Monday, November 14, 2011

Decoding Garrett - Week 9 - Data - Buffalo

Play calling is one of the more discussed and perhaps misunderstood elements of football. It seems that everyone who enjoys this game fancies themselves as learned play callers and yet just about every coordinator they follow never gets their job quite right. The only play callers that ever seem to get unanimous support are those that happen to have an offense under their command who wins all of the time. Generally, this also coincides with having superior talent and likely a wonderful QB.

Conversely, those who have inferior talent or a QB without experience are labeled as "poor" play callers. Whatever they tried on a given Sunday did not result in a victory, and therefore, to their fan base and media, they obviously called the wrong plays.

It is an exercise in insanity that often includes someone watching a spectacular TD catch by Dez Bryant and telling the person sitting nearby, "See, why don't they do that more often?" You know, call the touchdown play again. If only it were that easy.

Is Jason Garrett calling better plays now? Or, is a running game allowing easier passing attack opportunities? If there was no threat of a running game, would teams play more conservative defense and shade a safety over Dez Bryant? As you watch Green Bay dismantle Minnesota on Monday night football, you wonder if Mike McCarthy is the best play caller in football or does he have the best players? Or both?

In this space each Tuesday, we attempt to discuss the topic of play calling, deploying of the troops, and offensive execution. That includes an array of various items that can be looked at, and we attempt to tackle a different 1 or 2 each week. Then, we show data from that particular game to offer substantive results rather than simple opinions that have no evidence to confirm or deny the findings. Clearly, we are not NFL offensive minds that have resumes that may us candidates for future openings in the league, but by re-watching a game carefully, we can find a number of clues that tell us way more information about a football team than a guarded press conference ever can.

This week, we need to ponder whether the game against Buffalo was won during the week when the coaches sat down to discuss plans of attack. Much like the Eagles did to Dallas 2 weeks prior, the Bills suffered a 1st round knockout. When this happens, you can only look at each team's preparation and whatever the coaches decided on Tuesday in the film room was absolutely right in Dallas and absolutely wrong in Buffalo.

Let's look now at one example: The Cowboys very 1st Drive.

When Jason Garrett starts a game, he wants to get as many personnel groups out onto the field as possible. This practice is not uncommon around the league and generally the reason seems to be to collect photos and information in those first 10-15 plays. Of course, you want to score on those early drives, but you also want to see how the Bills have decided during their week of preparation how they are going to defend certain situations. Against "12" personnel, will they go nickel or dime? When Witten is flexed out as a receiver, will he receive bracket coverage or will they attempt to defend him with a safety straight up? Against "22", will the Bills put 8 or 9 in the box? These findings, often on pictures that are then studied between plays, are then applied for use later in the game. A scenario in the playbook that a coaching staff "wants to come back to" because they believe they have a plan for just that situation. Of course, they then hope that Buffalo doesn't change their strategies later in the game, too. This is the mental chess match that goes on during every game, but we seldom discuss or consider.

Dallas' 1st Drive of the afternoon included 5 plays. In order, they used "21", "22", "12", "S01", and "11" on the 5 plays to go 80 yards for the Touchdown. 5 different personnel groups and used a screen, a FB lead, then a short dump to Witten.

On 3rd and 4 from the 41, the Cowboys used "S01" which is empty backfield, 1 TE and 4 WRs. This puts Jesse Holley back into the mix and on to the field. He played exactly 1 pass play on Sunday and this was that moment. Off the snap, Laurent Robinson is to Holley's outside and runs a quick in route at the sticks. Meanwhile, Holley takes Terence McGee down the seams and McGee believes that Holley is going to stop in a shallow route. Once Holley keeps going, McGee is beaten in a trail position. I think it speaks volumes that Romo is willing to go to a player like Holley when he is never on the field, and he floats a ball where he needs Holley to go get it. When Holley gets his chance he leaps over McGee and helps move the chains with a large 26 yard gain for a 1st down.

The scoring moment in that 1st drive is another play of great beauty. 1st and 10 from the Bills 34, and the Cowboys use a grouping that they seldom go to. "11" personnel - but with Romo under center (11 personnel from the shotgun is what is called "Red Gun" or the Cowboys 3rd down and 2 minute drill package). "11" under center has only been used 13 times in 9 games. But, in this case, Witten is lined up as a fullback, and he will be asked with DeMarco Murray to stay in as a fortified protection ploy as the Cowboys wish to "take a shot" again on 1st down. We loved this concept last week as the Cowboys are now using the 50/50 1st Down for their most aggressive pass attempts because they know that with the new-found balance, the odds are much more in their favor to hit something big (rather than against a dime defense on 3rd Down where safeties lurk for interceptions).

The protection is needed as the Bills are sending a safety. This means that 3 Cowboys WRs will be working against 3 Bills corners and safety George Wilson up top. For Romo, it is a 7-step drop and he needs it all as the rush is closing in up the gut with Phil Costa losing his battle. 5 Bills against 7 Cowboys in pass protection means Romo can set and fire and when he sees Dez Bryant (on a stop and go pattern) against Leodis McKelvin in a 1-on-1 as Wilson cannot get there in time, his mind is made up. Romo sends the pass to the near pylon and Dez has to go over McKelvin to win the ball and save an interception. It was a fantastic play by Bryant and it shows that in this league a QB has to trust his WR to make a play because he is essentially throwing it right where the corner is waiting. But, Dez out leaps McKelvin and the Cowboys finish their 1st drive with a dazzling result.

5 personnel groups, 5 plays, 80 yards, and Romo is 4-4 for 76 yards. And you see how the preparation had the Bills tied up in knots before they even broke a sweat.

Another very interesting finding from our research on Sunday is that the "21" package was strong, but in a whole new way. "21" is what they call "regular" personnel in the Cowboys coaching offices. This is what the Cowboys ran under Norv Turner nearly all the time. Emmitt and Moose behind Aikman, Novacek at TE, and Michael Irvin with Alvin Harper out wide. A few weeks back, we talked about how Tony Fiammetta is helping to bring back "regular" personnel.

The numbers were exceptional. The Cowboys, who had no FB on the roster for several games to start the season, now employ Fiammetta as part of their attack on a routine basis. "21" is the neutral personnel group in the NFL, meaning that there is really not a heavy run package (like "22") and not a heavy pass package (like "11"). The defense has to play "21" straight up, or risk being burned.

For the 1st month with Fiammetta, the Cowboys killed teams with "21" personnel. 17 running plays for 235 yards means they were grabbing an insane 13.8 yards per attempt. Buffalo saw that and clearly purposed on stopping the run when they see "21" on Sunday. And they did. The Cowboys tried 13 run plays out of "21" on Sunday and only accumulated 37 yards. Buffalo wanted to plug up the run on Fiammetta and did a nice job on this personnel grouping. But, at what cost? Well, the Cowboys also threw the ball out of "21" 8 times. On those 8 throws, they found 110 yards - including the 58-yard bomb to Robinson off play action in "21" personnel. The Bills were sitting on the run with Fiammetta and they were burned badly. This is the beauty of balance in your offense. Pick your poison.

Data from Week 9

Shotgun snaps are fine on 3rd Down and in the 2 minute drill. But, we track this stat from week to week to make sure the Cowboys aren't getting too lazy in using it. They are not efficient enough to run it as their base, and with a 15%/85% run/pass split, there is no way the defense respects your running game.

Against the Bills, the Cowboys avoided shotgun because they were in control of the lead. The better you run the ball, the less you depend on Romo in the shotgun against nickel and dime coverages. In other words, the more you have offensive success.


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

Wk 6 - StL 10/60

Wk 7 - Phi 39/49

Wk 8 - Sea 19/59

Wk 9 - Buf 15/61

Total - 226/564 40.1%


Here is the Game Data from Week 9:

Big development here. The Cowboys owned 3rd Downs. Romo was dead on and the team saw a conversion rate they seldom see. 8-12 is 67% and a rare awesome week in this category.

1st Down Run-Pass20-10
2nd Down Avg Distance to Go7.63
2nd Down Run-Pass12-7
3rd Down Avg Distance to Go6.00
3rd Down Run-Pass3-9
3rd Down Conversions8-12, 67%

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Drive Starters - 1st play of each drive can often reveal the intent of a coach to establish his game plan. Heavy run and then when you least suspect it, a max-protect throw up top.

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

Wk 6-St Louis: 11 Drives - 8 Run/3 Pass

Wk 7-At Philadelphia - 9 Drives - 2 Run/7 Pass

Wk 8-Seattle - 11 Drives - 4 Run/7 Pass

Wk 9-Buffalo - 10 Drives - 7 Run/3 Pass

Total: 100 Drives - 46 Run/54 Pass 46% Run

Here is the breakdown by groupings:

Before you study the data below, I would recommend that if the numbers for the groupings are unfamiliar, that you spend some time reading a more expanded definition of the Personnel Groupings here.

Again, look at the production from under center. And see that the easiest time to throw for an offense is when the defense is sitting run. This is as balanced an offense as we have seen since 2008 when their September performance was a beauty to behold.

Totals by Personnel Groups:
PackagePlays RunYardsRunPass

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And now those same numbers on 3rd and 4th Downs. It is clear here that Romo was seeing the game and feeling the coverages with great ease. Dallas can only hope there is more of this coming now that he appears healthy again.

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

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Overall, this was another successful offensive day. Even the goal-line offense was great. If they can find this performance on a regular basis, they will surely be in the playoffs. Trouble has been playing on the road. Will Romo and Garrett "let it rip" when they go on the road? Sunday will tell us plenty when they head to Washington.

Tomorrow, for our Xs and Os breakdown, we will examine the blitz scheme Rob Ryan threw at the Bills with such success.

And please email me at if you have questions that I may clarify in an upcoming email blog.

1 comment:

The Beerleys said...

Great points at the beginning there. Most people like to evaluate as if the offense is in a vacuum. For most people, the quality of the defensive players, the defensive call and basic match-ups never are accounted for.
Also, as with many things in life, the NFL is judged pragmatically. It it worked, it's good. In last night's highlights of Packs game, there are several passes that make Aaron Rodgers look like the greatest QB of all time, but only because they "worked" or were completed. But they just as easily could have been incomplete or intercepted. Risky throws.

Also, play calling is aided/prohibited by what's going on when defense is on the field. You know, like going for it on your own 29 in overtime.