Friday, September 07, 2012

Decoding Garrett - Week 1 - At New York

The great thing about any sport, but in this case the great game of football, is that it can be consumed on a number of levels. If a certain segment of the viewing public is just watching the ball or their favorite fantasy league player, that is fine. In fact, that is how most of the world consumes the NFL, and it seems to be working out great for everyone involved.

Sadly, I do not count myself among that group. About 10 years ago, I became dissatisfied with my knowledge of the game of football as I knew that my team wasn't having success in certain segments of their performance, and I wanted to know more than the media was telling me. I refused to believe the idea that so and so was simply "not a winner" or so and so was simply "not a very good coach". I needed to know why. I needed more. I needed reasons that I could actually see.

That put me on a very long journey. A journey that I hope will never be completed. But, it has put me in coaching clinics, purchasing coaching DVD's, seeking out scouts and personnel people for advice, and reading as many books and play-books about strategy and philosophy about the game of football that I could find.

That doesn't make me a coach by any stretch of the imagination, but it does make me someone who is as interested in why things happen - good or bad - for the football team that I follow for a living, the Dallas Cowboys.

Since 2008, on this blog, I have catalogued every snap of the Dallas Cowboys offense into a giant database, so that we may understand the offense that they run, what they do well, what they do poorly, and basically, anything we can possibly understand about how Jason Garrett, Tony Romo, and the rest of the crew go about their business in the NFL.

Surely, much of the information from 2008 is now irrelevant, but we can take snapshots of any moment in time from most of Romo and Garrett's relationship - including the last 67 games - and see how things have progressed or regressed. And that is what we do here in this series that runs 2 days after every game called, "Decoding Garrett". In fact, if you wish to search the archives for those last 67 games, it should be rather easy to bring up any game you want and see the data from that contest.

What do we look for? Well, the most important things we do is the same exact things that coaches do when they evaluate the team as Cowboys' coaches or prepare to scout and game-plan against the Cowboys if the coach in question was running the Seattle Seahawks defense.

Coaches are looking for several things when they watch a team play. What is their biggest strength? In other words, what do we need to make sure doesn't beat us. What is their biggest weakness? Which means, where will we attack them and make them uncomfortable?

What are their tendencies? What are their go-to moves? What do they hate doing? And what can they do all day long?

All of this is important. But, where do you start?

We will not throw too much information out there today. If you read any essays from this series from the first 4 seasons, it can only expand your knowledge for upcoming games. But, those who have been here reading this all along know that we believe what coaches believe: The game of football is 100% about creating match-ups that we can then take advantage of. That is done a few different ways, with the one emphasized here most being personnel groupings. Personnel groupings is another way of explaining the substitutions for an offense from the bench. 11 players are on, but which 11? That is vital in the NFL.

So, before the huddle, we identify personnel groupings. The defense has time - not much - to counter with the proper grouping that they have planned all week to best matchup. Then, after the huddle, the formations are the 2nd way to attempt to create opportunities for an offense. That is much more difficult to track, but we try to do so.

For this week, I would ask that you review the final report from 2011 to fully explain much of what you will see below. I certainly don't want this to be too complicated, but it would take 10,000 words to explain everything each time we do this. And we don't want that.

Below, please find the key code for each of the most popular personnel groups that the Cowboys run. I think after reading it, you will be able to understand each grouping, and therefore will have a feel for comparing production from group to group. The Cowboys use a number system that is based on the number of Running Backs and Tight Ends. Therefore, "21" personnel means 2 RBs and 1 TE (and of course 2 WRs). This is somewhat universal, although coaching jargon will also use names for each group like Ace, Posse, and Jumbo in some circles. But, since Garrett uses "21" and "12", so will we.

Personnel PackageDescription
111 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR
121 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR
131 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR
212 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR
222 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR
232 RB, 3 TE
S01Shotgun, 0 RB, 1 TE, 4WR
S02Shotgun, 0 RB, 2 TE, 3WR
S11Shotgun, 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR
S12Shotgun, 1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR

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The easiest way to understand how an offense works is to recognize that every play has 5 offensive linemen and 1 QB. So, basically an offensive coordinator must figure out what he wants to do with his other 5 men. He can go to extreme running groups like 2 RB and 3 TE, or he can go to an extreme pass receiving group of 5 WR. Usually, though, a coordinator will want to find something in between that keeps the defense wondering at the snap of the ball whether a run or pass is coming. This is why you always hear coaches talking about keeping the defense "off balance" or guessing.

And from all of this above, we can begin to find matchups. Why? Because, simply by running on "11" personnel, you can force your opponent to bring on their nickel package. If they don't, then your slot receiver is going to have a LB on him or a safety. And if it is a safety, then your QB knows that he is going to have man coverage on the edges. See? The game of football is one giant chess game of cause and effect. And that is how every offense decides what they want to do and where they want to attack.

Defensive coaches then figure out how to counter this by cutting up the last 3 games and finding tendencies and opportunities to ambush with blitzes and matchups that favor them. And the jousting begins.

Let's get to the big Week 1 win in New Jersey:

Data from Week 1 at New York

1st Down Run-Pass12-11
2nd Down Avg Distance to Go7.3
2nd Down Run-Pass8-12
3rd Down Avg Distance to Go8.1
3rd Down Run-Pass2-8
3rd Down Conversions4-10, 40%

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NOTE: We are operating under the premise that taking a knee screws up our data. So, the NFL will say the Cowboys had 57 snaps on Wednesday night, where as our data will account for 54. That is because they took 3 knees at the end of the game which are pointless to evaluate.

Jason Garrett after the game said that he was a bit disappointed that the offense didn't really stay on schedule very well, obviously referencing a number of penalties that attempted to sabotage the effort. Staying on schedule is coach speak for staying out of 2nd and 3rd and very long which always invites more blitzes, because a QB must wait longer for his WR to get to the sticks. And when it is 3rd and 15, that extra second of waiting leads to a ton of sacks in the NFL. So, the key for any offense is to stay on schedule. And that simply means to get 4 yards on 1st down and 4 yards on 2nd down. Then you have 2nd and 6 and 3rd and short. These are convertible situations that a coach always desires.

Anyway, back to his comments, the Cowboys actually were in a good spot most of the night. Obviously, a 1st and 30 situation is going to hurt your average, but 7.3 average yards to go on 2nd down was only bettered 6 times in 2011. The game in Philadelphia last year had an average 2nd down of 9.88 yards. You might as well just take a knee.

For the Cowboys to have success, they need balance. This is true in most offenses, but the Cowboys offensive line has killed balance the last few seasons as they are reluctant to simply run the ball from under center with regularity. The reason is that they were not finding any yards from a play that declared run and the defense was ready. So, they would get stuffed 4 or 5 times in the 1st Half and never do it again. This causes endless problems and puts you in a spot where your QB gets hit repeatedly and then injured.

But, DeMarco Murray appears to be changing that. They average 22 runs from under center (we subtract shotgun runs that are generally 3rd and long draw plays where the defense is sitting on the pass) with Murray starting and the results continue to be very impressive. Murray again was part of an attack with 22 under center runs that resulted in 140 yards. 6.36 yards per carry on the road in New York? That is the key to victory.


Thanks to intern Tim, we have fresh passing charts to look at from Romo's performance. These are experimental in that I am not sure what the data always tells us, but it is interesting to study at times.

Blue is a completion. Red is incomplete. Yellow is a touchdown, and Black is an interception. The passes are lines from where Romo released the pass to where the pass was caught. This shows you his release point and where he likes to throw when he slides in the pocket.

1st Half

2nd Half

This chart is simply the 11 targets to Kevin Ogletree. Here you can see the slant passes over and over and then the Cowboys punishing Corey Webster for sitting on the slant and falling victim to the double move.

Drive Starters - The 1st play of each drive can often reveal the intent of a coach to establish his game plan. How committed is he to the run or pass when the team comes off the sideline? We track it each week here:

Wk 1-At New York: 9 Drives - 5 Run/4 Pass

2011 Total: 181 Drives - 79 Run/102 Pass 44% Run


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 across the league, there is no way the defense respects your running game. When shotgun totals are high, the Cowboys are generally behind, scared of their offensive line, or frustrated. High Shotgun numbers are not this team's calling card for success.

Clearly, chaos at the center position will have us wondering if Ryan Cook made Jason Garrett run more from under center, but this is nothing like the last trip to Giants stadium, where the Cowboys were in shotgun the entire night. 15 snaps out of 54 is beyond perfect. This keeps your offense balanced and the defense off balance on what is coming. Perfect.

Wk 1 - NYJ: 15/54 27.7%

2011 Total - 445/1012 43.9%

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.

Plenty to look at here. 11 personnel under center is a package that since 2008 has never been used by the Cowboys. This is interesting, because around the NFL, it is used a ton by many teams. When the Cowboys are in "11" personnel, it has been about 98% shotgun since I have tracked the data. But, on this one occasion, the Cowboys ran 11 personnel a whopping 8 times after running it just 17 plays in all of 2011. Is this a new wrinkle with Bill Callahan? Is this a more comfortable snap for Ryan Cook? Is this a loud stadium or DeMarco Murray or a Jason Witten effect? We don't know for sure, but I wonder if they are planning more of that.

Also, notice in "22" they were 100% run and look at all of the "21" and "22" success. They have a fullback they love, and they plan on using him plenty this season it appears. Hold on to your hats, the Cowboys might be trying to become a physical offense again.

Totals by Personnel Groups:
PackagePlays RunYardsRunPass

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3rd Down was pretty salty as we saw a big throw to Dez Bryant on a 3rd and 1 out of 11 personnel, a huge game-winning slant to Ogletree on a 3rd and 10, and another conversion to Ogletree earlier in the game as well as a short yardage run to DeMarco that moved the chain. Conversely, Vickers was stuffed on 4th down, and the interception was a 3rd down forced ball that Michael Boley read and picked off. But, 4-10 isn't too shabby in that stadium.

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

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Overall, a lot to like. A very efficient night with mistakes, but a show of force that demonstrates the Cowboys have plenty of offensive potential. For once, they attacked in road game in a hostile environment and that is a promising attribute. They were balanced and on schedule for much of the night. They protected pretty well and ran the ball well even when declaring run.

Optimism is everywhere after Game 1. Let's see how it holds up in Week 2.


Chris the Crazy Conservative said...

Bob, I love this blog. I have been reading it for about a year and my understanding of football has skyrocketed as a direct result of your writing. Thanks so much for allowing us to take a peak at your insights into the Cowboys.

Shelby R. Gray said...

Wow, when is the last time 21 was successful for this team. To me, that formation is the most balanced between smash mouth and a nice throw. Very nineties. It's weird to think of 90s offense as retro, no?

Doctorjorts said...

Bob, I'd like to point out that according, based on the overall lIkelihood of success (including net loss or gain of yards and likelihood of turnovers) nfl coaches probably already run the ball far too often even with the current league average of 40:60 run:pass ratio. This is a good read: