There's perhaps no way by wh
ich the Cowboys can improve more in 2012 than by playing better in the red zone. Football really becomes a different game inside the red zone; the field is condensed, the threat of deep passing vanishes, and running increases in importance. Teams that generally excel between the 20s can struggle in the red zone, and vice versa.
Over the past few years, the Cowboys have been mediocre in the red zone. In 2009, the team scored a touchdown on about half (50.9 percent) of their trips to the red zone. That rate was good for just 18th in the NFL. In 2010, the team improved to ninth with a 59.5 percent touchdown rate, but they took a step back last year by scoring a touchdown only 49.0 percent of the time they ventured inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
In attempting to fix their red zone woes, the first thing the Cowboys need to do is remember red zone stats are fluky. The Cowboys made it there 51 times in 2011 – hardly a massive sample size. Still, there are a few tried and true methods of getting the ball into the end zone once the field shrinks in the red zone. Here are four ways the Cowboys can improve their red zone play in 2012:
Run the Ball Effectively, Particularly Near the Goal Line
I've long been a big proponent of the pass, and I even think the 'Boys should air it out more this season. In the red zone, however, running the ball efficiently is vital. Power running, specifically, means a whole lot down near the goal line when all those big bodies are packed into a tight space. The Cowboys' short-yardage rushing attack has been very poor of late, finishing in the bottom half of the league in every major category since 2009. Hopefully that improves with a revamped offensive line.
Pass the Ball Outside of the 10-Yard Line
Rushing the ball with effectiveness is certainly important throughout the red zone, but passing is still important. Actually, the "real" red zone might be inside the 10-yard line because that's where rushing the ball truly becomes more valuable than passing.
Above, you can see the value of rushing the ball exceeds that of passing only inside the 10-yard line. From the 10-yard line to the 20-yard line, the available real estate for offenses is still great enough for the value of passing to outweigh that of running.
Over the past three years, the Cowboys have been up and down in regards to their red zone play-calling.
Since 2009, the Cowboys haven't thrown the ball often at all in the red zone. The largest gap in pass rates came in 2010, when the team threw the ball 65.4 percent of the time from the 10- to 20-yard line, but only 25.9 percent of the time inside the opponent's 10-yard line. Not surprisingly, the offense ranked ninth in red zone efficiency that season, by far their best mark from 2009 to 2011. Last season – the team's worst in years in terms of red zone play – the 'Boys actually passed the ball more often inside the 10-yard line than from the 10- to 20 yard-line.
Get the Ball to Dez
The Cowboys have a unique weapon on the outside in Dez Bryant, and his skill set is tailored to succeed in the red zone. Bryant can catch the ball in traffic and win jump ball battles with the best of them. I'm not a huge proponent of fades near the goal line, but Bryant's hands, leaping ability, and body control make this sort of pass likely in 2012.
The easiest way to increase red zone success is simply to get there more often. Last year, the New England Patriots recorded the most red zone trips per game with 4.6. The St. Louis Rams reached the red zone fewer times than any other team, getting there only 1.9 times per contest.
Red zone appearances are rather consistent; the same dominant offenses tend to get there the most each year. Red zone conversion rates, however, are fluky. Sub-par offenses like the New York Jets, Tennessee Titans and Minnesota Vikings, for example, all ranked in the top 10 in red zone scoring percentage in 2012.
Thus, red zone conversion rates tend to level out over the long run. The best way to score a lot of red zone touchdowns is simply to focus on getting there frequently. However, the Cowboys have ranked 16th or worse in red zone appearances each year since 2009.
Chances are you'll see this offense improve dramatically in 2012 if they can increase their red zone appearances from 3.2 to around 4.0 per game – a mark only the Patriots, Saints, Eagles and Packers reached last season.