Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Issues In Oxnard: Running The Ball

Back in January, when Scott Linehan was being hired by the Cowboys, I wrote the following:

Linehan is a coach who has his plusses and minuses of course.  Every coach - especially those who are easily available at this time of year - are not going to have such a glowing resume that we run to his arms in January and he comes in and fixes everything.  Rob Ryan had a list of doubters who said he had never won anything.  Monte Kiffin's doubts were based on his last several years of work.  Bill Callahan still had to answer for Super Bowl 37 and his very odd relationship with players.  Rod Marinelli coached a team that went 0-16.  The list goes on and on.

Well, in Linehan's case, my initial concerns are based completely on my over-riding issues with the offense.  I have long thought that the Cowboys offense is too finesse and does not value the ability to (at times) bully the defense into submission with clock-controlling, demoralizing, and punishing football that shows the opponent that this is going to be a very long day.  I think that it seldom hurts to defend against the Cowboys and that they run only as an afterthought.

Now, I do not believe in the wishbone, the veer, or any ridiculous running to extreme that is sure to anger any advanced metrics folks.  In fact, I consider myself one of them.  But, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the sport of football is one of disposition and attitude at its core.  You cannot watch the Seahawks and 49ers take over the NFC with this bully-football and ignore it.  There has to be some recognition that physicality is still alive and well in the NFL and it is still a blocking and tackling league.

I am sorry, but dropping back into shotgun and pass protection play after play is like a boxer who is never allowed to attack.  He must simply accept punishment as an offensive lineman and never dish it out.  I don't like that and I never have.  I also don't believe that many great coaches believe in it either.  Yes, this is a passing league and the numbers have never been higher.  So, why then, did Seattle and San Francisco take over the conference without a QB who can throw for 200 yards on a regular basis?

Smash-Mouth-Football.  Offensively and Defensively.  They are going to make you cry.

Can the Cowboys mimic this?

Or should they do just the opposite?

Here is the run/pass balance for the last 5 season for Scott Linehan in Detroit, Jason Garrett in Dallas, and the NFL average for playoff teams.  We should obviously dig deeper on this topic, but here are just broad, general numbers based on the question, does this team run the ball?

Well, by rankings, many of them between 30th-32nd in the league, Linehan might be one of the few NFL coaches that values the run less than even Garrett.  Now, there, of course, are personnel considerations and you can see how Reggie Bush being brought into Detroit affected their conviction level substantially, but overall, you can see that these guys feel like the running game is an overall nuisance as it pertains to their ideal view of football.

YearLinehan - DetGarrett - DalNFL Playoff Avg
200939.4% Run42.7% Run44.3% Run
201038.0% Run41.4% Run43.9% Run
201133.6% Run40.1% Run43.5% Run
201233.7% Run33.8% Run45.2% Run
201340.4% Run35.1% Run44.3% Run

My dreams of smash-mouth football with Travis Frederick, Tyron Smith, and even Doug Free capable of dishing out running game punishment looks unlikely, to be honest.  

On the other hand, if you consider the lack of creativity and insistence on getting the ball to Dez Bryant, we can look on the bright side and imagine Linehan bringing all of his tricks on how to use Megatron and his mates to create match ups around the field and get his monster the ball at any and all times.

Also, unlike Callahan, there is reason to believe that Garrett and Linehan consider themselves friends and share agendas and loyalty and even football philosophy.  So, from that standpoint, I can sell this idea to myself quite easily.

But, overall, if you, like me, consider the Cowboys finesse approach to offense to be one of the consistent weaknesses that you would like addressed, just know that Linehan wants to pass even more than Garrett and did not really harness Matthew Stafford's impulse throws very well.


I wanted you to read that (perhaps for the first time) to capture my over-view of frustration as it pertains to what has won the NFC the last few years, versus how the Cowboys brain trust might see the sport.

An easy counter to that discussion, however, is this:  If the Cowboys do really want to pass the ball 2 of every 3 plays (65%+), then why did they spend so much on an offensive line?  In other words, maybe the coaching philosophies of Mr Garrett and Mr Linehan are based on what they had rather than what they wished they had.  Now, if the Cowboys have invested in physicality, can we hope that they are ready to attempt to blow teams off the ball like the Seahawks and 49ers have been doing?  Can we expect the Cowboys to attempt to dominate an opponent physically at the point of attack?  And most importantly, can we hope that Dallas is finally ready to kill off a game that they are leading in late in the 4th Quarter because they are finally equipped to run a proper 4-minute drill?

So, were the Cowboys a good running team in 2013?  In many respects, no.

* 29th in the NFL in 10 play drives
* 24th in the NFL in 5 minute drives
* 24th in the NFL in 10 yard rushes
* 24th in the NFL in rushing Yards per game
* 31st in the NFL in rushing attempts

And yet, they were 8th in the NFL in Yards per carry.  What gives?  

Well, in a nutshell, they ran the ball well only in 2 games before November.  St Louis and San Diego. Then, after the New Orleans game - when the play calling changed as well as the right guard, combined with the return to full strength of DeMarco Murray - they ran like one of the best teams in football.  In fact, from Week 11-Week 16, do you know who the best rushing team in football was in 2013?

Your Dallas Cowboys.  137 carries for 734 yards, or 5.36 yards every single time they tried.  That, after 10 weeks of 3.87 yards per carry.  

Look at the week-by-week for yards per carry from 2013:

Now, let's review the 2013 factors that may or may not have entered into evidence:

1) - DeMarco Murray missed action from the Washington Game in Week 6 until the Minnesota Game in Week 9.  Those games were Joseph Randle doing pedestrian work in Philadelphia and Detroit and then the Cowboys electing to run almost no rushing plays against Minnesota at all.

2) - Tony Romo threw so many passes - 127 in 3 games - that the team was pushing its defense right back onto the field and of course, exposing them to horrid situations where they spent the majority of the game trying to defend.  If the best defense is a good offense, then the Cowboys were not getting the memo.  Yes, they beat Philadelphia, but the loss to Detroit was inexcusable.  Then, they barely beat a horrible Minnesota team in the final seconds at home, only to be humiliated in New Orleans.

3) - This led to big issues in the offensive brain-trust after the New Orleans debacle and during the bye week.  Many of us believe the play-calling went back to Jason Garrett and the removal of Bill Callahan from any sort of authority (making it even more puzzling after learning about the friction between Garrett/Callahan was Jerry insisting that Callahan stay in Dallas during the offseason and honor his contract).

4) - For whatever it is worth, Brian Waters was lost in Detroit at Right Guard, and Mackenzy Bernadeau graded quite well for the remainder of the season in the wide-zone game and being on the scene for many of those big performances.

Now, this, below, is the important chart for me.  A physical team has a few attributes that are key for me.  The most significant is separating the runs down to those that are not tricks.  I think shotgun runs are finesse runs and work primarily because in pre-snap you have the defense thinking pass.  So, below, I separated out the under center runs by week and show you all runs from 11, 12, 13, 21, and 22 personnel.  Look at these results - especially after New Orleans:

As you can see they could line it up and grind it.  It was a beautiful thing in those final weeks.  Then, in the final week with no Romo, the Eagles brought it to a stop.  But, I assume if he had been there, the results likely would have been there, too.

So, now, after 2013, they invested again by taking Zack Martin in the 1st Round.  Now, 3 offensive linemen in the 1st round (not to mention dropping $100 million on Tyron)!  They simply cannot be sitting at 65% pass anymore.  The league says physical football wins in January and actually gets you there.  If playoff teams are around 55%, you have to be pretty stubborn to convince yourself to ignore that and keep doing what you are doing.  And, to lose two games at least because you had no plan in the 4th Quarter of a game you had the lead - At Detroit and Green Bay - has to shake you out of your delusions.

This week at camp, I visited with Jason Witten on this very topic and he seemed to agree with my premise:

So, will they pick up where they left off and become that physical team that their purchases seem to indicate they aspire to?  If not, the next coaching staff certainly will see these assets and demand that this team becomes more like the Seahawks, 49ers, or even the 1990s Cowboys and pound the rock to set up shorter passing situations, dish out punishment to opponents, and protect a fragile defense.

It all makes too much sense.


Dave Green said...

Imagine how effective this offense can be if they run. A lot.

Then think of how deadly Romo will be when he fakes a hand off.

Surely, that will be the strategy.

Brandon said...

First, I should say great work, and I love the idea of the Cowboys playing a more physical game especially with their focus in the draft on improving the line.

So, I'll throw this out there, and I'm sure you've read this before in Football Outsiders, but I think it's worth mentioning. They believe in the theory that there is no such thing as establishing the run. An effective running game is a cause and effect of a good passing game. "You run when you win, not win when you run." And I see that you understand this because of this line, "...most importantly, can we hope that Dallas is finally ready to kill off a game that they are leading in late in the 4th Quarter because they are finally equipped to run a proper 4-minute drill?"

So I know you get it, but I just want to say that so that everybody doesn't read these numbers and automatically assume the Cowboys can run 65% in the first half and expect to get the same efficiency.

Brandon said...

I guess I predicted your show today. Scott's response to your question regarding Romo's attempts per game was hilarious. Reminiscent of Hong Kong Paul.