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Running the Numbers: A Deeper Look at Cowboys' Formations

Last week, I broke down Jason Garrett’s usage of various formationsand his play-calling from each. Today, I'm going to examine the offense's success and failures when utilizing particular formations. Below, I've posted the efficiency on runs and passes from each formation the Cowboys used in 2012. For passes, YPP stands for yards per play and it includes all play results, including quarterback scrambles and sacks. For runs, YPC stands for yards per carry.

  • 3 Wide I: 30 (20 passes—13.1 YPP; 10 runs—1.1 YPC)
  • Ace: 39 (26 passes—4.4 YPP; 13 runs—3.9 YPC)
  • Double Tight Left/Right I: 62 (13 passes—6.7 YPP; 49 runs—2.2 YPC)
  • Double Tight I Left/Right: 22 (4 passes—6.5 YPP; 18 runs—2.1 YPC)
  • Double Tight Left/Right Ace: 54 (12 passes—10.7 YPP; 42 runs—3.4 YPC)
  • Double Tight Twins Ace: 24 (13 passes—7.2 YPP; 11 runs—7.7 YPC)
  • Full House: 2 (0 passes; 2 runs—5.5 YPC)
  • Gun 3 Wide Pro: 18 (18 passes—6.1 YPP; 0 runs)
  • Gun 5 Wide: 36 (36 passes—4.6 YPP; 0 runs)
  • Gun Spread: 99 (96 passes—7.4 YPP; 3 runs—1.3 YPC)
  • Gun Tight End Spread: 153 (140 passes—6.8 YPP; 13 runs—2.7 YPC)
  • Gun Tight End Trips: 107 (84 passes—5.6 YPP; 23 runs—4.4 YPC)
  • Gun Trips: 129 (127 passes—7.8 YPP; 2 runs—5.0 YPC)
  • I-Formation: 16 (8 passes—17.3 YPP; 8 runs—2.8 YPC)
  • Jumbo: 10 (2 passes—0.5 YPP; 8 runs—1.3 YPC)
  • Spread (under center): 6 (3 passes—7.3 YPP; 3 runs—5.3 YPC)
  • Strong: 23 (10 passes—7.8 YPP; 13 runs—2.5 YPC)
  • Tight End Spread (under center): 49 (35 passes—6.0 YPP; 14 runs—5.5 YPC)
  • Tight End Trips (under center): 59 (17 passes—5.8 YPP; 42 runs—4.9 YPC)
  • Trips (under center): 16 (11 passes—3.5 YPP; 5 runs—1.8 YPC)
  • Twins: 53 (17 passes—5.8 YPP; 36 runs—3.9 YPC)
  • Weak: 21 (7 passes—4.7 YPP; 14 runs—5.9 YPC)

There's plenty of interesting information here, but most intriguing to me is how well the Cowboys perform from "sub-optimal" formations. That is, the offense runs well out of spread formations and passes well out of tight ones. This phenomenon makes sense. Although it's not inherently ideal to run with four receivers on the field or pass from I-Formation, it's often beneficial because such calls possess the element of surprise. A first-and-10 play-action pass, for example, is probably better run from a big, tight formation because it forces the defense into heavier personnel and fools them into thinking a run is on the way.

The Results

For the record, I labeled any formation that utilized "11" personnel as the primary package (or any formation with no running backs) as a "spread" formation. Those included every Shotgun formation, Spread, Tight End Spread, Tight End Trips, and Trips. All the rest were labeled as "tight" formations.


As has been the case every season since 2009, the 'Boys were superior when they ran the "unexpected" play in 2012. The offense managed 4.6 YPC on the ground when running from spread formations, compared to just 3.3 YPC from tight formations. For passes, it was just the opposite; Dallas totaled 8.0 YPP when passing from tight formations, compared to only 5.4 YPP when throwing from spread formations.

It's worth noting that game situations play a role in the results. The Cowboys frequently run the ball from tight formations in short-yardage situations, for example, and that could skew the data. However, the difference in the distance-to-go for a first down on both runs and passes from spread and tight formations was within one yard of each other, suggesting there's more to the results than changes in the game situation. [embedded_ad]

Looking Forward

Although there are a number of factors that determine play-calls, it would probably benefit the Cowboys to run more often from spread formations and pass more frequently from tight formations in 2013. Despite the increased success running from spread formations, less than one-third of all runs came from a spread look. Similarly, less than one out of five passes the Cowboys attempted in 2012 came from a tight formation.

Sometimes lining up in a "predictable" formation isn't a bad thing; on third-and-10, for example, using a five-wide formation isn't disadvantageous because the defense will play you to pass no matter what. It's the other situations – first-and-10, second-and-5, and so on – when the Cowboys could potentially benefit from mixing it up a bit more often.

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