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The DC Times

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


Cowboys News and Notes: 5/24/10 (Deon Anderson’s Future, Patrick Crayton to Dolphins?)

This tidbit shocked us.  Upon reading it, we looked into our database and it seems to be true.  Anyone want to bet this will change by the end of 2010?

There doesn’t seem to be much interest on Miami’s part.  We are rapidly becoming one of the few media outlets still predicting Crayton to be in Dallas in 2010.

Placing the Super Bowl teams at No. 1 and No. 2 seems to have become standard practice nowadays, but we don’t think it is a necessity.  Nonetheless, the No. 4 positions seems like a suitable one for Dallas.

We think Anderon’s future is in the hands of Roger Goodell.  If Anderson gets suspended for multiple games, he will likely be cut.  If not, however, we think he will stay in Dallas this season.  Remember, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett loves to use a fullback, and the Cowboys were incredibly successful with Anderson on the field in ’09.

Besides, Anderson was nice enough to take pictures with “The Blonde Side” author Amber Leigh.

Jerry Jones on Remaining Stadium Expenses

Jenkins is quickly becoming the Cowboys’ best cornerback.  We gave him an “A-” grade for his work last year, and if he can improve his tackling, Jenkins will become one of the NFL’s best CBs.

Of the forecasts, we agree with all except “9. Tony Romo will throw at least five more interceptions but 10 more touchdowns than last year.”  We will have detailed stat projections as the season nears, but we don’t see Romo throwing 10 more TDs this year.

Ball performed fairly well in coverage last season as a safety, allowing a completion rate of just 45.0% and only 6.35 yards-per-attempt.  However, his missed tackle percentage of 22.2% must improve dramatically.  Overall, we gave Ball a “C+” grade for the season.


Top 25 Wide Receivers in the NFL: Andre Johnson Leads the Pack

We previously posted NFL starting quarterback power rankings, 32 to 1, and a list of the top 25 running backs.  Today, we are rating the top 25 wide receivers in the NFL.  Before reading, note that it is not simply a collection of the wide receivers with the best stats, but rather the most talented wide receivers in the league (as we see it) .  Also, we did not list any rookies due to difficulties in comparing them to current WRs.

1.  Andre Johnson: Some might put Larry Fitzgerald in the top spot, but Johnson has everything Fitz possesses with better speed.

2.  Larry Fitzgerald: There is no doubt Fitzgerald attacks and high-points the football better than anyone in the NFL.

3.  Calvin Johnson: A down year for Megatron doesn’t drop him in our rankings–he will rebound in 2010.

4.  Brandon Marshall: Marshall doesn’t have the best hands, but he is dynamite after the catch.

5.  Vincent Jackson: Talk about underrated.  Jackson is one of the league’s most complete WRs.

6.  Reggie Wayne: Perhaps under-appreciated due to his consistency, Wayne is still one of the league’s top pass-catchers.

7.  Randy Moss: People will flip when they see Moss this low, but we factor blocking and effort into our rankings.

8.  Steve Smith (CAR): The Panthers’ Steve Smith used to be known as “the good Steve Smith.”  Now, he’s “the mean Steve Smith.”

9.  Miles Austin: Austin had just one big season, but there is little doubt he is the real deal.  Don’t worry Cowboys fans, he will be locked up long-term before you know it.

10.  DeSean Jackson: Eagles fans will be irate knowing we put Austin ahead of Jackson, but the proof is in the pudding (I’m going to be honest–I’m not 100% sure what that means, but I like the way it sounds).

11.  Sidney Rice: Rice is Minnesota’s version of Miles Austin.  He could be Brett Favre’s biggest fan right now.

12.  Michael Crabtree: We saw enough from Crabtree in ’09 to know he is the real deal.

13.  Santonio Holmes: Perhaps the biggest bonehead on this list (only because Matt Jones isn’t good enough to make it), Holmes has an immense amount of talent.

14.  Marques Colston: Colston might put up bigger numbers in a less well-rounded offense.

15.  Roddy White: With Matt Ryan in Atlana, White figures to be a top wide receiver for the next six to eight (or so) years.

16.  Chad Ochocinco: He would have been higher a few years ago, but Ochocinco has always been a bit of a one-dimensional receiver.

17.  Terrell Owens: Despite Owens’ poor numbers last year in Buffalo, we promise you this guy can still play.

18.  Braylon Edwards: 35 catches for 541 yards last season and he is on the list?  Edwards is playing with no confidence right now.  If he can find a way to regain it, look out.

19.  Greg Jennings: We still are not sure how much of Jennings’ success is due to his talent, and how much is due to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense.

20.  Anquan Boldin: Undoubtedly talented, Boldin simply is injured too often to move up this list.

21.  Wes Welker: A lot of people think Welker is a top-tier receiver.  He is definitely talented, but nowhere near as athletic or explosive as the players above him.

22.  Steve Smith (NYG): Before last season, we thought Smith was simply the Giants’ version of Patrick Crayton.  We were wrong.

23.  Hines Ward: We like Ward a lot and wish we could put him higher, but who would he surpass?

24.  Derrick Mason: This guy gets it done year in and year out.  Too bad it took him this late into his career to find a legitimate quarterback.

25.  Percy Harvin: A “jack of all trades,” Harvin is set to explode in 2010.

Just missed the cut:  Donald Driver, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Mike Sims-Walker, Jeremy Maclin, Hakeem Nicks, Pierre Garcon, Devin Hester, Antonio Bryant, Dwayne Bowe


More Three-WR Sets for Cowboys in 2010? Analysis of Personnel Packages

There is no doubt Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett had a ton of weapons with which to work in 2009.  There are differing opinions on his efficiency in utilizing Jason Witten, Miles Austin, Felix Jones & Co., as the Cowboys ranked 2nd in the NFL in total yards, but just 14th in points.  Is this simply a fluke statistic that will “regress toward the mean” in 2010, or is there something more to it?

Our own film study has shown that the Cowboys offense is far too predictable in a variety of situations.  To improve in 2010, we believe Garrett should vary the play-calling out of Double Tight Right Strong Right, send Witten out in routes on a higher percentage of passing plays, throw more play-action passes to the left, randomize 2nd down and 3rd down play-calling (particularly on 2nd and 1), run more to the weak side, motion less, improve initial drive statistics, run less draws, and run (a lot) more counters.

After listing a wide variety of flaws in Garrett’s play-calling, now is a good time to mention we don’t think he is a terrible offensive coordinator.  Garrett does a commendable job of giving players sufficient freedom to make plays and, while we often critique his play-calling, Garrett is not the only offensive coordinator in the NFL with (what we would describe as major) flaws.

However, while football is a zero-sum game, offensive coordinator vs. offensive coordinator is not.  OCs can collectively get better or worse, meaning the similar failures of others around the league do not justify Garrett’s shortcomings.

Note: RB is either Barber, Jones, or Choice, while FB is Anderson.

The addition of Dez Bryant to the Cowboys’ already potent offensive attack means Garrett will have to alter his playbook to better fit a changing cast on offense.  Garrett appears to sometimes force players to adapt to his system (Roy Williams routes, for example), as opposed to bending the system to more appropriately utilize the skill sets of the players.

To further grasp how Garrett implemented players in 2009, take a look at the list of personnel packages to the right.  Note that, while the Cowboys are often thought to implement two tight ends as their base offense, they actually trotted one tight end, three wide receivers, and a running back onto the field more than any other particular personnel group (they did use two tight ends on 485 plays, however).

The three-wide receiver set is one we would like to see utilized more often in 2010.  There are a few reasons for this:

  • It will allow the Cowboys to get Dez Bryant more involved.  Who do you think represents a bigger threat to the defense, Bryant or Martellus Bennett/John Phillips?
  • With Felix Jones as the primary ball-carrier, the need for a fullback is lessened.  The Cowboys would be wise to run more counters and misdirection plays in which a third wide receiver (who can effectively spread out the defense) could be more valuable than a fullback.
  • The running game in general could thrive out of three-wide receiver sets, as defenses generally implement nickel personnel (an extra defensive back).

We are not sure Jason Garrett agrees with that last statement.  It is no secret that he loves to run the ball with either two tight ends or a fullback on the field.

Unfortunately, Garrett rarely ran the ball out of three-receiver sets in ’09 and it appears the efficiency of these packages was compromised by that improper run/pass balance.  As you can see above, the Cowboys ran 310 total plays with three wide receivers on the field.  Of those plays, just 54 were runs (17.4%)!

Now, we understand the Cowboys are a pass-first team and that three-receiver sets are perhaps ideal for passing, but spreading out the field to run is becoming a hot trend in the NFL.  In fact, the Cowboys averaged a gaudy 5.85 yards-per-carry when running out of three-receiver sets last season.  Whether this is due to a pre-snap open field or the defense substituting nickel personnel, there is no doubt the Cowboys ran the ball effectively in 2009 with three wide receivers in the game.

The incredibly high percentage of passes out of three-receiver sets undoubtedly caused the Cowboys’ yards-per-attempt on those plays to plummet.  Still, Dallas averaged 7.08 yards-per-attempt on passes out of the package, compared to 7.79 yards-per-attempt in general (including sacks) in 2009.

We have a feeling if the Cowboys run the ball (significantly) more out of three-receiver sets in 2010 (35% or so), that 7.08 yards-per-attempt will rise.  Not only does the team simply have better personnel this season, but defenses will be more apt to stay in base personnel to effectively shut down the run.  This will allow the third wide receiver, whoever it is, to garner a big-time mismatch.

If defenses do shift into a nickel package, the Cowboys should be able to utilize their receivers’ above-average blocking skills, a more athletic offensive line, and the shiftiness of Jones to be quite successful in running out of three-receiver personnel packages.


Is Dez Bryant at Punt Returner a Good Idea?

Head coach Wade Phillips recently declared rookie Dez Bryant the favorite to win the punt return duties for the Cowboys in 2010.  We have already heard from a few of you on this subject, so we wanted put forth our thoughts on the issue.

While the majority of the people with whom we have spoken dislike the notion of Bryant back deep fielding punts, we definitely think it is the correct move.  Bryant is a dynamic returner who can change the entire landscape of a game in the blink of an eye. . . at least he did so in college.

If he can prove he has that same sort of explosiveness in the NFL, then employing him on punt returns is a no-brainer. 

A lot of people are of the mindset that it is too risky to use a player who is (or in all likelihood will be) a major component of either the offense or defense on returns. 

While returners do get exposed to a higher probablity of big hits, the importance of both punt and kick returners is so great that the potential rewards outweigh the risks.  We see both spots as nearly important as starting positions on offense and defense.  Sure, a return man won’t see nearly the same number of snaps as, say, a running back, but each time he touches the ball the possibility for a “home run” is available. 

Further, it is important to remember that sometimes overall value is not as important as value differential.  For example, let’s assume Team X’s running back has a hypothetical value of 100 and their return man has a value of 50.  Now we will assume Team Y’s running back has a hypothetical value of 90 and their return man has a value of 20. 

Despite the fact that Team X’s return man is not as “valuable” as their running back in terms of overall points, the punt returner is more valuable in respect to his ability to help Team X beat Team Y. 

Remember, football is a zero-sum game, meaning the success of Team X equates to the failure of Team Y.  The running back for Team X may be a stud, but the differential value he creates is limited by the low standard deviation among the talent of running backs.  In other words (and words that are more understandable), it is harder for a running back to be that much better than the other running backs around the league.  The majority of practice time in the NFL is devoted to offense and defense.  While “game speed” can never be fully duplicated in practice, it is much more difficult to properly simulate a game-level NFL return than an offensive play.

Thus, returning punts and kicks is more about natural ability than practice–meaning the standard deviation of talent among NFL returners is much greater than at other positionsThe difference between the league’s best punt returners and the league’s worst punt returners is much larger than the same difference among running backs.  This is what we mean when we say ‘value differential.’

Now, does Bryant hold a great enough ‘value differential’ to be a lock as punt returner?  Should he maintain the role if he eventually becomes the Cowboys’ #1 wide receiver?  Only time will tell, but we think Bryant’s explosiveness and play-making ability could be great enough to justify him remaining the return man despite his offensive role.

Now, should he become a Pro Bowl-caliber wide receiver in a short time, the risk/reward for his stay at punt returner should be re-examined.  But let’s not forget, Bryant is only a rookie–he has played in exactly as many NFL games as all of us at Dallas Cowboys Times.

So we say give Bryant a shot at punt returner (and even kick returner for that matter).  The potential reward far outweighs the risk.  Also remember the Cowboys drafted another fairly dynamic returner in Akwasi Owusu-Ansah.  AOA can be groomed behind Bryant (don’t forget AOA is unable to practice until training camp due to a shoulder injury).  Eventually, Owusu-Ansah will take over as the primary return man.

Let’s hope so, anyway, as that would likely mean Bryant’s offensive production increased to the point where the team could no longer justify utilizing him as a returner.


Fantasy Football: Point-Per-Reception (PPR) Scoring

PPR vs. Non-PPR:  Weighing the Advantages and Disadvantages of Point-Per-Reception Scoring in Fantasy Football

By Jonathan Bales

With the recent vast upswing in fantasy football popularity has come a tremendous diversity in the way the game is played.  There are draft leagues, keeper leagues, dynasty leagues, auction leagues, salary cap leagues and so on.  Leagues differ in the number of teams, the starting requirements, and the scoring systems. 

In this article, I will take a look at one aspect of scoring:  the implementation of a point for each reception and the effects it can have on your squad.

Switching your league from a standard scoring league to a PPR scoring league creates drastic differences in the manner in which one goes about building their team.  Wide receivers instantly gain more value, and running backs who catch the ball out of the backfield (Ray Rice, Reggie Bush, Maurice Jones-Drew) see their value skyrocket when compared to those running backs who do not catch many balls (Michael Turner, Adrian Peterson). 

The value of quarterbacks, which was never great in fantasy football, diminishes even further in a PPR system.  In fact, the top quarterbacks in a PPR draft often do not go until the end of round three.

This dynamic that a PPR scoring system creates (devaluing quarterbacks and increasing the value of top pass-catching backs even further) has led some to dismiss it entirely.  They argue that no owner should be rewarded when Reggie Bush catches a pass for -5 yards.

While these are legitimate concerns, I argue that, if utilized correctly, a PPR scoring system creates fast-paced, high-scoring leagues where the value of each position, unlike in standard scoring leagues, is relatively even.  The equalization of positional value makes drafts, waiver wire pick-ups, and even flex position plays more interesting. 

So how can one create this sort of PPR league?  The starting requirements are most important.  The decrease in quarterback value is the biggest drawback of nearly all PPR leagues, but this negative consequence can be alleviated by requiring either two starting quarterbacks, or inserting a flex position where a quarterback can be started.  Thus, the dramatic increase in value that wide receivers and pass-catching running backs see is minimized by the suddenly sensational importance each owner must place on the quarterback position. 

In a league that requires two starting quarterbacks, 24 of the 32 quarterbacks starting in the NFL each week (and 24 of only 26 during some bye weeks) must be started in a 12-man league.  The dramatic disparity between quarterback value in a 1-QB league and a 2-QB league is obvious here. 

Some may contend that a two-quarterback league places too much of an emphasis on quarterbacks, such that one’s draft may just be a mad scramble to fill the position.  In this case, the best solution is to replace one starting quarterback spot with a flex spot where a quarterback can be started, but need not be. 

Whether or not you choose to start two quarterbacks or a quarterback-at-flex option should be a determining factor in the amount of points you reward for passing touchdowns and yards.  In two-QB leagues, scoring just three points for a passing TD and one point per 25 yards passing would be ideal, whereas rewarding four points per passing TD is more suitable for a league where you can start a quarterback at flex. 

Finally, if you do decide to start just one quarterback, I would advise giving six points per passing touchdown and one point per 20 yards passing to aid in salvaging some quarterback value. 

Another hot issue surrounding the PPR debate is the extraordinary value of pass-catching running backs.  While PPR does tend to equalize the value of wide receivers and most running backs, the stud pass-catching running backs see their worth soar to new heights.  Thus, point-per-reception scoring, whose original purpose was to limit the importance of top-flight players, has ironically created monster-backs whose value is seemingly entirely uninhibited.  Imagine holding LaDainian Tomlinson a few years ago in a PPR league, for example. 

Having such mega-scorers is a true concern for fantasy owners, as it places unnecessary importance on being near the top of the draft order.  There are methods that can be employed, however, to restore the sanctity of draft positions. 

First, require just two starting running backs as compared to three starting receivers.  Immediately, wide receivers’ worth becomes comparable to running backs. 

A second option, albeit a more controversial one, is to reward just .75 points per reception for running backs.  This helps to limit the worth of some of the “cheap” receptions a running back may garner, such as on screens or check downs.  Do not lower it too much, however, as many wide receivers also obtain these sort of less impressive receptions on smoke and bubble screens, for example, meaning the overall relational value is generally restored.  

A final concern for PPR leagues is the diminished role of the tight end.  Although in most PPR leagues tight ends do receive one point for each catch, they still generally haul in less receptions than wide receivers, and even some running backs.  Thus, they are still losing ground in this manner. 

This problem, I believe, can be alleviated by rewarding 1.25 points per tight end reception.  This increases their value, but does not alter it so much as to create a situation where tight ends are the crux of a fantasy team.  Remember, our goal is to create a league that is as similar to the NFL as possible, and although tight ends are important, they are generally considered less crucial (particularly in the area of statistics) than the other skill positions. 

It is always important to back up your words with numbers, and a test I have devised to determine the value of each position, regardless of scoring system, is to calculate the percentage of NFL starters at each position that your fantasy league mandates be started.  In a two-quarterback league, for example, 75% of all NFL starters (24 of 32) must be played in a 12-man league.

Determining NFL starters nowadays can be tricky due to multiple personnel packages, but for the sake of argument, we will say each NFL team starts one quarterback, 1.75 running backs (the two backup ball carriers, for most teams, generally receive three-quarters the touches of the top RB, and thus are worth 3/4 the value), 2.5 wide receivers (teams differ greatly here, but on average, they use three-receiver sets roughly 50% of the time, and #4 wide receivers’ stats tend to be negligible), and 1.2 tight ends (slightly more than one due to the minority of teams which employ two legitimate pass-catching tight ends, such as the Saints).  Thus, during each non-bye week, NFL teams start a combined 32 usable quarterbacks, 56 running backs, 80 wide receivers, and 38 tight ends

The starting requirements and scoring system I propose for a PPR scoring league are listed below.  Based on the aforementioned arguments and percentages, I believe these requirements create the most exciting, level playing field one could hope for in a fantasy league. 


Passing:  1 pt per 25 yards, 4 pts per TD

Rushing:  1 pt per 10 yards, 6 pts per TD

Receiving:  1 pt per 10 yards, 6 pts per TD, 1 pt per WR reception, .75 per RB reception, 1.25 per TE reception


QB: 1

RB: 2

WR: 3

TE: 1

QB/WR: 1


This system would create a total “starting value” of 1.5 QB’s, 2.3 RB’s, 3.8 WR’s, and 1.3 TE’s.  In a 12-man league, this would equate to 18 total quarterbacks, 28 running backs, 46 wide receivers, and 20 tight ends. 

When comparing these figures with the NFL starting values listed above, we see that the fantasy league would start 18/32 QB’s (56%), 28/56 RB’s (50%), 46/80 WR’s (57.5%), and 16 of 38 TE’s (42%)

These percentages are all relatively even.  The abundance of pass-catching running backs makes up for the 7.5% less fantasy/NFL starting percentage as compared to wide receivers, and the lower tight end percentage is made up for by the fact that they receive a higher point total for each reception than the other positions. 

Ultimately, the choice of whether or not to switch to a PPR scoring system is a more complicated issue than it may first appear.  If you create a situation through your starting requirements and scoring system where positional value is equalized, however, a point-per-reception league can become the most exciting, NFL-comparable form of fantasy football today.


Fantasy Football: The Myth of Overworked Running Backs

Jonathan Bales

Which "fantasy" football do you prefer--analytical, stat-driven research as it relates to the NFL, or "Fantasy Girl" and "The Blonde Side" author Amber Leigh? Luckily, we have both for you.

Note:  This is a two-page entry.

Every year during my fantasy drafts (I would say the exact number of leagues in which I participated last year if I wasn’t so embarrassed about the number–hint: I can’t even count them all with my fingers and toes), I hear a variety of fantasy football “truisms” thrown out following the selection of certain players.

“Wide receivers always break out in their third year.”

“Don’t draft a kicker until the last round.”

And perhaps most frequently, “Running backs are never the same the year following a season of 370 (or any other arbitrary number) touches.”

It is this last notion which will be the subject of this post.  There have already been some informative studies produced on the decline of running backs following a season of heavy work, not the least interesting of which can be found here.

Before delving into the results, it is critical to once again rehash the importance of the correlation/causation distinction.  In our article on the importance (or lack thereof) of offseason workouts, we wrote:

Both of these notions–running the ball and having a good coach–are onlycorrelated to winning.  Correlation does not equate to causation. For example, intelligence is rather strongly correlated to shoe size.  Does possessing big feet make you smarter?  Of course not, but people with big feet are generally older, and older people tend to be more intelligent than children (although that is unfortunately not always the case).

Nonetheless, we only notice the presence of these characteristics when it is too late–they have no predictive power.

With the distinction between correlation and causation in the back of our minds, let’s examine the stats regarding a running back’s touches and his performance the following season.

Football Outsiders (a terrific site, by the way) completed a study on the workload of running backs and summed up their results as follows:

A running back with 370 or more carries during the regular season will usually suffer either a major injury or a loss of effectiveness the following year, unless he is named Eric Dickerson.

Terrell Davis, Jamal Anderson, and Edgerrin James all blew out their knees.  Earl Campbell, Jamal Lewis, and Eddie George went from legendary powerhouses to plodding, replacement-level players.  Shaun Alexander struggled with foot injuries, and Curtis Martin had to retire.  This is what happens when a running back is overworked to the point of having at least 370 carries during the regular season.

Is 370 carries really a magical number by which we can judge the future effectiveness of a running back?  It is certainly true that a running back coming off of a season with a heavy workload is more likely to be less effective and more likely to get injured than was the case in the prior season–but is this truly the result of the high number of touches, or is it due to something else?

The truth is that, while the statistics do point to a decrease in effectiveness and an increase in rate of injury following a heavy-workload season, these numbers are both insignificant and irrelevant.

It is easy to gather "significant" results if cut-off points are chosen after reviewing the results. The mark of a good theory, however, is its predictive power. Using a player's workload from the previous season (particularly when an arbitrary number of carries is chosen after the fact) has little predictive power as it relates to his production the following season.

The key is in a statistical term known as ‘regression toward the mean.’ Mathematics is a beautiful thing.  Given a large enough sample size, numbers always win.  Flip a coin 10 times, for example, and the number of heads you obtain could realistically be anywhere from one to 10.  Flip it 100 times, though, and you are very unlikely to acquire more than 70% of either heads or tails.  Flip it 1,000 times, and it is a virtual certainty that you will have flipped no more than 60% of heads or tails (and much more likely, less than 55%).

This predictability through which the universe manifests itself is not irrelevant to football.  Two-point conversion rates and onside kick recovery percentages, for example, remain relatively stable from year to year.  There may be blips in the data from time to time, but the overall statistics always (always!) regress back toward the mean.


Cowboys Film Study: 2nd and 1 Play-Calling

Advanced NFL Stats has published two interesting articles on the value of 2nd and 1 plays and the poor play-calling displayed throughout the NFL in these situations.  As you can see in the graph below, a nine yard gain on 1st down is extremely valuable to an offense.

Courtesy of Advanced NFL Stats

Why?  Well, think of it from the perspective of a defensive coordinator.  You want to stop the run to prevent a 1st down, but playing too aggressively against the run would create a vulnerability in your defense should the offense decide to pass.  Since 2nd and 1 is such a tremendous risk/reward situation for an offense, they could very well take a shot down the field.  If the result is an incomplete pass, they have a rather easy (relatively speaking) 3rd down play (meaning low risk), but the upside of a deep playaction pass, for example, is outstanding.

Game theory dictates that NFL offenses should be in the business of maximizing upside and minimizing risk, while defenses are looking to create low reward/high risk situations for offenses.

The value of a 2nd and 1 play is so incredible that, on average, a team will score .7 extra points each time they gain nine yards on 1st down as compared to gaining 10 yards.  Yes, gaining one less yard on 1st down provides a team with .7 more “expected points.”  In fact, 2nd and 1 plays are so valuable that they yield more expected points than any 1st down gain all the way up until 17 yards.  Thus, a nine-yard gain on 1st down is actually more valuable to an offense than a 16-yard gain.

The value of 2nd and 1 plays is even greater, though, if offensive coordinators take advantage of the situation.  This is not the case, however. League-wide, coaches called a run play on 78% of all 2nd and 1 plays.  That is even more than the 76% rate on 3rd and 1’s!

Further, only 4% of 2nd and 1 plays result in the offense going deep (throwing 15+ yards in the air).  This is fewer than all other 2nd down situations except 2nd and 4.

So why aren’t coaches taking advantage of the outstanding opportunity that comes with 2nd and 1 plays?  Disregarding the fact that most NFL coordinators are simply naturally conservative in their play-calling, we think the main reason is that they don’t want to deal with the stress of 3rd down.

Instead of utilizing the potential upside of 2nd and 1, they treat it as if it was simply another 3rd down.  Two opportunities to run the ball for just one yard?  Sounds good to me.  This thinking initially appears rational because it is the combination of plays which is most likely to result in a 1st down.  Offensive coordinators are supposed to do everything possible to obtain 1st downs, right?

Well, yes and no.  Of course a team needs to acquire 1st downs to move the ball, but coordinators should not be so focused on getting that next 1st down that they miss an opportunity for a huge play.  Take a look at this example:

Team A has 50 2nd and 1 situations throughout a season, running the ball on nearly every one.  They obtain 45 1st downs, but zero touchdowns on these plays.

Team B also has 50 plays on 2nd and 1, but they take a more balanced approach.  They throw about half the time, resulting in just 35 1st downs.  However, they score a touchdown on six of these plays.

So, which team would you rather coach?  For us, the low risk/high reward results obtained by Team B are much more appealing (and much more strongly-correlated with winning) than those of Team A.

Thus, offensive coordinators could increase the expected points of their offense dramatically by throwing out conventional wisdom and opening up the playbook a bit on 2nd and 1.

As you can see in the graph to the right, Cowboys’ offensive coordinator Jason Garrett’s play-calling on 2nd and 1 was nearly identical to the league average (he called a run on 80% of plays, compared to the 78% mean).  With Miles Austin and the newly-acquired Dez Bryant both athletic play-makers who thrive at getting deep, we would love to see the Cowboys employ a more balanced 2nd and 1 approach in 2010.

The chart also provides the run/pass ratio for all plays with a distance-to-go of three yards or less.  You can see that Garrett rarely exploited the high-reward opportunity of short-yardage 2nd down plays.  In fact, the Cowboys attempted just three passes of 15+ yards all season in 2nd or 3rd and 3 or less (3.22% of all plays in these situations).

We would actually like to see the red and blue lines in the graph to the right alternate places in 2010 (or at least move closer together).  A higher pass percentage on 2nd and short and a higher run percentage on 3rd and short, we believe, would result in not only more 1st down conversions for Dallas, but also (more importantly) a much larger opportunity to score quickly on big plays.

For an offense that tallied the second-most yards in the NFL in 2009 yet failed to crack the top 10 in points (14th), maximizing upside through the implementation of high-reward plays in short-yardage situations (particularly on 2nd down) may be just what the doctor ordered for the ‘Boys.


How a Ban of the Three-Point Stance Would Affect the Cowboys

Three-point stances could become a thing of the past, which likely would affect the entire fabric of the game.

If you have not yet heard, Commissioner Goodell is looking into whether forcing offensive and defensive linemen to stand in two-point stances (no hand in the ground) would make the game safer, i.e. less head injuries. Seriously.

A lot of Cowboys fans have questioned how this proposed rule change might affect the Dallas’ linemen, and I actually think that, if anything, it would help the team. At an average size of 6’5”, 327 pounds, the Cowboys offensive line is mammoth–one of the largest in the league. This kind of size can only be overpowered with leverage, something that defensive linemen acquire, in large part, due to their starting stance. The abolition of the three-point stance would force linemen to play with a higher initial pad level, a proposition that would decrease the impact of leverage and favor the larger individuals.

On defense, the Cowboys already have only three linemen in a three-point stance pre-snap. Further, because they run this 3-4 scheme, their defensive linemen are substantially larger than those on other teams, particularly the defensive ends. It seems as though an alteration in the required pre-snap stance would hurt the Cowboys’ d-line as little as it would hinder any other defensive line in the league.

Instead of standing as Marc Colombo is above, linemen would likely attempt to gain leverage by leaning forward as much as possible without touching the ground, particularly on obvious run downs.

Still, whether or not the rule helps Dallas is a moot point if the rule itself is a poor one, which I believe to be the case. The entire sport of football, no matter your position, is about playing with proper technique and superior leverage. Eliminating one’s ability to do this–to force players to “play high”– makes little sense. Further, when you force players to play without leverage, the chance of injury, in my opinion, is not lessened. In what manner is it safer for a defensive linemen to lose all pre-snap leverage and get blown off the ball?

Lastly, what is a proper two-point stance? A wide receiver is technically in one. Instead of linemen going into stances similar to those they are in on obvious passing downs (pictured to the right), they would likely attempt to get as low as possible without actually touching the ground, particularly in obvious running situations. Thus, the impact and head-to-head collisions that this proposed idea would attempt to eliminate would remain, and, unfortunately, so would all of the aforementioned downsides.


What should the ‘Boys do with Deon Anderson?

The Cowboys could have a difficult roster decision looming, as starting FB Deon Anderson was arrested earlier this week in Addison, TX for allegedly brandishing a loaded gun. Anderson could face a future league-imposed suspension should the Cowboys retain him for the 2010 season.

FB Deon Anderson's future with Dallas is uncertain at best after his recent arrest.

In my opinion, the Cowboys should allow the legal system to play out and, should Anderson be found guilty, they should cut him immediately. Dallas made it a point of emphasis this past offseason to rid themselves of players they determined to be potential distractions, i.e. Terrell Owens, Tank Johnson, Pacman Jones, Greg Ellis, and two of those players never even had trouble with the law.

Unfortunately for Deon Anderson, he does not have the natural ability of a T.O. or Greg Ellis. While it is nice to believe that all NFL players get treated equally, that is just not the case. Like it or not, star players receive more leeway, both on an off the field. Deon Anderson is a solid fullback and a much-improved blocker, but his contributions to the Cowboys are not enough, in my opinion, for him to stay on the team should he be found guilty.

As I continue to progress through my film study of the season, I have noticed the Cowboys used TE John Phillips more and more at fullback as the season rolled along. As long as they do not give up too much in the blocking department, which did not appear to be the case on film, this is a savvy move, as Phillips is a much bigger threat to make a play out of the backfield. Opposing defenses must at least account for his presence, meaning any loss in blocking ability from Anderson to Phillips is more than made up for by Phillips’ playmaking abilities. His versatility to line up at multiple positions also gives the defense less knowledge as to the Cowboys’ play call, as they could line up in spread just as easily as I-formation with Phillips in the game, a luxury that could not be afforded with Anderson in the lineup.

Rookie TE John Phillips' versatility softens the blow of a potential Anderson departure.

The greatest hole Anderson’s departure would leave would be on special teams, where he made 12 tackles in 2009. This loss, however, is well worth the Cowboys making a statement by cutting Anderson and showing the team that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated. Still, let’s hope for Anderson’s sake that these allegations are false, or at least exaggerated.


Potential Draft Picks: Brandon Spikes, ILB, Florida

As I explained before, the Cowboys really need to get younger at the inside LB position. Bradie James and Keith Brooking really did a tremendous job last season, particularly in the leadership department, so their presence is not something that should just be tossed off to the wayside.

Florida ILB Brandon Spikes' size makes him an ideal fit in a 3-4 defense.

With such a talented roster, however, it will be tough for a rookie at any position, no matter where he is selected, to come onto this team and start. Thus, Dallas really has the luxury of taking the best player available at pick #27 (should they truly stay put, as Mr. Jones has declared they will do). If that best player available happens to be at ILB or on the offensive line, then the Cowboys will have also filled what will be a position of need within a year or two.

Earlier I profiled Alabama ILB Rolando McClain. While he would be tremendous value at the Cowboys draft spot, chances are they would have to move up to nab him. Florida’s Brandon Spikes, however, will almost certainly be available in the back of the first round. With some help, he could even fall to pick #59, although if the Cowboys like him enough, they’d probably have to move up a few spots in round two to secure the great value that would come with Spikes’ selection. Remember, this is a guy who was a consensus first-round pick before he came back for his senior season.

Scouting Report

At 6’3”, 256 pounds, Spikes definitely has the requisite size to play inside in a 3-4 defense. He is a very instinctual player who does a great job of always being around the ball. His aggression can sometimes lead to him being out of position, however, and he does not have the speed to recover from taking bad angles, something he does from time to time. He may have trouble defending counters and misdirection plays in the NFL. When he is in position, however, Spikes displays tremendous strength by keeping his legs underneath him. Some have ridiculed him for going for the big hit too often, but I think he displays solid recognition skills of when and when not to do this. I also believe another popular knock on Spikes, that he is sub-par in coverage, is unfounded. While his hips and COD (change of direction) are not ideal, he does a good job getting into his drop and making a play on the football.


Spikes is a guy who will probably fall between the Cowboys’ first and second-round selections. While they will most likely stay put at pick #27, I could see Dallas moving up from pick #59 to grab Spikes should he fall toward the back of round two.