Thursday, June 07, 2012

How the Offense All Fits Together

Today is one of those blogs where many who have played football for any length of time might not learn anything they haven't heard in high school or college from their coaches in the film room. But, for those of us who have little or no actual playing experience, it is a topic worth discussing during the offseason to try and explain why coaching and play-calling is a very delicate dance that must be performed with circumstances each Sunday.

Since 2008, on my personal blog, I have been logging every play-call, down and distance, and personnel grouping from every snap of every game. During this time, with well over 4,500 play calls, we have a really interesting profile of how Jason Garrett runs his offense. There have been many variations and personnel situations that have caused him to morph his philosophy as the offensive coordinator and then the head coach, but it is all sitting there in the data base and logged for analyzation.

We have the data available to see what the Cowboys are good at offensively, bad at offensively, and a third category that is inconsistent enough to say that we just don't know what the performance is going to be sometimes.

But, what is interesting to me is that when you examine this data, or even just as you keep up with our weekly "Decoding Garrett" studies that are linked here if you are so inclined to kill off the rest of your day, we come up with many reasons why the offense is not as good as the other heavyweights in the NFL. Personnel-wise, when you stack up the Cowboys offensive skill position personnel with those teams that win Super Bowls or consistently play deep into January (Saints, Patriots, Packers, Giants, Colts), you feel pretty good, usually.

So, why, then, do the results suggest that the Cowboys are not a team that fits into January very often?

And the answer to that is different, depending on who you ask. I consume a lot of NFL programming on television and on the radio. I would be more than happy if the NFL was to the USA as soccer is to Europe. What that means is if the season went from August to May and there were really no other major sports, I would be fine with that. I love the NFL that much.

But, I don't love how the NFL is critically covered. I think we "dumb down" the conversations and simplify all issues to the most ridiculous standards. And therefore, nationally especially, when the conversation comes up about why the Cowboys don't win more in the post-season, invariably, the answer from people who either don't study the team or don't know how to study the team always arrives at 2 places: Tony Romo (The QB) and Jason Garrett (The Coach).

It would be one thing if it was just callers who would ignore data and 900 snaps to focus on 5-10 snaps that were poor, but it is not. It is a wide array of media and many on the set of NFL Network or ESPN which can certainly cause your average fan to take notice. Wow, if Jamie Dukes thinks this, and if he played in the league as long as he did, surely he is right. Meanwhile, when talking about him and his golf and his wife and baby, we must also roll highlights behind him of the Revis interception, the Bobby Carpenter interception, and the missed FG hold in Seattle in 2006

Because clearly, if you have a QB who throws 31 TDs and 10 Interceptions, has a QB Rating of 102.5, and has his best season of his career by almost all individual metrics - including the 2007 season when his team was 13-3 - we should all look at the QB as the reason the season went bad. Why? Because! It is easy and simple! Blame the most famous football player on the team who plays the position that we can all see easily. Never-mind the other positions. They are just there to keep him company. The defense? That doesn't matter either if you listen to the radio or watch the television. It is Romo. The Cowboys are never going to win with Romo. This is a critical year for Romo. Romo...Romo...Romo...Romo.

It is enough to make you try to avoid the noise. If they are not going to explain why the Cowboys function as they do without digging deeper than the very top, most simple layer, then why even bother? Nobody is saying that Tony Romo is perfect, or even elite all of the time, but to suggest that QB is holding this franchise back over the last 7 seasons is insane on almost every level. But, it is way easier to answer shortly and confidently that Romo is the problem. To explain a more complex disfunction in the organization is boring and laborious.

So, now, I am sure you are asking: "So, if it isn't what they say it is, what is the problem?" And if you read my works on a regular basis, this is going to be repetitive. But, here is the really abbreviated version.

The line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball have not been a strength of the team since the dynasty days of the 1990s. This decay during the Romo era has led to issues in the running game, pass protection, and play-calling. Our data seems to suggest that in 2011, just like 2008-2010, the Cowboys would enter games with a game-plan not to attack and to win, but to protect their under-manned offensive line - which is most certainly not a recipe for dominance.

Here is part of our study after the debacle in Arizona in early December:

the differences between the home and road game plans are so drastic and frankly, predictable, that one certainly has room to wonder if the Cowboys attempt to call two different game plans.

At home, they are aggressive and determined. Run and pass splits are nearly identical. They often make their opponents choose their poison and then serve it up on a platter. It may not always work, but they are adventurous and creative in the way they go about their business. They will try even trick plays, they will pass when you think run, they will pound the ball until you can stop it, and they have a swagger.

On the road, they are timid. They are easily chased off their objectives. They abandon the run early and often. They put everything on their QB and his ability to make lemonade out of lemons. They seem to call plays in an effort to prevent disasters rather than to attack. They send a message to the troops that they are not sure if they can score points, so they often don't.

And this pattern has been in place for quite a while. Nobody is saying they never bring their home personality on the road, because they do. And sometimes, their road personality shows up in Arlington, too. But, if you look at the large sample under the play-calling of Jason Garrett, it is clear that there is a split in objectives and intentions between home games and road games.

Let's look at some evidence.

The best way a play caller can send a message to his opponent is by calling plays on 1st Down. It establishes the tone and attitude of the offense and declares to the opponent what is planned for the day.

But, when the Cowboys have been at home this season, on 1st and 10, the Cowboys have run 177 plays. The splits for those 177 snaps to start a play sequence has been 98 runs and 79 passes. The 55%/45% split demonstrates proper balance for a balanced offense. On 1st Down, you run the ball more because on 3rd Down, you almost never run. But as a whole, 55% runs on 1st Down will mean that your overall balance will be intact.

Conversely, when the Cowboys have played their 6 games on the road, they have had 172 1st and 10 situations. The splits on 1st Down when they have been on the road has seen just 68 runs and 104 passes. This 39%/61% split on 1st and 10 sets the Cowboys up for days where they never get anything done on the ground and become a 1-dimensional team. We have even heard explanations about the opponent putting an eighth man in the box to encourage the Cowboys to start slinging the ball around the yard.

Those last several paragraphs are why people like me constantly beg Jerry Jones to properly address his offensive and defensive lines. Once you can protect and fortify your pass protection and run game, then you can actually get back to the objectives of football. To grind out a win by forcing your will on your opponent, rather than trying to keep Vince Wilfork or Jason Pierre Paul from injuring your QB. And, what would be so bad about having a few players on defense that put the fear of Randy White in the minds of your opponents?

Football is a game that is won up front. And it always has been. Despite the evolutions in the game, it still comes back to the line of scrimmage. Which is why I will always argue for David DeCastro or Fletcher Cox on draft day and I will always cringe when some talking head brings up the idea that Tony Romo is on the hot seat after putting up a 31/10 season.

Which brings us to a piece of video from the current series on the NFL Network, Top 100. It profiles and ranks players from 100 to 1, and gives us 10 hours of football content during the heart of the offseason. During Jason Witten's profile, he had a brief reference to this point that validates the issues in the New England game from last October:

Witten is talking to the receivers at the 2:45 mark of that video in Foxboro on the bench: "Listen, here's the game. Stops, seam stops, drags. That's what we have to do. If we can't hold up the protection, we have to get the ball out and do something with it."

What he was talking about were the extremely short routes that are a counter to your offensive line falling apart (again). They were reduced to 3 and 5 step drops in this game and many others because the line was getting destroyed. And when you don't have protection, you can't hold the ball (or run the ball). So you have to throw quick routes into tight confines (because the defense knows you can't protect and they are jumping the short routes, too).

So, we can talk Dez or DeMarco or Romo all we want. It is fun to do and they are important pieces. But, you can see, that the game plan is different when the Cowboys know they are outclassed at the line of scrimmage. We don't see the "Jason Garrett Offense". Instead, we see "the offense that they think they can run without getting Romo killed" offense. If you can't block Vince Wilfork and friends - or the Giants in New York or the Eagles in Philadelphia - then you cannot get your run game going. You also seldom can throw the ball deep. And on and on it goes.

Before long, you are getting mad at Romo and Garrett for play calling and not putting points on the board. And in both cases, they are partly to blame. But, the real blame goes to the fact that even when everyone is healthy, in 2011, the offensive line was nowhere near the level of a contender. Nowhere near, in fact. And you cannot look at sacks allowed to validate this fact. Because, the Cowboys were avoiding sacks by not calling plays where there was any chance of sacks. But, that was limiting their offense in these key "showdown" games to 20% of their playbook. Vanilla, quick hitting passes and shotgun draws. It is easy to defend and difficult to put points on the board. And we really shouldn't blame the players on that offensive line, but rather the architects of the roster who put them in that position that they were not ready for. The decision makers who shape the roster are the ultimate stop for the credit or blame of any franchise.

We hope that in 2012, the problems have been fixed, but we will definitely have to see that interior hold up against live action before we are willing to go out on that limb.

But, until that time, we will continue to hear people tell us that Romo is just not a great leader and needs to be more clutch from those that shape opinions.

Or, we can watch baseball.


Ben said...

If the offensive line is largely to blame then why does it not hold back Pittsburgh or the Giants last year? Those two offenses both had bad o-lines but continued to chuck it deep. Is Garrett's timid play-calling not laregely to blame, in that he refuses to call a 7-step drop when the o-line's not playing well, or is it his lack of confidence in Romo to deal with pressure in the pocket?

Jay Beerley said...

What would be the basis for your evaluating the lines of Pittsburgh and the Giants? Also, what kind of data is there about what plays they run?

gary turner said...

The o and d lines have done the most to chap my bo-hiney over the last several years.

On passing downs, the o line leaks like a sieve. On running downs, they fail to drive that one measly, critical yard that creates the crease for the rb.

The defensive front four are abysmal at getting penetration. If you're not penetrating, you're being penetrated, and the other guys' rb gets to put cleat marks on your lbs.

It might be nice to have the equivalent of Deion at all the db spots, but without pressure from your front four, the opposing qb will take you to school.

I was very disappointed in this year's draft; not for who we got, but for who we didn't get.

You'd think that a captain of a national championship team, and all SWC offensive lineman would appreciate the importance of controlling the line of scrimmage.

Ben said...

My basis for evaluating the o-lines of New York and Pittsburgh is common perception and to a larger extent profootballfocus grades. I can't say I have evaluated the plays they call, I am more just going off of the fact that their lines aren't holding their respective offenses back (at least not to the same extent) as the Cowboys' is. Behind an awful line Eli won a superbowl and Big Ben puts up good numbers when he's on the field. My main point is that neither offense is perceived as resorting to dink and dunk plays because their o-lines are getting overwhelmed, at least that's the impression I was under.