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Running The Numbers: How To Alter First-Down Play Calling

A few months ago, I posted an article on how the Cowboys can improve their red zone performance in 2012. One of the recommendations was running the ball more often on first down when inside the opponent's 10-yard line. As the graph below shows, an offense's expected points on first down runs exceeds that of first down passes inside this range.


In addition to having profound implications on red zone play-calling, there are some other interesting phenomena going on here. First, you can see the value of first down passes exceeds that of first down runs everywhere outside of the opponent's 10-yard line. When the field is elongated, passing has more inherent value than running. That value subsides when the field shrinks inside the opponent's 10-yard line.

The biggest disparity between rushing and passing value comes inside one's own 10-yard line, where the value of first down passes is dramatically higher than first down runs. Interestingly, many coaches actually run the ball when they're backed up near their end zone, thinking it is the safe play. It isn't. The area near one's own end zone is actually where teams should pass the most often on first down.

Another point of intrigue is the value of runs outside of the red zone. In the 80-yard stretch from a team's one-yard line to the opponent's 20-yard line, the value of rushing the ball on first down is actually negative. That is, on average, first down runs hinder an offense. If Jason Garrett were to call 10 first down runs in this area each game, the Cowboys could be expected to score around one touchdown less per season than if he passed on those plays.

With those points in mind, let's take a look at actual league-wide passing rates.


You can see NFL teams run the ball more than they pass on first down in every area of the field. Running and passing rates are nearly equal around midfield, but otherwise teams run the ball significantly more on first down than they pass, even though the value isn't there.

Since the league-wide pass rates don't match up with the expected value, shrewd play-callers can leverage this information into a competitive advantage. Defenses still generally use their base personnel on first down, making it easier to throw the football. Until the majority of NFL offenses throw the ball significantly more often on first down, defenses will continue to play to stop the run, providing an advantage for those teams that pass the ball often.

Note that this doesn't mean the Cowboys should throw the ball on every first down simply because it is inherently more valuable than running. Obviously defenses would catch on and play the 'Boys differently. Instead, the numbers suggest the team's first down pass rate should increase steadily until defenses adjust. Still, there's enough of a disparity between NFL first down play-calling and play-call value that an opportunity exists to improve offensive efficiency.

For the record, Jason Garrett is one of the league's better first down play-callers, drawing up a pass on about 55 percent of plays over the last three years. Thus far in the preseason, he has called a pass on 58.3 percent of the first-team offense's first down plays. I think you'll see that number remain steady into the regular season.

An even greater first down pass rate, however, could lead to more total points by season's end. Actually, with the dramatic gap between passing and rushing value on first down, a first down pass rate approaching 65 percent or higher would likely optimize offensive efficiency in today's NFL. Yes, you read that correctly.

Plus, like it or not, the Cowboys are a passing team. They have a couple of bruisers in the interior portion of their offensive line, but the majority of it is made up of "finesse" guys like Tyron Smith, Doug Free, and Phil Costa whose primary strengths are pass protection and blocking in space. We're all excited about DeMarco Murray's potential, but his most important contribution in 2012 could be opening up the passing game.

With Jason Witten roaming the middle of the field, one of the league's top wide receiver duos outside, and, of course, Tony Romo at the helm, what's not to love about the Cowboys' passing attack? It should be on display early and often in 2012.

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