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Running the Numbers: Cowboys-Saints Film Study

Posted Dec 24, 2012

It’s always fascinating to see how the course of a team’s season can shift so quickly in the NFL. Take a look at the Giants, who statistically had a 90 percent chance to make the playoffs earlier this year. After a loss in Baltimore, the Giants are now out of contention to win the NFC East. New York’s loss also completely altered the importance of the Cowboys’ Week 16 loss to the Saints. While the disappointment of an overtime defeat in the heat of a race for a division crown always stings, the ’Boys are really in the same position as before: Win in Washington in Week 17, and you’re in.

  • It’s easy to look at the Cowboys’ 45-to-11 pass-to-run ratio and say that head coach Jason Garrett should have dialed up more runs, but I’m not sure that’s the case. It’s so tempting to criticize such a ratio because the Cowboys lost, but they were a weird bounce of the ball away from us praising Garrett for “sticking with what was working.” Tony Romo was on fire for most of the game, averaging 9.67 yards per attempt (YPA) over 43 attempts. As much as Drew Brees diced up the Cowboys’ defense, even he totaled only 8.42 YPA. Meanwhile, DeMarco Murray ran for just 3.63 yards per carry (YPC) on the ground. Remember, the Cowboys have historically won around 50 percent more often when they pass the ball very frequently in the first three quarters of games.
  • If you recall, Garrett called 45 passes and only 19 rushes (two of which were Romo kneel-downs) last week. That game against the Steelers was very similar to this one, except a remarkable Brandon Carr interception altered how we perceive the two games. In both contests, Garrett was extremely pass-heavy; with the way Romo has been throwing the ball lately, that’s a good thing. If we aren’t going to criticize Garrett’s play-calling in a victory last week (which we shouldn’t), then we can’t do it this week.
  • One reason it can be enticing for some to wish for more running plays is because it helps teams control the clock. Since teams that win the time-of-possession battle win the game more often than not, it’s important to work the clock, right? Actually, no. Teams that win the time-of-possession battle frequently win the game only because they likely had a late lead, i.e. they could run the ball late in the game. The relationship between time-and-possession and wins is actually the same as that between rushing the ball frequently and winning; they’re strongly correlated, but there’s no causal relationship after accounting for game situations. That is, teams that play most efficiently on offense tend to win games and then run the clock. The method by which they gain a lead can differ, but it’s usually led by an effective passing attack.
  • One potential benefit of trying to win time-of-possession early in games is to keep your defense off of the field, but that seems a bit self-defeating. Would we really want to take back the two Dez Bryant 58-yard scores because they came too quickly? Don’t forget that keeping the defense off of the field comes at the price of generally running a sub-optimal offense. All other things equal, the Cowboys should do what works best for them on offense, and I thought Garrett did a really good job of that on Sunday.
  • One last note about the run/pass balance and time-of-possession: If the Cowboys or any team considers themselves to be the favorite to win, they should really shoot for running as many plays as possible. If the Cowboys held a small advantage over New Orleans, they’d want to increase the total plays in the game as much as possible to improve the chances of that advantage showing. There’s a massive difference between a game with 100 total plays and one with 170. The larger the sample size of plays, the greater the likelihood that the favorite wins. That’s one reason that it’s beneficial for poor teams to run often; shortening the game increases the amount of luck needed to win, and thus it is advantageous if you believe yourself to be a long-term loser.
  • The Cowboys ran relatively few plays in Saints’ territory, but that was due in large part to Bryant’s two long touchdowns. On the day, Dallas had just 15 offensive plays in New Orleans’ territory, 27.2 percent of their total. On the year, the Cowboys have run 39.1 percent of their plays on opponents’ side of the field.
  • I noted that Romo clearly had some of his best stuff on Sunday, and I counted only three of his passes as being off-target, about half his normal rate.
  • It seemed like more, but the Cowboys ran four play-action passes against the Saints. Romo completed two of them for 74 yards and a touchdown, the biggest of which was obviously the first deep ball to Bryant. That pass, which traveled 38 yards past the line, was one of five passes of at least 20 yards for Romo. He completed three of those deep looks for 118 yards and two touchdowns. If there’s one way by which I thought the Cowboys could have improved their chances of winning, it would have been to give Bryant a few more deep targets. The Romo-to-Bryant connection is clicking so well right now that the ’Boys might benefit from giving Bryant an extra jump ball or two per game.
  • Romo killed the Saints when they rushed more than four defenders, completing five of his eight passes against the blitz for 135 yards and two touchdowns. That’s probably why New Orleans dialed back the blitzes in the second half. I counted only four blitzes from the Saints after the first two quarters (despite nearly 70 percent of the Cowboys’ offensive plays coming after halftime). The Saints chose the right times for their second half blitzes, forcing three incompletions and sacking Romo once. I attributed that sack to Jermey Parnell and another to Mackenzy Bernadeau.
  • The Cowboys were victimized by drops in the third and fourth quarters. Miles Austin and DeMarco Murray combined to drop passes on three consecutive offensive plays at one point. Through 15 games, I’ve handed out drops as follows: Bryant (9), Austin (6), Witten (6), Jones (4), Ogletree (3), Murray (2), Harris (2), Beasley (1), Dunbar (1), Tanner (1).
  • Jason Witten stayed in on pass protection six times against the Saints, although a couple of those plays were designed runs on which Romo pulled up and hit Austin on a smoke screen. Romo completed five of his six passes for 97 yards and a touchdown with Witten in pass protection. One was the 58-yard bomb to Bryant on second-and-6, a play on which the play-action fake and Witten’s usage as a blocker combined to draw up the safeties so that Bryant could work against single coverage.
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