Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Decoding Garrett: Week 5 - Data - at New England

I count it a great pleasure to be writing now at Fox Sports, but I will submit that I may offer a slightly different approach to Cowboys coverage than some. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I attempt to wade through a fair amount of data and X's and O's discussions that if you are familiar with my work, you will be comfortable with. However, if this is the first time you have ever spent anytime with my works, then you may require a small amount of background.

Tuesday and Wednesday are times reserved for diving into things like personnel groupings and formations. There are plenty of places where discussions about whether Tony Romo and Jason Garrett like each-other take place, but here, we want to evaluate the team without prejudice and simply look at what they do well and what they don't do well. What their tendencies are and how their performance in a single game matches what they like to do over the course of the year.

For all of this data to make sense, it is important you understand what a personnel grouping is and why it matters. Every down of nearly every game, players move on and off to the field. This is not random and it is almost never because of fatigue. These substitutions on both sides of the ball are primarily to find match-ups that lead to success.

I readily admit that it would be best to do this work in August when we can learn during the preseason, but since I arrived at Fox Sports in October, let's do the best we can. I would recommend that if the numbers below are unfamiliar, that you spend some time reading a more expanded definition of the Personnel Groupings here.


Let's turn our attention now to the New England game. So much has been discussed about this offense and there are many mitigating circumstances that must be considered. The offensive line in particular is in no shape right now it appears to run block or pass protect for 7 step drops. So, what we are seeing - partly because of performance and partly because Jason Garrett is trying to keep the OL out of bad situations - is an offense that cannot run most of its playbook.

What we are left with are a few runs and a few long-developing pass plays, mixed in with mostly quick hitting pass plays on 3 and 5 step drops (to help the OL pass protect) and a series of screen plays and swing routes to underneath receivers. The OL group, despite having a substantially different lineup than in 2010, shares many of the same issues as its predecessor.

They simply have no success running the ball. And although it is fun to debate which RB is better than another, when a line is regularly being pushed back into the RB at the time of the handoff, it just doesn't matter if Emmitt Smith in his prime is back there. And that is where we are right now.

I broke down all of the run plays from the start of the 2009 season until now. With 39 games of data, we can see that the Cowboys have gone from a good running team to maybe the worst in the NFL in 2 short years. Now, we are only considering run plays in run formations. I don't like to count running the ball out of shotgun on 3rd and long. If it is 3rd and 18 and the Cowboys give the ball to Tashard Choice on a draw for 8 yards, that run will look good in the stats, but we both know that it is a deceiving 8 yards. Also, a Tony Romo 17 yard scramble on a pass play is not a run play at all.

What we want is run plays that were called in the huddle or at the line of scrimmage. The QB is under center and the defense is not playing 100% pass. The defense diagnoses run and you still run the ball right at them. In 2009, the Cowboys were very good at this, and in 2010 and 2011, they are flat-out horrible. Here are the scary numbers:

YearAttempts-YardsYards Per Carry
2011 w/o FB90-2442.71

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I put in 2 columns for 2011 because the Cowboys have actually had a FB for a little more than 1 game with Tony Fiammetta. Fiammetta has not played enough for anyone to know his true quality, but it should be noted that the game he played a great deal was also the game where the Cowboys ran with great success. So, the first number for 2011 is every carry from under center, and the 2nd number represents the Cowboys running without Fiammetta. As you can see, despite our regard for John Phillips as a make-shift FB, this team cannot run the ball in those situations at all.

2.71 yards per carry is what the Cowboys are able to accomplish right now on the ground because of their young and mediocre offensive line. This rips out much of the playbook. What is left is often high-percentage quick pass plays, because it stands to reason that if Vince Wilfork can toss Bill Nagy and/or Phil Costa aside in running plays, he can do the same thing on his inside pass rush path to Romo.

And that is why you don't see very many balls getting to Miles Austin or Dez Bryant. Because the WRs have no time to run routes before Romo has to get rid of the ball. We thought this was going to improve in 2011, but the reality is that it might actually be worse.

Data from Week 5

We track this because Garrett wants a balanced offense. If you are in shotgun, you pass the ball about 85% of the time. So, too much shotgun means that you are getting away from the quest for balance. It also can mean that you have little faith in your OL and want your QB to have a chance.

Wk 1 - NYJ: 24/66
Wk 2 - SF: 32/66
Wk 3 - Wash: 27/62
Wk 4 - Det: 29/75
Wk 5 - NE 31/67

Total - 143/335 42.6%

Here is the Game Data from Week 5: The run/pass splits indicate where they think they can find success. The average yards to go on 2nd down were very good. But, once again, 3rd down conversions continue to haunt the Cowboys. Dallas is 22 of 64 on 3rd Downs this season for 34% and rank 20th in the NFL.

1st Down Run-Pass10-21
2nd Down Avg Distance to Go7.04
2nd Down Run-Pass10-14
3rd Down Avg Distance to Go7.83
3rd Down Run-Pass4-8
3rd Down Conversions4-12, 33%

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Drive Starters - 1st play of each drive can often reveal the intent of a coach to establish his game plan:

Wk 1-At New York Jets: 13 Drives - 5 Run/8 Pass
Wk 2-At San Francisco: 10 Drives - 4 Run/6 Pass
Wk 3-Washington: 11 Drives - 5 Run/6 Pass
Wk 4-Detroit: 14 Drives - 7 Run/7 Pass
Wk 5-At New England: 11 Drives - 4 Run/7 Pass

Total: 59 Drives - 25 Run/34 Pass 42% Run

Here is the breakdown by groupings:

Real quick way to understand groupings - The 1st number is the total number of RBs. The 2nd number is TEs. So, "12" personnel is 1 RB and 2 TEs. Again, that link above will really help you get familiar with these groups. It is important to know them if you want to understand why defenses decide to tailor their personnel against certain groups. Also, "S" in the grouping always means "Shotgun".

Pay special attention to "13" personnel. This is the group with Jason Witten, Martellus Bennett, and John Phillips all on the field at the same time. It should be effective for running the ball, because that means 5 OL and 3 TE for 8 big blocking options for Felix Jones. But, as you can see below, they attempted 9 runs and totaled just 12 yards. Pitiful. As a whole, if you subtract Romo's big scramble, the team accounted for just 60 yards on 23 carries. Only 2.6 yards per carry. Actually worse than their season totals - even though that wasn't thought possible.

Totals by Personnel Groups:
PackagePlays RunYardsRunPass

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Here, everything is the same, except we are only looking at 3rd and 4th Downs to see how they convert in the money situations.

Totals by Personnel Groups on 3rd/4th Down:

Table Tutorial

Bottom line for this offense right now is that they can only attempt what they have the strength to accomplish. It is easy and common to blame the Head Coach and the Quarterback for everything that goes south. That is what the NFL is all about. But, a quick look at the realities of what they are working with (Garrett surely had a say in personnel matters, but we don't know how much) suggests that until these issues are solved with quality talent at important spots, the Cowboys will continue to struggle against opponents who have a strength on the defensive front. The good news is that Vince Wilfork doesn't play for St Louis.

Tomorrow, let's break down a few impact plays with discussions of X's and O's.

For a more expanded definition of the Personnel Groups, click here.

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