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RTN: Cowboys' Formations Hold Valuable Information

The manner in which an offense aligns its players before the snap can tell you a lot about what they're trying to do. Most teams use heavy personnel and tight formations in short-yardage situations, for example, while spreading it out with three, four or even five receivers in passing situations. Utilizing "run-oriented"


formations in running situations and "pass-oriented" formations in passing situations is perhaps inherently optimal, but it may not always be the best strategy. Many of the league's best offenses run from spread formations and pass from tight ones, for example. Ultimately, offensive coordinators need to mix up their calls from each formation so as to not become too predictable.

I tracked every formation for the Cowboys' offense throughout the season, and the results are below. Note that I grouped a few minor variations of formations together: primarily "Strong" and "I-formation." A traditional I-formation has the fullback and tailback lined up directly behind the quarterback and center, while "Strong" is when the fullback is shaded a couple of yards toward the strong side of the formation. Similarly, "Weak" formations have the fullback shaded a few yards toward the weak side of the formation.

Also note that these aren't the names the Cowboys use for their formations. The actual verbiage is less important than properly categorizing the plays. If we want to know how often the team runs and passes from particular formations, it doesn't really matter if we label something "Trips" that the Cowboys call "Bunch."

  • 3 Wide I: 30 (20 passes, 10 passes)
  • Ace: 39 (26 passes, 13 runs)
  • Double Tight Left/Right I: 62 (13 passes, 49 runs)
  • Double Tight I Left/Right: 22 (4 passes, 18 runs)
  • Double Tight Left/Right Ace: 54 (12 passes, 42 runs)
  • Double Tight Twins Ace: 24 (13 passes, 11 runs)
  • Full House: 2 (0 passes, 2 runs)
  • Gun 3 Wide Pro: 18 (18 passes, 0 runs)
  • Gun 5 Wide: 36 (36 passes, 0 runs)
  • Gun Spread: 99 (96 passes, 3 runs)
  • Gun Tight End Spread: 153 (140 passes, 13 runs)
  • Gun Tight End Trips: 107 (84 passes, 23 runs)
  • Gun Trips: 129 (127 passes, 2 runs)
  • I-Formation: 16 (8 passes, 8 runs)
  • Jumbo: 10 (2 passes, 8 runs)
  • Spread (under center): 6 (3 passes, 3 runs)
  • Strong: 23 (10 passes, 13 runs)
  • Tight End Spread (under center): 49 (35 passes, 14 runs)
  • Tight End Trips (under center): 59 (17 passes, 42 runs)
  • Trips (under center): 16 (11 passes, 5 runs)
  • Twins: 53 (17 passes, 36 runs)
  • Weak: 21 (7 passes, 14 runs)

A few observations:

  • The Cowboys ran more plays from Shotgun ("Gun") than ever before, for obvious reasons. They used only six basic Shotgun formations in 2012, but they ran 542 of their 1,136 plays from those formations. They ran the ball on just 41 of those 542 Shotgun plays (7.6 percent). 
  • Head coach Jason Garrett does a pretty good job of passing out of double-tight and other run-oriented formations. "Ace" formation, a balanced formation with two tight ends and a single deep running back, has long been one of the Cowboys' most successful passing formations.
  • When you're looking at the run/pass ratio out of each formation, it's important to remember that you don't need to see complete balance. Some formations are used primarily in passing situations, i.e. Shotgun formations, while others are used mostly in running situations, i.e. "Jumbo." The fact that the Cowboys pass the ball only 32.1 percent of the time out of "Twins," for example, doesn't hurt the offense. It's okay to have some play-calling imbalance.
  • Having said that, there are times when you can determine whether or not the Cowboys are [embedded_ad] running or passing in situations where that might hurt the team. It doesn't matter if the defense knows you'll pass on third-and-10 or when you're down 20 points, for example, but it does matter if it's on first-and-10 in the first quarter. The Cowboys ran the ball only twice out of "Gun Trips" in 129 snaps and have now run the ball from the formation only three total times since 2009, but they don't use the formation exclusively in passing situations. Many of the plays from "Gun Trips" have come on first or second down early in games.
  • In general, the Cowboys might benefit from running the ball more often from spread formations. You can see that in almost all "Spread" or "Trips" formations, the 'Boys lean heavily toward the pass. The only exception is "Tight End Trips." Interestingly, when Tony Romo took a Shotgun snap with a "Tight End Trips" alignment, the Cowboys passed the majority of the time, but when he was under center, they ran it on 42 of 59 plays (71.2 percent). Dallas doesn't run the ball often from spread formations, but when they do, it's typically from "Tight End Trips."
  • Garrett has done a nice job of changing his use of "Double Tight Left/Right I," a formation the team uses pretty heavily. A few years ago, the Cowboys ran a strong side dive from the formation on over 80 percent of their plays. In 2012, less than half of the plays from the formation, most short-yardage runs, were strong side dives.
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