Trends in the Trenches: 4 tips for the Cowboys' offense during the bye week

Trends in the Trenches: 4 tips for the Cowboys' offense during the bye week

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Jason Witten #82 of the Dallas Cowboys runs the ball against the Minnesota Vikings at AT&T Stadium on November 3, 2013 in Arlington, Texas. The Cowboys defeated the Vikings 27-23. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)



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Posted on November 13, 2013 at 1:46 PM

Updated Thursday, Nov 14 at 5:11 AM

Super awesome news: the Cowboys’ bye week is going to be filled with “lots of analysis,” Said head coach Jason Garrett:

“You analyze your whole football team each and every week but the best chance to do that during the season is at the bye. We’ve already started that process as a coaching staff to really look at what we do well and what we don’t do well and try to build on the good things and maybe correct or get rid of some of the bad things.”

Momentarily putting aside the fact that the Cowboys have repeatedly shown an inability to evolve as a team (suggesting that perhaps there’s not really as much “analysis” going on at Valley Ranch as you might think), I want to take this time to perform a little bye week analysis of my own.

Through Week 10, the Cowboys’ offense has been pretty mediocre. They rank 11th in the league in net-YPA and 15th in rushing success rate—two stats that are really predictive of future success. With the talent Dallas has on offense, you could argue that those ranks represent severe underachievement.

So how can the ‘Boys get back on track? Based on my analysis, here are four tips to get them started.

Tip No. 1: Start throwing the ball downfield.

I discussed this earlier in the week, but Tony Romo needs to get the ball downfield. He has one of the game’s top jump-ball receivers in Dez Bryant and an effective downfield receiver in rookie Terrance Williams.

Yet through Week 10, Romo ranks 32nd in the NFL in the average depth of his throws at just 8.1 yards (meaning his typical pass travels 8.1 yards past the line). That’s not necessarily bad, assuming the offense is using short passes in place of runs, but those screens, flats, hitches, and other short throws need to be counteracted with deep looks.

In short, there needs to be balance not in the run-pass ratio, but in the aggressiveness of the plays Dallas calls, run or pass.

But there’s not. Other quarterbacks with short average pass lengths (like Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers) also throw the ball deep more than Romo’s 10.0 percent of passes, according to Pro Football Focus. The only quarterbacks who have a lower rate of deep passes than Romo are Mike Glennon, Ryan Tannehill, Chad Henne, Robert Griffin III, Sam Bradford, Matt Schaub, Matt Ryan, and Alex Smith. Not great company.

Tip No. 2: Stop running the ball on first down.

I like to analyze first half stats because you can get a better sense of a team’s true intentions. The numbers aren’t skewed by end-game scenarios, so they’re more representative of what teams are really trying to do offensively.

In the first half of their 10 games this season, the Cowboys have passed the ball on 53.8 percent of first downs. That’s a few percentage points higher than the league average, but it’s also well below what’s optimal for this offense.

Take a look at these numbers on first down play-calling.

Not only does passing on first down offer more upside than rushing, but it’s also safer! If your offensive strategy is “to set up manageable third downs,” there’s a good chance you’ll be home in January watching other offenses that call plays in an effort to avoid third downs altogether.

Tip No. 3: Use play-action way more often.

Want jaw-dropping evidence that the Cowboys don’t embrace analytics and are unwilling to adapt to new information? Last year, Romo ranked last in the NFL in play-action percentage, attempting a play-action pass on just 10.0 percent of his dropbacks despite totaling a 109.1 passer rating on those passes.

In 2013, Romo ranks last in the NFL in play-action percentage, attempting a play-action pass on just 10.3 percent of his dropbacks despite totaling a 121.2 passer rating on those passes.

What the hell?

All kinds of success on play-action, yet the rate has increased 0.3 percent points? With that sort of improvement, we’ll only need to wait just over 37 years until the Cowboys reach THE LEAGUE AVERAGE in play-action percentage.

Oh, but the Cowboys can’t run the ball, you say, so why use play-action? First, Romo’s ridiculous play-action success is reason enough to increase the rate. But more important, play-action efficiency isn’t correlated with rushing success.

Defenders play situations, not past rushing efficiency, so the Cowboys don’t need a strong running game for play-action to work. If they implemented more of a scientific approach to decision-making over the faith-based approach they currently utilize, they’d probably know that.

Tip No. 4: Move on from Jason Witten.

I don’t literally mean cut Jason Witten, but there’s no reason he should be on the field every snap. There’s DEFINITELY no way that he should have more targets than any tight end in the NFL other than Jimmy Graham.

Take a look at the number of yards Witten has generated per route that he’s run over the past six seasons.

Is there a trend there? I can’t really tell.

Oh now wait, there’s a nearly perfectly straight line. So when I told you all in the preseason that Jason Witten would regress and it seemed outrageous, the truth is it was probably the easiest Cowboys-related prediction I’ve ever made.

If the Cowboys really understood that Witten’s “career year” in 2012 was due completely to a heavy workload, there’s a good chance he wouldn’t be seeing over seven targets per game right now.