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Running The Numbers: Closer Look At Critical 3rd-and-5 Call

Posted Dec 10, 2012

With 1:17 remaining in the Cowboys’ amazing 20-19 comeback victory in Cincinnati, head coach Jason Garrett was confronted with a critical decision. Down by two points and facing a third-and-5 at the Bengals’ 30-yard line, kicker Dan Bailey was set to attempt a 48-yard field goal had the offense failed to advance the ball. Garrett knew he wanted to put Bailey in a superior position to attempt the game-winning field goal, but he also knew the ’Boys couldn’t lose yards. The situation was complicated further by the time remaining on the clock. If Tony Romo were to drop back and throw an incomplete pass, the Bengals would be left with over a minute to drive for a game-winning field goal of their own.

With multiple factors at play, Garrett dialed up a gutsy call, a draw from a Shotgun formation. It worked. DeMarco Murray was able to scoot through a small hole and contort his body to somehow secure the first down, greatly enhancing Bailey’s ability to eventually win the game for Dallas.

But what if the play hadn’t worked? What if Murray had been stopped for no gain and Bailey was left with a 48-yard field goal try? While the results of an isolated decision do nothing to dictate the merits of the choice itself, you can bet there would have been a lot of second-guessing about Garrett’s “give-up” play.

The truth is that running in that situation wasn’t a “give-up” decision at all. Actually, it was an extremely calculated and intelligent choice that completely changed the outlook of the game’s final minute for Dallas. To see why, let me take you back to a preseason article on how the Cowboys can improve offensive efficiency.

Defying conventional wisdom, third down runs are often more successful than third down passes. It isn’t that rushing the ball on third down is inherently advantageous, but rather that the defense anticipates a pass and plays accordingly; they implement nickel or dime personnel and often drop into coverage at the snap of the ball.

Over the last half-decade, rushing the ball on third-and-short has been far more effective than passing the ball (around a 15 percent difference in conversion rates on third-and-1 and third-and -2). The advantage of rushing the ball on third down extends up until third-and-5.

In 2012, NFL teams have converted 41.9 percent of their passes on third-and-5, compared to 37.5 percent of third-and-5 running plays. From a pure down-and-distance standpoint, the decision to run it was really no less advantageous than passing it. When you factor in the field position, game situation, and the offensive line’s struggles in pass protection throughout the day, the odds were tilted just a bit more in favor of a run.

More important than all of that, however, is that the Bengals were out of timeouts. Even if the Cowboys were unable to get a first down on their third-and-5 draw, a Bailey field goal followed by the ensuing kickoff would have left Cincinnati with somewhere around 30 seconds to drive down the field for the win – less than half the time that would have been available for Andy Dalton’s offense had Romo thrown an incomplete pass.

When judging a head coach’s level of aggressiveness, it’s tempting to simply assume that running is inherently less aggressive than passing. The truth is that Garrett’s decision was extremely aggressive; he knew he’d be criticized if the Cowboys failed to convert and Bailey subsequently missed the field goal try. Nonetheless, the coach dialed up the perfect call in the perfect situation, one that I’d argue was his best all season, and the Dallas Cowboys are now 7-6 because of it.

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