The 2012 season is over, but it will be mighty challenging to improve in 2013 if the team doesn't understand what they did well and poorly last season. Here are 10 unique stats that help tell the story of last year's Dallas Cowboys:
1. Only the St. Louis Rams had more pre-snap penalties than the Cowboys.
With 58 penalties before the snap of the ball, there's no doubt that the Cowboys can dramatically improve their 2013 offense simply by playing with more discipline. No player on Dallas committed more penalties than right tackle Doug Free's 13 (pre- and post-snap).
2. The Cowboys passed 127 times out of 129 plays from "Gun Trips."
In my breakdown of the Cowboys’ 2012 formations, I mentioned that the team ran the ball only two times from "Gun Trips" all year and only three times since 2009. That wouldn't necessarily be a problem if the 'Boys used the formation in pass-only situations, but they actually lined up in "Gun Trips" 86 times on first-and-10 (or less), second-and-10 (or less) or third-and-5 (or less). In 2013, it's possible that defenses will begin to send their pass-rushers after Tony Romo immediately following the snap when they identify the formation.
3. Dallas passed the ball on 66.2 percent of their plays.
Is that rate too high? Most would say yes, but don't forget that the Cowboys 1) have more success when they throw the ball early in games and 2) were forced to pass often late in their 2012 losses. Romo dropped back to pass on 72.9 percent of the Cowboys' fourth-quarter snaps, compared to 63.7 percent otherwise.
4. The Cowboys ran only 24 screen passes and six counters all year.
Head coach Jason Garrett has never been a big screen guy, but heading into 2012, I figured the rate of counters would remain steady or even increase from past seasons. The Cowboys averaged 7.2 yards-per-carry on counters from 2009 to 2011, but we saw just six of them last year. It's possible that the new offensive line personnel was the reason for the decline, but don't forget the Cowboys ran and had much success on counters with physical interior linemen like Leonard Davis and Andre Gurode.
As far as screen passes, you could very well see more of them next year. Screens could be an effective tool to combat ineffective pass protection. Only eight of the Cowboys' 24 screen passes in 2012 were to running backs.
5. Tony Romo's December passer rating was 101.2. It was the same in the fourth quarter.
Heading into the Cowboys' Week 17 matchup with the Redskins, Romo had thrown 12 touchdown passes to
just one interception in December. There's no doubt that the quarterback struggled against Washington, but the team wouldn't have even been in a position to win the division had it not been for Romo's incredible month. Romo's poor showing in the fourth quarter was uncharacteristic for someone who has excelled in the fourth quarter in recent seasons.
6. The Cowboys were sixth in the NFL in yards, but only 14th in EPA per play.
Bulk stats are a really poor predictor of future success; many of the league's worst offenses gain a whole lot of yards late in games simply because they're losing and are forced to throw, for example. In terms of efficiency (as measured by "Expected Points Added"), the 'Boys ranked just 14th in the NFL. Remember, EPA per play is basically a measure of how much an offense increases the probability of scoring after any given play, and it predicts future offensive success much better than total yards.
7. The rushing offense ranked 18th in the NFL in success rate (40.2 percent).
"Success rate" is a measure of how often an offense increases their chances of scoring on running plays. It's a better indicator of success than yards per carry (YPC) because it accounts for game situations. A 2-yard run on third-and-1 is a successful play. Success rate captures that, but YPC doesn't.
Dallas ranked only 30th in the NFL in rushing YPC, but near the middle of the pack in success rate. That suggests Garrett called a lot of runs in situations when gaining a lot of yards on the ground was difficult or impossible, such as on the goal line. That's a good thing, by the way, and it suggests the Cowboys' rushing offense, although not really all that good, wasn't quite as poor as some believe.
8. Romo showed play-action on only 10 percent of his 2012 passes, the lowest rate in the NFL.
I talked about play-action passes a lot throughout the season. The difference between Romo (ranked 38th in the league in play-action rate) and the 37th-ranked quarterback, John Skelton, was greater than the difference between Skelton and the next 11 passers.
Romo's passer rating on play-action passes was 109.1. His success isn't unusual; 30 of the 38 quarterbacks who took at least 25 percent of their offense's snaps had higher yards-per-attempt on play-action passes as compared to straight dropbacks. [embedded_ad]
9. Anthony Spencer rushed the passer on only 64.9 percent of his pass snaps.
It might seem like Spencer is used as a rusher all of the time, but he actually dropped into coverage on more than one-third of his 2012 pass snaps. You can expect that to change in 2013 if Spencer remains in Dallas as a 4-3 defensive end.
10. Dez Bryant was fourth in the NFL in deep receiving yards and second in deep touchdowns.
Here, a "deep" pass is one that travels at least 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. Despite his success, Bryant ranked just 17th in the league in deep targets, primarily because he saw only one deep target in the Cowboys' first three games and just four deep targets in the first six. If there's one way the offense can improve in 2013, it might be finding more ways to get the ball to Bryant downfield.