Thursday, August 07, 2014

Issues In Oxnard: Balancing Offense Helps Romo

A few days ago, I spent a lot of time discussing running the ball and how the Cowboys have talked about rushing more for years but this year they claim they are double serious and intend to do it.  They have given lip service to the idea of becoming more of a power team that will attempt to control the game and the clock more by taking their talented offensive line and ramming the ball right at the defense.

There are all sorts of reasons to want to do this (and an equally long list of reasons to be cynical about the Cowboys actually doing what they say they plan on doing), but as we have said a number of times, maybe the best reason to want to do this is to help protect your defense from having to play so many more snaps than the offense did in 2013.

If you have not read the first piece in this series, I would invite you to go back and catch up with that by clicking here.

But, today, I want to visit about a few more concepts about getting the offense more in balance.  Remember, nobody wishes the Cowboys to turn into a Veer offense or the wishbone.  Rather, the entire agenda here for my hopes to want to see Dallas run the ball more is two-fold.  First, the idea that you turn from a finesse offense to a strong and powerful offense is vital for me.  As mentioned in the first piece, Seattle and San Francisco really hurt and punish their opponents while attacking the defense.  I think passing too much causes your offensive line always to move backwards at the snap (to pass protect) rather than firing forward in run blocking.  Imagine a boxer who is always defending versus one that is attacking.  The differences is are stark.

But, the other reason this team needs to run is the most important reason of them all - Tony Romo absolutely is a better passer when the Cowboys have a run threat.

That last paragraph may require a second read for best emphasis.

I will not speak on this from the perspective of 31 other teams and countless other franchise QBs, but there is zero doubt that the Romo who runs a balanced game plan is a substantially better passer than the Romo who drops back and throws it 40 times in a game.

We can theorize as to why this is all day.  My favorite theory is that a balanced offense requires a balanced defense to counter.  When you run a personnel group onto the field, the defense counters with its plan.  If you are constantly running 3WR and a flexed TE, they are switching to nickel or dime with all sorts of DBs.  But, if you stay in with 2TE or sometimes even 3TE, the defense cannot allow themselves to get out-sized, so they are going to go big in personnel with more LBs.  This just makes coverage more difficult for them and mismatches with speed easier for Romo to find.

Some offenses can kill you regardless of your personnel groupings.  But, we follow the Cowboys here, and when they go all spread-shotgun for too long, they get into trouble.  Here is some proof, based simply on volume of pass attempts in a game:

WHEN TONY ROMO THROWS LESS THAN 30 ATTEMPTS IN A GAME:


QB Rating TD INT YPA Record
Career 109.6 86 26 8.64 29-9
Since 2010 117.8 32 3 8.06 10-3
2013 106.8 9 1 7.03 2-2

Those numbers should make your jaw drop.  If they don't, then let's compare them to by just changing one small thing - his pass attempts.

WHEN TONY ROMO THROWS MORE THAN 35 ATTEMPTS IN A GAME:


QB Rating TD INT YPA Record
Career 86.9 85 60 7.16 19-31
Since 2010 88.3 54 39 7.35 10-21
2013 95 17 8 7.35 4-4

And if you think it gets better with more throws, think again:

WHEN TONY ROMO THROWS MORE THAN 40 ATTEMPTS IN A GAME:


QB Rating TD INT YPA Record
Career 84.4 45 38 6.90 9-17

I assume we all believe that the best version of Tony Romo is the one with a passer rating up near 110 - which would basically putting him with the elite in the game - rather than a position where at 84.4, in 2013 he would rank with Arizona's Carson Palmer and Tampa Bay's Mike Glennon.

So, now back to how this all fits together for the 2014 Cowboys.  They have hired Scott Linehan.  They have drafted powerful offensive linemen.  They are talking the talk:

"We believe in being a physical football team.  I feel like for the first time in a little while on offense we can be that and control the game and the line of scrimmage." - Jason Garrett - Aug 5, 2014

But, can a tiger change his stripes?  As we wrote on that piece linked at the top, the Cowboys seem to be pretty good at running the ball, but equally unaware of that point.  

Additionally, they also have a very odd relationship with one of the best offensive weapons in football, historically, as no team has run less play-action passes in the last 2 seasons than the Dallas Cowboys (according to Pro Football Focus).  See this handy chart that includes the entire NFC and a few select AFC teams:


Dallas is 32nd in the league for 2 years running.  It might be more than that, but Pro Football Focus has been keeping track since 2012, so that is all we can prove.

I asked the coach about whether we should expect to see more in 2014, and he answered as a guy might who isn't interested in sharing his thoughts with the world:

"Play Action has always been part of what we try to do and some years we have done it more than others.  You want to feature the schemes and players that help you win most, and certainly play action can be an effective tool for the offense."  - Jason Garrett - Aug 5, 2014

Now, they we have been down this road before.  Last year, in New York, we were amazed at how much play action they used in their win against the Giants.  It appears that the mysterious changes that happened after Week 10 also seemed to include using more play action like this play:


The funny thing is that most people will tell you that you must run the ball to be able to run play action fakes and make them effective.  I can tell you that the film does not confirm this.  Yes, it helps and maybe even improves the effects, but they are still absolutely there.  

If the the whole point of play action is to get the Linebackers and Safeties to believe for a brief instant that it is a run play and this allows that small opening for a incisive pass down the field, then watching game tape proves that they fall for it even from teams that can't run the ball much.  Think of it as a cat to yarn.  It is almost instinctual for a player who has spent so much time on a football field since he was a boy.  The split second decision cannot be computed without relying on instincts.

So, here are the Cowboys results in running the fewest play action passes in football in the last 2 seasons, sorted by week.  As you can see, at the end of 2013, it was almost as if they discovered that this all works together.  Running the ball helps the pass; play action fakes help both the run and the pass (balanced offenses work!!!); and it all helps keep the 3rd Down situations manageable with 3rd and shorter.

So, the annual lip service has been given.  For at least 3 camps in a row, we have now heard how this year we are running the ball and trying to be a physical offense.  

The numbers confirm the wisdom of this and that the rest of the league believes in these concepts more than the Cowboys.  Will 2014 reap new results?

September cometh.

3 comments:

David Morgan said...

Garrett: "We believe in power football and play action."

World: "Show me."

Tim Wilson said...

Bob,

Appreciate all your articles, some of the best Cowboys insight on the web.

On this one, I agree with the overall thesis, and I generally agree with the data that you're using to support it. However, I'd be careful on your tables showing Romo's stats by pass attempts, for this reason:

When the Cowboys are losing, they are going to need to pass more. And they're more likely to be losing against good teams than bad ones. This means that in the games Romo is throwing the ball the most, he will be playing good teams more often than he will be playing bad teams. Good teams often have good defenses. So it is not unusual for Romo's passer rating to be lower in those games. We'd need to adjust for defensive opponent to really feel confident about these numbers.

Again, I agree with the thesis and these numbers are probably fine directionally, but wanted to point out the potential issue with the stats.

Drew Smith said...

There have been 14 games in the past 2 seasons where Dallas has attempted play action 3 times or less. That's basically a full season's worth of games in which it wasnt even in the playbook. That's unfathomable for an NFL offense. Even more so when they know its successful. Do they not care or are they just that incompetent?