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Running the Numbers: A Change In Running Game Philosophy

Posted Aug 8, 2013

Preseason or not, second/third-team or not, the Cowboys’ ability to get the running game going on Sunday night was a beautiful sight. While I don’t think the team needs offensive balance in the traditional way that most view it, they do need balance in terms of effectiveness. If the ’Boys can’t run the ball efficiently, especially on third downs and in short-yardage situations, it’s going to again be a drain on the offense.

While it was great to see Dallas run the ball with some success, it was even better to see the types of runs they used. Specifically, the Cowboys ran the ball to the perimeter more often than usual, finding creative ways to get the ball into space. Bill Callahan called a stretch from a tight formation on the very first play of the game. Two plays later, the Cowboys lined up in a simple “Tight End Spread” formation, as pictured below.


This has been a semi-regular formation for the offense; I tracked them as using it on 49 plays in 2012, about three per game. They ran the ball on just 15 of those plays, 30.6 percent, but they had some success, rushing for 73 yards or 4.87 yards per carry (YPC).

Running from “Tight End Spread” and similar formations can be really valuable for Dallas. First and foremost, it spreads out the defense. For so long, NFL offenses have tried to run from tight formations, but that really just increases the number of blocks you need to make for a play to be successful. Running from tight formations can be useful in certain situations, such as goal line, but it’s not optimal for many other scenarios and certainly not for the acquisition of big plays.

And if you look at how the Cowboys have performed when they run the ball from spread formations, the data backs up the idea that they should consider flexing players out wide when they want to keep it on the ground.


The Cowboys totaled 4.6 YPC when running the ball from spread formations, compared to 3.3 YPC from tight formations. Some of that effect is due to a play bias – the offense uses primarily tight formations in short-yardage situations, for example – but the average distance-to-go on spread runs was less than a yard more than on tight runs, so it’s not as great of a disparity in situations as you might think.

And if you want an idea of how frequently the Cowboys used certain types of runs in 2012, take a look at this.

  • Bootleg: 0.5%
  • Counter: 2.5%
  • Dive: 57.2% (3.27 YPC)
  • Draw: 14.8% (4.36 YPC)
  • End-Around: 1.5%
  • Power: 18.2% (2.95 YPC)
  • Sneak: 0.5%
  • Toss: 4.3%
  • Trap: 0.5%

Well over half of the Cowboys’ runs were dive plays up the middle. Most of those were from tight formations with heavy personnel.

In theory, it’s inherently beneficial to run from tight formations because it maximizes the number of blockers at or near the point of attack. In practice, however, it doesn’t work out as well because defenses account for the change in personnel/formation. As a game of competing minds, football decision-making is packed with elements of game theory; what’s optimal in a vacuum often isn’t on the field, and there’s no undeniably “right” decision in an absolute sense, but just “right” relative to the opponent’s beliefs and actions.

If coaches implemented game theory to a greater extent, we’d probably see more theoretically “sub-optimal” calls that actually become advantageous given the opponent’s decisions. For example, offenses could generally benefit from running more to the weak side. It’s obviously not inherently advantageous to run to where you have fewer blockers, but since defenses usually match up to formations with more defenders on the strong side and they place their best run defenders there, the net effect is often superior when running to the weak side.

If you again glance at the Cowboys’ formation in the above image, you can see what the alignment did to Miami’s defense. On a first-and-10, they were forced to spread out and play with only seven defenders in the box. By the time Lance Dunbar took the handoff, he was already given a vast open space with which he could work.


The second reason that the Cowboys should probably run the ball more from spread formations such as “Tight End Spread” is that they can use almost any personnel and call any play that they want. On this particular play, Callahan enlisted “11” personnel – one running back, one tight end and three receivers – but he could have just as easily utilized a two-tight end package, or something even heavier. One of the advantages of having versatile tight ends is “diversifying your portfolio,” so to speak, when it comes to both formations and play-calls.

Moving forward, let’s continue to monitor how often the Cowboys run the ball (and where they run it) from spread formations. Similarly, we should watch to see how frequently Callahan runs the ball with “light” personnel, as he did above, and passes from two and even three-tight end packages. If we see more of the “unexpected,” a sign that the play-caller is factoring his opponent’s beliefs and actions into his own decision-making, there’s a high probability of a superior rushing game, and overall offense, in 2013.

Photos from Wednesday's afternoon practice >>
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