DALLAS - One of the things I was most eager to see heading into the new season was whether the Dallas Cowboys would be able to re-establish their identity from 2014.
The Cowboys had this goal in mind when the team drafted running back Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick. As the Cowboys attempted to establish their new identity, early returns from the season opener were discouraging, but not yet hopeless.
To understand the elusive concept of “identity,” I wanted to examine how the coaching staff would approach play-calling on 1st-and-10 with Elliott in the mix.
Why prioritize 1st-and-10? Because the Cowboys coaching staff does. In 2014, the offense established its rushing identity almost exclusively through first-down play-calling. Defenses stacked the box in response, allowing MVP contender Tony Romo to exploit short-handed secondaries through the air.
The Cowboys handed the ball off on 71 percent of 1st-and-10 situations in 2014, the highest rushing rate by far in the NFL. On those rushes, the team averaged 5.2 yards per carry. That’s excellent, considering opposing defenses usually knew what type of play was coming and still couldn’t stop it.
But the main benefit of this commitment to the run was how it bolstered the team’s first-down passing efficiency, a far more important factor in football. As defenses keyed in on stopping DeMarco Murray on first downs, Romo lay in wait in to feast on preoccupied defenses. The Cowboys quarterback averaged 10.2 yards per pass attempt on 1st-and-10, his highest on any down, and the second-highest mark in the league in that situation.
In other words, remember all that 2014 talk about the Cowboys imposing their will through the running game? That pretty much only occurred on first downs. On second downs, the Cowboys ran the ball on 38 percent of plays; on third downs, that rate dropped below 24 percent.
Which brings us back to the current season. With the Cowboys investing their top pick in a running back, they effectively doubled down on their identity as a dominant rushing team with a dangerous passing attack. This means, once again, how the Cowboys approach first-down situations will tell us a lot about how the team plans to operate.
After watching only one game—and one that featured a rookie quarterback in his first professional start, at that—I’m not sure we can draw many conclusions. The Cowboys were able to string together some good drives, but their first-down performance left me concerned about how a Dak Prescott-led offense can re-establish the identity the team had under Romo in 2014.
Against New York on 1st-and-10, the Giants defensive front permeated the Cowboys offensive line and gave Elliott little to work with. The early rushing struggles may have impacted the passing game, too. On 18 passes on 1st-and-10, Prescott averaged 5.4 yards per attempt—which ranked 23rd among quarterbacks in Week 1.
For comparison, Giants quarterback Eli Manning led the NFL this week in yards per pass attempt on 1st-and-10, completing all six of his attempts to rack up 90 yards and a touchdown. The Cowboys pass defense, another critical part of this equation, has to be better than it was on Sunday, particularly on standard downs when runs and passes are equally likely.
That said, there’s no reason to overreact. If you recall, the Cowboys didn’t exactly get off to a smooth start in 2014, either, when they fell to 0-1 against the San Francisco 49ers before finding their way and becoming a 12-4 offensive juggernaut.
Just keep an eye on how the Cowboys approach first down, both under Prescott and when Romo is hopefully healthy. It will tell us a lot as the season goes on about whether the Cowboys can reclaim their winning formula, or even discover a new one.
Chart of the week
I make no secret about my fascination with expected-points models, which have tremendous explanatory power and a near-perfect relationship with team scoring margin. They’re the basis for some of football’s most comprehensive models and studies, including ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating and the growing consensus that coaches should go for it more often on fourth down.
Expected-points models can also give us a sense of scale for how each unit affects the team’s scoring margin on any given Sunday or throughout the season.
For all our frustration Sunday with the running game’s struggles or specific player miscues, what hurt the Cowboys the most on opening week was the team’s pass defense.
Here’s how each unit contributed to the scoring margin, according to Pro Football Reference’s expected-points model:
Do you think the Cowboys can improve their pass rush on Sunday? Let Daniel know on Twitter @Daniel_Houston.
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