineup changes?

One of the major critiques of the Wade Phillips era was his inability to properly hold players accountable for sub-par play.  In my opinion, this is a valid criticism.  There is no reason on Earth that Marion Barber should still be starting (or Roy Williams, Igor Olshansky, Keith Brooking, etc.).

Garrett now has the power the do as he wants with the Cowboys’ starting lineup, but will he exercise that power?  I have my doubts.  As I argued above, Garrett was basically already the head coach of the offense.  If he wanted Barber out, it would have happened.  I am very eager to not only see if the Cowboys have any surprise lineup changes on Sunday, but also if Garrett yanks players who under-perform during the game.

The season isn’t over, but any hopes of making the playoffs have been squashed.  An alteration in goals should accompany this change in expectations.  Winning is always the top priority, but the Cowboys need to shift the emphasis of when they are trying to win–namely making 2011 the main focus.

That means the Cowboys need to find out what they have in certain players–Sean Lee, Barry Church, Danny McCray, Sam Young, Phil Costa, and so on.  The first step in improving a roster is accurately assessing current talent.  Dallas has yet to do that.

What sort of schematic alterations will we see on defense?  Will the Cowboys be more aggressive?  How about more deceptive in their intentions before the snap?

The largest changes to the Cowboys following Phillips’ departure could come on defense.  I’m interested to see what sort of mindset is employed by interim defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni.  Will he shake up the lineup?  Will he disguise blitzes more effectively than Phillips?  Will he allow the defensive backs to play more aggressively?

The second half of the season is basically a long interview for Pasqualoni, meaning we should see some changes in philosophy.  The starters and scheme the Cowboys used under Phillips weren’t working.  Pasqualoni needs to make changes to survive.

Will the Cowboys regain a sense of pride in their play now that they may feel guilt over Wade Phillips’ departure?

A lot of players, particularly on defense, feel awful about their role in getting their coach fired. . .as they should.  They basically gave up on a guy they all claimed to love.  Their effort was a slap in the face to Phillips.

Now that Phillips is gone, I expect the players to up their level of play.  It shouldn’t take a guy losing his job to spark a sense of pride in the players’ effort, but with how low Dallas has fallen, perhaps Phillips’ leave is a necessary evil.

Will Dallas possess a more aggressive overall philosophy under the “new school” Garrett?

I would be willing to bet that Garrett won’t punt the ball on 4th and 3 at the opposition’s 39-yard line.  He seems to have a rather “new school,” stat-oriented approach to coaching, which is great.  Now it is my job to make sure he’s getting the right stats. . .

Will we see more disciplined play under Garrett?

I think we will, but I don’t know how much of it will be truly caused by Garrett.  Yes, Garrett seems to be more precise than Phillips, but he was already in control of the entire offense in the first half of the season.  They weren’t disciplined under him then, so why now?

The reason the Cowboys will at least appear more disciplined is (once again) regression to the mean.  The Cowboys committed so many dumb penalties under Phillips, how much worse could it get?  They’re likely to improve regardless of Garrett’s tactics.

Of course, refraining from committing penalties isn’t the only manner in which a team can be disciplined.  I fully expect Garrett to employ much more up-tempo practices than Phillips.  That started with yesterday’s full pads practice.

My high school football coach had a saying that I think fits perfectly with the 2010 Dallas Cowboys. . .

Practice doesn’t make perfect.  Perfect practice makes perfect.

The Cowboys aren’t losing games on Sundays.  They’re losing them in the offseason, preseason, and during the practice week.  If Garrett can change the culture of Cowboys’ practices, he’ll reverse their fortunes on Sundays.

Giants-Specific Questions

Will the Cowboys run the ball more frequently in an effort to shorten the game?

The Cowboys are the largest underdogs in the league this week.  When was the last time that happened?  Garrett knows his team is an underdog, so let’s see if he runs the ball more (even if it isn’t effective) to force both teams to call less plays.  Less plays generally means less scoring, i.e. a smaller probability of the Giants pulling out to a big lead.

Using statistics in coaching doesn’t always need to be incredibly complicated.  Shorten the game, and you have a better chance of winning as an underdog.

How physical will the Cowboys be after practicing in full pads this week for the first time since training camp?

As I said above, the ‘Boys were in full pads for the first time since camp.  That’s a tone-setter and I love the move.  It isn’t like an injury is going to be devastating to the team’s playoff hopes.

So will we see a “hungrier” Cowboys defense?  I’m looking at you, Mike Jenkins. . .

Will Terence Newman move into the slot at time to cover Steve Smith (who has continually torched Orlando Scandrick)?

I don’t think this will happen, but I do wish it would.  Scandrick has been abused by receivers all year, and Smith in particular has had his number basically every game they’ve ever been matched up.  Newman has lots of experience playing in the slot, so why not make the move?

Of course, the major problem would be placing either Jenkins or Scandrick outside on Hakeem Nicks.  Scandrick is the better tackler and should probably man up on Nicks if he isn’t in the slot, but both guys are undersized.  Still, I’ll take my chances with Nicks on screen passes over Smith beating Scandrick deep over the middle all game.

Will Dallas place Gerald Sensabaugh on Ahmad Bradshaw at times as they did in the teams’ first matchup?

Lost in the hoopla of the Cowboys-Giants Week Seven contest was the fact that Sensabaugh did a fairly good job covering Bradshaw (when the two were matched up).  Although Bradshaw killed the Cowboys on the ground with 128 yards rushing, he caught only two passes for 12 yards.

None of the Cowboys’ linebackers can hang with Bradshaw.  Sensabaugh is the defense’s best option.

Can the Cowboys’ thinning defense stop the Giants’ running game?

This is going to be a major key to the game.  If the Giants can run the ball as effectively as they did a few weeks ago, their playaction passing game will destroy the Cowboys’ secondary.  The Cowboys simply don’t have the talent or numbers on the defensive line to properly respect run and get to the quarterback on playaction fakes.   Eli Manning could have all day to pass.  No cornerback can cover a guy for more than three or four seconds.

Actually, I think the Cowboys’ pass rush (or lack thereof) has been totally overlooked as a major contributor to the struggles in the secondary.  The first way to make your cornerbacks look good is to get to the passer.

Will Garrett trust the offensive line enough to allow for the occasional deep playaction pass?

The Cowboys will probably need a big play or two.  They aren’t going to get it on screen passes.  The offensive line is probably going to struggle, but from time to time, Garrett just needs to trust them and take some shots downfield.  If it doesn’t work then so be it, but the Cowboys probably won’t be able to consistently move the ball down the field without opening up the offense a bit.

As always, passing out of two-tight end formations can help.  Not only is the defense already in base personnel and anticipating run, but don’t underestimate Martellus Bennett’s blocking ability.  He’s been far superior to Jason Witten in that department all season.

How many draws will the Cowboys run?

I’m saying double-digits, which wouldn’t be a horrible idea.  Draws will allow Dallas to keep the clocking moving and take advantage of the league’s most aggressive defensive ends.

Will Tashard Choice finally get some work?

I sure hope so.  After being told he’d get significant playing time last week, Choice received all of three carries while the Cowboys were down 38 points.  Marion Barber probably won’t be in Dallas next season.  With playoff hopes shot, why is he still starting?  Give Choice at least 10 touches.

Will Dez Bryant continue to get more reps, including in base personnel packages?

Last week was the first time I saw Bryant on the field in a non-three-receiver package.  That’s good news.  You can expect more of the same this week for the rookie who, in my view, is the team’s MVP over the last five weeks or so.  His effort has been noticeably better than the majority of veterans, which is sad.  He deserves more looks.

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By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys’ 2010 Draw Play Analysis

Jonathan Bales

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

Now that the Cowboys have played seven games, we are starting to creep into “statistically significant” territory as far as a lot of trend analysis goes.  In other words, we can know the statistics we find (of many, but not all trends) are due to something inherent to the team and not simply random variance.

The Cowboys ran 121 draw plays last season and averaged 4.51 yards-per-carry.  This rate isn’t poor, but still far worse than their 5.52 yards-per-rush number on all non-draws.  In my Ultimate Guide to Dallas Cowboys Draws, I noted this decrease in efficiency was due to dialing up the draw too often.  I later predicted they’d run far less draws in 2010.

Another method by which I predicted the Cowboys could have more success with draw plays (aside from calling them less) was to run them out of “passing” formations and situations.  Last season, the team averaged nearly 1.5 times the yards-per-carry on draws from “spread” formations (3+ wide receivers) as opposed to “tight” formations (any formation with two tight ends and/or a fullback).

Further, the yards-per-carry for draws from spread formations was still significantly higher than those in tight formations even after I corrected for changes in down-and-distance.  For example, when I removed the draws that came during situations with 11+ yards-to-go, the Cowboys still averaged 1.24 yards more per carry on spread draws.

This season, the Cowboys have shockingly called only 28 draws all season–or four-per-game.  That rate is just over 50 percent of that from last season.  The Cowboys have gained only 109 total yards on the 28 draws–3.89 yards-per-carry.

Despite the lack of success on draw plays, I actually think offensive coordinator Jason Garrett is calling them in the right situations and with the proper personnel.   If you take a look at the chart below, you can see the Cowboys have called more than twice as many draws from spread formation as from tight formations.  Last season, the number of spread vs. tight draws was nearly identical (63 to 60).  The ‘Boys are averaging 5.05 yards-per-rush on draws from spread formations, but just 1.44 yards-per-carry on tight draws.  The Cowboys obviously have to improve that latter number, but Garrett has clearly made a conscious effort to run the ball more often from “passing” looks.

You’ll also see in the chart above that the Cowboys are running more draws on 3rd downs.  Last season, just about one draw in 10 was on 3rd down, while this season that rate is nearly doubled.  The Cowboys have converted on three of their five 3rd down draws in 2010.  If you haven’t already read, here is why the Cowboys should run more often on 3rd down.

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By Jonathan Bales

Analyzing Jason Garrett’s 2nd Down Play-Calling in 2010

Jonathan Bales

We are just five games into the 2010 season, but already offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has displayed much improvement in a number of areas.  The casual fan will look at the Cowboys’ mediocre 20.4 points-per-game (16th in the NFL) and conclude that Garrett is having a horrible season.  With all of the weapons Dallas possesses on offense, shouldn’t they be averaging, like, 28 points-per-game?

Yes, they should.  But a five game sample size is hardly enough to convince me that Garrett isn’t superior in his play-calling from a year ago.  I’ve told you all season that Garrett has been much, much less predictable with his play-calling.  He’s dialing up more weak side runs (see study on weak side runs here), more 3rd down runs (see study on 3rd down runs here), and less predictable play-calling based on personnel (see personnel-based play-calling stats here).

As I analyzed my database of Cowboys’ 2010 plays this morning, I realized perhaps Garrett’s largest improvement has come in the way of play-calling on 2nd down.  You may remember I conducted a study on Garrett’s 2009 play-calling trends on 2nd down awhile back, noting the Cowboys’ run/pass selection was highly correlated with their previous play-call (even after adjusting for specific situations).  This is from that article:

On 2nd and 3 to 7, for example, Garrett dialed up a run on only 23 of the 78 (29.5 percent) plays that followed a 1st down run. After 1st down passes, though, the Cowboys ran on 2nd down on 26 of 34 plays (76.5 percent). Thus, Dallas was 2.95 times more likely to run on 2nd and 3 to 7 after a 1st down pass than after a 1st down run.

On 3rd and 8 to 10, that trend, surprisingly, did not get much better. The team ran on only 10 of 50 plays (20.0 percent) in these scenarios following a 1st down run. After passes, Garrett called a run on 32 of 58 2nd down plays (55.2 percent), meaning the team was 2.76 times more likely to run on 2nd and 8 to 10 after a pass than a run.

On 2nd and 11 or more, the team was still 2.33 times more likely to run after a 1st down pass than after a run. Obviously Garrett did some things right in the past few years, but this sort of predictability is unacceptable.

I’ve posted a graph to the left detailing the information above.  Note that I am not criticizing the overall rate of runs/passes.  Garrett could pass 95 percent of the time, but if his current play-call is dependent on the previous one, there will be a problem.  Again, the issue is not with the overall run/pass ratio, but rather the fact that it gets skewed based on previous calls.

For a play-caller to maximize his effectiveness, we’d want the run/pass ratio to be equal in comparable situations following a particular call.  Note that I am not advocating a 50/50 balance.  I am simply stating that it is in an offensive coordinator’s best interest to retain his particular run/pass ratio in specific down-and-distances regardless of the previous call.  If he passes 90 percent of the time on 2nd and 3-7 following a 1st down pass, he should pass 90 percent of the time in the same situation following a run.  Don’t let previous calls affect current ones.

As far as the graph above, we’d want to see the red and blue lines be as close together as possible.  The specific run/pass ratio is irrelevant–what’s important is that the lines match up, wherever that may be.

As I analyzed the Cowboys’ 2nd down plays in 2010, it is very obvious Garrett has made a conscious effort to clean up the mess from last season.  Check out the graph below.

Note how much closer the lines are to converging as compared to 2009.  On 2nd and 3-7–plays on which Garrett “mixed it up” last year in an attempt to be random (only to, ironically, become very predictable)–his run/pass ratio is nearly identical, regardless of his call on 1st down.  That’s as much as any fan could ask from an offensive coordinator.

There are still some issues, which is to be expected (it is unreasonable to think an offensive coordinator, in the heat of a game, can perfectly equalize all ratios).  Although the run ratio on 2nd and 8-10 looks about equal, the Cowboys have actually been nearly 3.5 times as likely to run after a 1st down pass as compared to following a 1st down run.  In fairness to Garrett, the offense has only run nine plays on 2nd and 8-10 that followed a run (just one was another run).

There also appears to be a large gap between 2nd and 1-2 run ratios, but note that the Cowboys have had just six total plays in that down-and-distance.  Hardly a significant sample size.

Overall, Garrett’s improvements in his 2nd down play-calling are remarkable.  Looks like someone has been visiting DC Times. . .

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By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys’ 2010 Play-Calling Based on Personnel



Jonathan Bales

The largest flaw in Jason Garrett’s play-calling, in my opinion, is his tendency to call a specific play (run or pass) based on the personnel on the field.  For example, take a look at the Cowboys’ 2009 pass rates with specific personnel.

Note that, no matter the personnel grouping, the Cowboys passed or ran the ball nearly three-fourths of the time out of all two-tight end, three-receiver, and four-receiver sets.  We’d of course expect certain personnel groupings and formations to be either run or pass-oriented, but Garrett could probably find more success by calling the “unexpected” a bit more often.  That idea is something I talked about a few months ago in my article on why the Cowboys should throw out of more double-tight end sets:

A few weeks back, I 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.

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.

So, what are the numbers telling us thus far in 2010?  While they are far from optimal, it seems clear Garrett is altering his play-calling to becomes less predictable.  Check out the chart below.

You can see that, outside of four-receiver sets, the Cowboys are at least slightly more balanced in each grouping.  Note that Dallas has implemented four receivers just nine times all season, so you can expect that percentage to change as well.

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).  Garrett is doing a fine job throwing out of two-tight end sets (55.3% of all plays with two tight ends on the field are passes), but the Cowboys are doing the throwing out of a specific type of two-tight end sets, i.e. with two receivers on the field.

With the receiving ability of fullback Chris Gronkowski, you can expect the Cowboys to throw the ball more with a fullback on the field in the coming weeks.  If Garrett finds a way to efficiently run the ball without a fullback on the field as well, the Cowboys will take huge strides in becoming a much more unpredictable, and potent, offensive football team.

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By Jonathan Bales

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.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Film Study: 2009 Formation Breakdown

Like our film study and stat analysis?  You can buy our entire Cowboys 2009 play database.


Thus far this offseason, we have analyzed a few of the Cowboys’ tendencies when running plays from certain formations and with specific personnel packages.  For example, we noticed the Cowboys average nearly three yards less per play in “Empty Set” formations (as compared to all other formations), are much more successful with tight end Jason Witten in a route, and run a strong side dive play out of “Double Tight Right Strong Right” 71.6 percent of the time, including 85.7 percent when motioning into it.

Today, we are going to analyze the run/pass ratios and success rates of every formation the Cowboys ran in 2009.  If you don’t know the difference between “Gun 3 Wide Pro” and “Double Tight Left Weak Right,” don’t worry–we have diagrams of each formation to help you along.

Below each diagram, you will find stats on run/pass ratio, average yards per run/pass, and analysis of big/negative plays.  We have explained in the past why averages can often be misleading, so understanding the effect of outliers (big and negative plays) can aid you in interpreting the results.

Formations with 20+ play sample size

  • 3 Wide I

12 passes (60 percent)/8 runs (40 percent)

5.25 yards/attempt

3.63 yards/rush

3 sacks (25 percent), five passes 10+ yards (41.7 percent), 1 pass 20+ (8.3 percent)

  • Ace

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)

  • Double Tight I

10 passes (24.4 percent)/31 runs (75.6 percent)

6.30 yards/attempt

6.71 yards/rush

One sack (10 percent), two passes 10+ (20 percent), one pass 20+ (10 percent), four negative runs (12.9 percent), eight runs 10+ (25.81 percent), one run 20+ (56 yards)–3.2 percent

  • Double Tight Left/Right Ace

14 passes (38.9 percent)/22 runs (61.1 percent)

6.0 yards/attempt

3.27 yards/rush

One sack (7.1 percent), three passes 10+ (21.4 percent),  two passes 20+ (14.3 percent), three runs 10+ (13.6 percent),  five negative runs (22.7 percent)

  • Double Tight Left/Right I

3 passes (4.7 percent)/61 runs (95.3 percent)

10.33 yards/attempt

4.93 yards/rush

One pass 10+ (33.3 percent), one pass 20+ (33.3 percent), six runs 10+ (10.4 percent), two runs 20+ (46, 32 yards)–3.5 percent

  • Double Tight Left/Right Strong Left/Right

9 passes (17.3 percent)/43 runs (82.7 percent)

1.22 yards/attempt

5.58 yards/rush

One sack (11.1 percent), one pass 10+ (11.1 percent), five runs 10+ (11.6 percent), three runs 20+ (36, 33 yards)–3.5 percent, one negative run (1.2 percent)

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