When the Cowboys decided to take away play-calling duties from head coach Jason Garrett this offseason, the idea was that he’d be able to improve his game management skills.
After the Cowboys’ sickening loss to the Green Bay Packers in Week 15, it’s pretty clear that Garrett has a ways to go when it comes to clock management and other aspects of in-game decision making.
After the game, Garrett called out quarterback Tony Romo for throwing a late-game interception on a 2nd-and-6 play that was apparently a run/pass option. Let me start by saying the decision from Romo to throw the ball in that situation was horrible. It was absolutely a mind-numbingly dumb decision, and a terrible throw on top of it. There’s no reason he should be throwing the ball on a 2nd-and-6 with a five-point lead and just under three minutes to play in the game.
But here’s the thing: Romo’s decisions are a reflection of Garrett. They’ve been working together for years now, and it’s the head coach’s responsibility to put his players in a position to succeed. Whether or not Romo should be smart enough to not throw a pass in that situation is irrelevant; Garrett should have ensured that a run play was called—not a run/pass option—and that Romo didn’t even have an opportunity to throw the ball. To call out the quarterback when Garrett was largely to blame is outrageous.
Looking at expected points and historic outcomes based on specific game situations, sites like Advanced NFL Stats calculate the win probability for each team at any point during a game. Here’s the Cowboys-Packers win probability graph.
I marked down two percentages—the Cowboys’ win probability at halftime and their win probability prior to Romo’s first interception. Based on their lead and the fact that they were kicking off to Green Bay to start the second half, Advanced NFL Stats calculated the Cowboys’ chances of winning at 96 percent.
Another site that calculates win probability—Pro Football Reference—uses the game lines to factor in team strength. They actually had Dallas’s win probability at halftime at 99.7 percent.
That’s a big difference: a 1-in-25 chance of losing versus one-in-333. In reality, the probability was likely somewhere between those. Even if the Cowboys’ win probability was at the low end of that estimate, their strategy should have been the same: decrease the number of remaining plays as much as possible.
I’m as big of a proponent of passing the ball early and often as you’ll find. In typical game situations, I think the Cowboys actually run the ball way too much, especially on first down. They could benefit from being more aggressive offensively.
The problem was that much of the second half of this game wasn’t “typical.” The Cowboys’ focus should no longer have been on point-maximization—scoring as many points as possible—but rather closing out the game. Their goal should have been calling plays in such a way that the Packers wouldn’t have enough time to mount a comeback, even if they came out firing like they did. That means playing extremely conservatively on both offense and defense.
Instead, the Cowboys lengthened the game by playing as if point-maximization was in their best interest. That approach stems from a fundamental lack of understanding when it comes to probability. If you know the odds of a team coming back from a 23-point deficit and you know the chances of them doing it when you run the ball in every realistic situation that you can—such as all first downs, most second downs, and most third and-short/medium plays—you probably would run the ball more than three times in the fourth quarter.
And you certainly wouldn’t allow a run/pass option to make its way into the quarterback’s ear on a 2nd-and-6 with a five-point lead and under three minutes to play.
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