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From the Archives: Should Jason Witten Block Less? A Statistical View


By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys at Broncos, October 4, 2009. There are just seconds left on the clock with Dallas at Denver’s two-yard line, down seven. The Cowboys have two plays left to score and are sure to try to get the ball to their top playmakers.  Right?

Right, if you think the Cowboys’ best option is Sam Hurd.  The Cowboys force two slants to Hurd on 3rd and 4th and Goal and lose the game.  Don’t get me wrong–Hurd is a great bench player and has improved vastly, but, with Roy Williams out of the game, the Cowboys needed to target their Pro Bowl tight end.  Surely he had to be open on just one of the two plays.

The yards-per-pass average was significantly higher with Witten in a route.

But Witten couldn’t be open, because he was left in to block on both the 3rd and 4th down plays.  These two plays in particular got me to thinking:  how effective are the Cowboys on pass plays when Jason Witten is out in a route versus when he stays in to block?  I tracked every play of the 2009 season, and the results are to the right.

Witten was in the lineup for 485 pass plays (this includes sacks and Romo scrambles). c Of these plays, he was out in a pass route 374 plays, or 77.1 percent 0f the time.  Intuitively, it seems as though Witten must be out in a route more than about three out of four pass plays, but this was not the case.

As you can see, the Cowboys were more successful by leaps and bounds when Witten went into a route.  They averaged a stout 9.3 yards-per-attempt during these situations, compared to just 7.4 yards-per-attempt on the 111 pass plays where Witten blocked.

But why is this the case?  Is it purely due to Witten’s supreme receiving skills, or could there be another reason?  If Witten was out in a route more often during pass-friendly situations, such as when an opposing defense is playing a prevent, for example, then these numbers might be a bit inflated.

This was not the case, however.  Often times the Cowboys would be in a formation called “Gun 3 Wide Pro” (pictured left) during these situations, where Witten lined up next to Romo in the Shotgun.   He would frequently stay in to block, and only sneak out into a route if the protection was sound. Thus, this does not seem to be a reason for the higher passing average when Witten was a receiving option.

Another possible reason for a decrease in average is that the Cowboys frequently would keep Witten in to block when trying to go for the big play.   Opposing defenses often key the tight end to decipher run or pass, and when linebackers and safeties see Witten staying in to block, they tend to sneak up toward the line of scrimmage. Dallas loves to run one and two-man routes during these times, attempting to sneak a receiver behind an over-aggressive defense.

So why would this cause a lower yards-per-pass average with Witten blocking?   Perhaps attempting a big play gives the Cowboys a shot at a quick score, yet ultimately lowers the average because of the low chance of hitting on such a play.

If this is the case, though, we would expect the percentage of big plays to be significantly higher when Witten remains in to block versus when he is in a route.  Again, I dove into the film, and here are the numbers:

The Cowboys had slightly more big plays when Witten was not in a route.

The percentage of 15+ yard plays in the two scenarios is virtually even, while the percentage of 30+ yard plays is slightly higher when Witten remains in to block. These are the sorts of number that might be expected, but not a significant enough difference to explain nearly a two-yard difference in yards-per-play average (9.3 vs. 7.4).

Yet another possible explanation for the difference is that, when Witten stays in to block, there is a good chance the Cowboys are expecting blitz.  Blitzes could force bad decisions and lower the average.  The problem with this idea, however, is that Romo is one of the most effective quarterbacks in league history against the blitz.

If opposing defenses blitz and the Cowboys have proper protection, which would most likely be the case when they leave a tight end in to block, Romo would generally pick them apart (meaning this cannot be a correct explanation for the decrease in average).

One last potential explanation of the greater success displayed with Jason Witten in a pass route is that these situations are just generally safer than when Witten remains in to block.  The Cowboys are more likely to not be blitzed during these times, and if they are, Romo has his favorite option available for a hot route.   The numbers, though, do not seem to support this theory either.

When Witten did not go in a route, the Cowboys gave up eight sacks on 111 plays (7.2 percent), but Romo threw zero interceptions.  When the Cowboys’ top tight end did not stay in to block, however, the Cowboys yielded 25 sacks  on 374 plays (6.7 percent) and Romo threw all nine of his interceptions.  This 0.5 percent difference in sacks is not statistically significant enough to conclude that there is any real difference, while the eye-popping difference in interceptions proves that putting Witten out in a route is not necessarily a safer option.

Once the yards-per-pass with Witten blocking vs. in a route reaches the Nash equilibrium, perhaps 85 or 90 percent, Dallas will maximize their overall yards-per-pass.

Thus, we must conclude that the 9.3 yards-per-attempt during pass plays in which Witten was in a route is actually due to his ability to get open and make plays.

So, how do all these numbers affect the Cowboys’ future play-calling? The greatest success rate would arise through a steady increase in the percentage of plays that Witten is in a route that only stops once the “Nash equilibrium” is reached. While I won’t bore you by going into great detail about this term, know that it is basically when the average yards-per-play for both scenarios (Witten staying in and going out) is maximized.  At this point, the Cowboys will attain the greatest overall yards-per-pass average.

Thus, the best solution for next season’s playcalling would be for Jason Garrett to increase the “Witten-in-route” percentage until the Nash equilibrium is reached, reminding Romo to continue to limit turnovers, particularly when Witten is not in to help secure protection.

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Should the Cowboys Run More on 3rd Down?

By Jonathan Bales

I’ve spent some time talking about Jason Garrett’s 3rd down play-calls in the past, but only as they relate to the previous play.  I found that, unlike during his 2nd down play-calling, Garrett is actually rather unpredictable on 3rd down (that’s a good thing, of course).

In a recent post on why the Cowboys should pass out of “running” formations (and also in one on why teams should attempt a lot more 4th down plays), I spoke briefly about run/pass efficiency on 3rd down.  In short, NFL offenses fair much better when running the ball on 3rd and short (particularly 3rd and 1-3, but up until 3rd and 5).  Incredibly, running the ball is just as effective as passing up through 3rd and 10.  You can click the link above to read more about why this is so and view a graph displaying the conversion rates.

Nonetheless, I wanted to compare the Cowboys’ 2009 results with the league-wide numbers.  How effective was the offense when they ran the ball in “obvious” passing situations?  Note that these results (left) may be (very slightly) off from the numbers of Stats, Inc. or other unofficial stats companies because I did not use the televised ‘down and distance.’  For example, the televised version of a game may have mislabeled a play as ‘3rd and 1’ when it was really closer to ‘3rd and 2,’ and I have corrected for these mistakes to the best of my ability.

Notice the Cowboys’ yards-per-carry steadily rose (other than on 3rd and 6) as the yards-to-go increased.  This is obviously due to personnel and the game situation.  A defense which has substituted dime personnel on a 3rd and 10 is much more likely to yield a significant gain on the ground.  Of course, the yards-per-carry means nothing if the Cowboys are not achieving first downs.

The chart to the right displays the conversion rate of all Cowboys’ 3rd down plays (of 10 or less yards-to-go) in 2009.  As you can see, the Cowboys were more efficient on 3rd and 1 or 2 when running the ball.  They converted 17/21 (81.0%) plays in these situations, compared to only 7/11 (63.6%) when passing.

As the distance-to-go increased, however, the conversion rate on runs dropped.  The Cowboys converted zero 3rd downs when running the ball with 8+ yards to go (although they attempted just four).

Interestingly, the conversion rate of 3rd down passes remained relatively stable, regardless of the distance-to-go.  You can see a very slight drop in the Cowboys’ 3rd down passing efficiency, but for the most part, the conversion rate was flat.  This is probably due more so to the team’s success in 3rd and long situations rather than an inability to convert on 3rd and short (when passing).

I give offensive coordinator Jason Garrett a lot of flack, but his 3rd down play-calling is generally outstanding.  I’d still love to see him run more on 3rd and medium (the ‘Boys ran just seven times on 3rd and 3-6 all season, compared to 42 passes).  Of course one would expect more passes in this range, but a slight increase in “surprise” runs would be in-tune with league-wide 3rd down conversion rates and could perhaps significantly aid the offense.

And this really has nothing to do with anything I just wrote, but Tashard Choice was at a waterpark today with his family. . .

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X’s and O’s With Dallas Cowboys Coaches

As a site whose material is primarily based around film study and statistical analysis, we love when coaches get into the “X’s and O’s” of football.  Yesterday afternoon, coaches Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett did just that, spending about an hour with the media going over just three basic plays from that morning’s practice.  Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas explains:

The Cowboys, who requested that we keep the specifics of the session private, pride themselves on having simple systems. But it’s still pretty complex stuff. For example, typical offensive play call still consists of three parts that are between two and four words apiece: the formation, the blocking scheme and the routes/run. And many play-calls have a run/pass option, so double that.

We mention this because a few days ago, we emailed a few members of the Cowboys organization with some statistics we thought would be of use to them.  We received a prompt response from none other than Wes Phillips–the quality control coach and Wade’s son.  He wrote:

Thanks for the info, but I can assure you that we look at all of these stats and more on a weekly basis as well as a complete offseason study of every run/pass/protection from every formation/D&D/situation. We get much more in depth than you may realize and our goal is to not only be a top 5 offense but be the #1 offense in the NFL. Take care and go Cowboys.

This short response prompted us to write this post explaining why we do what we do.  We spend hundreds of hours breaking down film and completing statistical analyses not because we think the Cowboys are short-changing themselves, but rather because we want to obtain objective, non-biased information regarding the team.

We know that the Cowboys called a pass on 63 of 64 plays out of “Gun Trips” last season and that Tony Romo checked to a draw on 34 of 44 run audibles, for example, because we put in the time to break down the film.  While we do think some components of the Cowboys’ film study/stat department could be altered, that is not why we do this.  We do it because the Dallas Cowboys are our passion and we love uncovering innovative statistics which (perhaps) reveal something of interest to you.

Now, we have no idea what relationship our emails played in the media film study invite (probably none at all).  Nonetheless, we wanted to clear up any notions that we think the Cowboys “aren’t trying” when it comes to studying film and analyzing tendencies.  Nearly everyone within the organization spends countless hours reviewing film and attempting to improve.

Of course, maximum effort is useless if it is directed the wrong way.  Are the Cowboys spending their time studying the right statistics and trends?  We aren’t exactly sure, but there are certainly areas for improvement, particularly in the area of play randomization.

While there are certainly some things within the Cowboys’ play-calling and general philosophy which we would change, however, that is undoubtedly the case for every NFL team.  Just know the complexity of the Cowboys offense, defense, and special teams is far greater than most casual fans realize.