However, there are other times, when sample sizes are big enough to really be a cause for concern. Every Tuesday, when we try to decode the state of affairs with the Jason Garrett offense, we look for these patterns and do so by throwing a lot of numbers at the reader. Since I started writing this weekly back in 2008, I have tried to modify how much data we throw out there in an effort to not keep the majority of the audience interested.
But, as much data as we have in this column, I assume most people are aware that the team has a thousand times more data. The Cowboys track all of these numbers and things way more advanced and specific. They know what they do and don't do well. They look at tendencies and patterns and make sure they "self scout" in a way where they treat their own team as if it is the next opponent. They want to see what the world sees, not what they see in practice or behind closed doors.
A giant part of the game of football is to stay out of obvious patterns. Why? Because, the belief in the sport is that the teams are so close together in talent and strategy that the biggest weapon in the sport is often time the surprise of doing something the opposition is not expecting. There are stories about how the 1992-93 Cowboys were so good at what they did that they almost never changed personnel packages and only ran about 7 different plays. But, they were so powerful and so loaded with talent that they could essentially announce their plans before a play and you still couldn't do anything to stop it.
I guess it helps to have Hall of Fame players all over that offense. But that is not normal. Football is a sport where they attempt to put the defense in "classic conflicts". These are defined as situations where you place a defender in a spot where no matter what he chooses, he will be wrong. Think of the Giants game last week, where on the goal-line, Romo rolled out to the right and had a Giants' defender in the conflict. If the defender came to Romo, he would pass it to John Phillips, who the defender was responsible for. If he doesn't come to Romo, he will walk into the end-zone. There was no way for that one defender to cover 2 people. And this is why play design and strategy is so beautiful in this sport. You put people in these binds and make them submit to your power.
Which is why the 2012 Cowboys are seemingly in so much trouble.
Right now, they cannot construct these match-up issues. They cannot surprise their opponent. They cannot stress a linebacker or safety with the conflicts in pre-snap where there is indecision of what Romo is about to run. There is no concern amongst the defensive line about stopping the run. The Cowboys have become 1-dimensional. It is clear.
All they have done in the last 2 weeks is fall into the dangerous trap of thinking that the 2-minute drill is the only means for success right now. The evidence is rather clear. They cannot move the ball until they scrap the entire play book and treat the situation as if it is nothing but hurry-up offense. Then, the last 2 weeks, the Cowboys have pretty much rushed down the field and scored.
This, has led many to wonder if this should now be the Cowboys offense. Nothing but hurry-up, spread-em-out, shotgun attacking.
The answer is yes and no.
Yes, from a standpoint of looking at what is working and doing it more, it would seem that the best idea here is to scrap everything but the 2-minute offense.
But, no. From a standpoint of what is sustainable and what does history show us about this particular offense, I can think of no other approach that would be less efficient in the long term than simply scrapping any sort of running game (and no, shotgun runs are not a reasonable alternative in this offense) and treating every possession as if it is the 2-min drill.
This is their default setting and we must not lose sight of the opponent's role in this. When the Cowboys shifted their strategy against the Giants, they were down 23-0 and were also down 16-6 to the Falcons. Being down double digits surely impacts the aggressiveness of the defense's call sheet. You can not assume that they would assume the same cautious posture if the score was 0-0.
But, more importantly, I have 6 years of data that says the Cowboys are not good at this offense. They are actually quite inefficient and have a very difficult time in actual 2-minute situations, so why would anyone assume that this is where they would really find their groove?
I'll tell you why. Because we are all desperate to wake up this offense that has played 2 reasonable offensive games out of 8. But, history shows that balance is the only way to attack in the NFL. Not balance in play-calls, but balance in the way you attempt to make the defense defend you. You cannot declare that you are going to pass 85% of the time out of shotgun for the entire game and expect to stress a defense. They will welcome your passive approach, pin their ears back, and attack.
Romo will be looking into 8 man zones all day, and then get blind-sided with a corner blitz when it is not expected. History shows that despite some teams employing a variation of this attack, Jason Garrett and Tony Romo are not the two to try this.
Your easy counter might be, "well, what then?"
And that is where it gets more complex. DeMarco Murray needs to return and return in perfect form for them to have a real chance.
Presently, they have fallen into a pattern. Their offense is usually not staying ahead of the chains often enough. When their drives die, it is usually a negative run that results in a 3rd and long. 3rd and long is defined in the NFL as "more than 6 yards". That doesn't sound impossible, right?
Well, 3rd and more than 6 this season for the Cowboys? 12 for 48. 25%
3rd and more than 10? 7 for 29. 24%
Those numbers aren't far off the league averages, but they still show you how hard it is to live off 3rd Down conversions. You can convert a few, but that cannot be your means for survival. And, if you look at Sunday, the Falcons were sending 6 in a big blitz over and over again. But, it never happened until they got you in 3rd and long.
And why don't 2-minute drills work for the entire game?
Because undisciplined attacks usually are preconditioned to look for big plays when they are in that attack. And, miss one it is 2nd and long. Miss again and it is 3rd and 10. And then your opponent is blitzing the house and your QB is getting clobbered again as another pass falls harmlessly to the turf. There are just not enough small gains to "stay ahead of the chains". It is too tempting to go "all or nothing".
So, count me among the crew that while admitting that this is where they actually have found some success, I don't believe for a second that it can now become your main approach.
Data from Week 8 at Atlanta
|Starting Field Position||D 25|
|1st Down Run-Pass||10-15|
|2nd Down Avg Distance to Go||6.24|
|2nd Down Run-Pass||7-12|
|3rd Down Avg Distance to Go||7.8|
|3rd Down Run-Pass||1-9|
|3rd Down Conversions||3-10, 30%|
Here are the passing charts to see what was being accomplished on Sunday.
Blue is a completion. Red is incomplete. Yellow is a touchdown, and Black is an interception. The passes are lines from where Romo released the pass to where the pass was caught. This shows you his release point and where he likes to throw when he slides in the pocket.
Here is how we protect our passer - while making Dez Bryant a non-factor - quick passes underneath. Almost nothing over 10 yards down field. A typical, risk-free, day at the office.
1st Half -
2nd Half -
Even less risk below. No running game and no turnovers? Here is what it looks like. Why would a safety be scared of this?
Here is a chart dedicated to the evening of Miles Austin. A near perfect night save for the red line on the right that was a Romo overthrow and the red line in the middle that might have swung the game, but was stopped by a Austin drop.
Drive Starters - The 1st play of each drive can often reveal the intent of a coach to establish his game plan. How committed is he to the run or pass when the team comes off the sideline? We track it each week here -
Wk 1-At New York: 9 Drives - 5 Run/4 Pass
Wk 2-At Seattle: 9 Drives - 3 Run/6 Pass
Wk 3-Tampa Bay: 13 Drives - 7 Run/6 Pass
Wk 4-Chicago: 11 Drives - 3 Run/8 Pass
Wk 5-At Baltimore: 10 Drives - 8 Run/2 Pass
Wk 6-At Carolina 10 Drives - 6 Run/4 Pass
Wk 7-New York: 14 Drives - 4 Run/10 Pass
Wk 8-At Atlanta: 9 Drives - 4 Run/5 Pass
Season: 85 Drives 40 Run/45 Pass - 46% Run
2011 Total: 181 Drives - 79 Run/102 Pass 44% Run
Shotgun snaps are fine on 3rd Down and in the 2 minute drill. But, we track this stat from week to week to make sure the Cowboys aren't getting too lazy in using it. They are not efficient enough to run it as their base, and with a 15%/85% run/pass split across the league, there is no way the defense respects your running game. When shotgun totals are high, the Cowboys are generally behind, scared of their offensive line, or frustrated. High Shotgun numbers are not this team's calling card for success.
Scary to see that already there are 5 games where more than half of their plays have been in shotgun. They are well above their 2011 numbers and we are only half-way through this. And remember how bad we thought the line was in 2011? Yikes.
Wk 1 - NYG: 15/54 27.7%
Wk 2 - Sea: 29/56 52%
Wk 3 - TB: 34/63 54%
Wk 4 - Chi: 50/68 74%
Wk 5 - Balt: 19/79 24%
Wk 6 - Car: 22/64 34%
Wk 7 - NYG: 48/83 58%
Wk 8 - Atl: 29/54 54%
2012 Season Total: 256/521 49%
2011 Total - 445/1012 43.9%
Here is the breakdown by groupings:
Before you study the data below, I would recommend that if the numbers for the groupings are unfamiliar, that you spend some time reading a more expanded definition of the Personnel Groupings here.
Totals by Personnel Groups:
* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.
"12" personnel, once upon a time the power running formation, was 9 snaps and 8 passes on Sunday night. Only 1 run from 21 personnel, making us wonder why the Cowboys invested in a fullback this winter.
Totals by Personnel Groups on 3rd/4th Down:
These numbers are difficult to discuss if they are going to simply run one personnel group over and over again. If they can find 28 points doing that, it is one thing. But, 13 points?
In 6 years of this project, I am not sure I have ever seen this offense appearing this hopeless and out of ideas. They now have all of their eggs in the "DeMarco is our Gale Sayers" basket.
It is almost as if they know they are doomed offensively when they are on the plane, and must play a risk-free, perfect game to have a chance.
Which, admittedly, they almost did.