Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Decoding Linehan: Where Do We Start?


A long time ago, I became interested in the inner-workings of the Cowboys game strategies.  From there, I started studying more and more the Xs and Os of the game.  That led to attempting to understand what the Cowboys do and why they do it.  Sometimes, it enlightens a situation involving this team and sometimes it only leads to more complex questions.

But, in the end, it is now a passion of mine to attempt to decipher what the Cowboys are doing from a strategic standpoint, and then attempting to pass it on to readers who want to join on this journey.

It is not for everyone.  In fact, in this day and age of fantasy football and the red zone channel, it may not be for most.  But, to those who enjoy diving deep on just one team and knowing as much as humanly possible about the Dallas Cowboys, you might just enjoy this trip.

Every Tuesday, I write a blog entry called "Decoding Linehan".  This, of course, is the next in a long line of "Decoding Garrett" from 2008-2012 and "Decoding Callahan" in 2013.  On there, we track all sorts of offensive items that aren't generally found in the box score.

We elaborate on what worked, what didn't, and what this may tell us about their next battles.  In a sense, we attempt to review and predict what their game-plans will be, and then review them carefully as the coaching staff itself does on a weekly basis.

That said, our level of detail can't get so deep that only football nerds understand it.  So, it is my goal every year to track things that are easily consumed for the passionate, and not too intimidating for the newcomers to join in.

Feedback is very helpful, so that I can make sure to elaborate on points that need it from a reader's standpoint, so feel free to drop me a message at any point.


To begin, let's discuss how we got here.  Below, please examine the NFL run/pass splits compared to the Dallas Cowboys run/pass splits over the last 8 seasons.  As you can see, the NFL is not even close to 50/50 anymore.  In fact 45% run/55% pass is rather dated.  We are now basically arriving at a spot where the NFL is evolving into a 40% running league.  Who know where it ends up, but the fact that he red line below continues to head south tells us that NFL teams believe in running less and less.

Now, look at the blue-line of the Cowboys.  The extremes of 2012-2015, in particular, demonstrate why Cowboys' enthusiasts hold up the 2014 season as a sort of holy grail.  It was the year that it appeared the Cowboys nearly broke the NFL by going back to the mid-1990s, when 50/50 was normal.  The rest of the league zigged, and the Cowboys zagged.  Now, in 2016, they think they can do it again.

The league has told us that this is a QB league and that you don't invest in Running Backs because their roles are less than they have ever been and that perhaps they are merely complimentary pieces now.  But, what if you desire to get to 50/50 or beyond?  50/50 based on a hypothetical 1,000-play season means you are running 500 run plays.  If you are, then you might want the best RB you can acquire and then sign him up for 300 of them (Ezekiel Elliott).  Then, you might want someone else's starter to be your backup (Alfred Morris), and even a nice rookie to take on a little of the leftovers (Darius Jackson).

Again, the Cowboys seem to be trying to pull off something - at least in their heads - that the league simply isn't doing anymore.  But, because of the Cowboys DNA - a coach and front office that are still trying to go back to 2014 and the early 1990s dynasty - they have built this throwback offense and are trying to insert modern ideas with an old-school, physical style.

Next, here is a look at the % of plays in shotgun.  Now, it is important for us to be clear here, as any observer or teacher should be willing to update their information.  I have used this space here since 2008 to harp on my feelings about shotgun.  As the Cowboys used it for years with Tony Romo, it became their solution to every problem.  Poor pass protection, poor running game, poor game-plan?  Well, the solution was to run the 2-minute offense all of the time.  And what happens in the 2-minute offense?  For the Tony Romo offense, that means 85% of the plays or more are going to be pass plays.

Now, here is where we need to update our materials.  In about 2012, the NFL started learning with dual threat QBs, the best way to run the zone read with Robert Griffin, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Tannehill, etc was to run it out of shotgun.  This means that we should not fear the formation anymore that it will make us a finesse team (team that has no chance to win in January).  Rather, power football is played from shotgun now.  And with Dak Prescott, this RB, and this offensive line, we better get on board.  Under-center has always been the spot for play-action and physical football, but football has evolved and the Cowboys actually have the pieces now (and the injured passing QB) that this might be the plan for Week 1.

That doesn't mean that this Cowboys' historical data was used for that purpose.  This is all with 85% passing in mind.  In other words, from 2012-2015 (with that glorious 2014 outlier), the Cowboys were doing this because they were out of other ideas and unable to bully opponents and the clock for entire games.

As you can see in 2015, they had 4 different ineffective QBs (yes, even Tony Romo was poor when he was on the field last year), running shotgun as the team was always behind and always needing to score quickly. 

Next, we need to know what personnel grouping the Cowboys run the majority of the time.  The chart below can seem confusing (because it kind of is), but just know that you can see the Personnel Groupings on the right with a corresponding color.  The numbers around the pie chart are the percentages each grouping is used.  Yellow is "S11" or "Shotgun 11" Personnel which was run 41.7% of the time out of about 960 plays in 2015.  Purple is "12" and was used 15.5% of the time.  "S12" was used 7%, with normal "11" used 11% of the time.

Those were the 4 most used personnel groupings in 2015, which is a departure from yesteryear where "21" and "22" personnel were used.  The Cowboys really don't run much with fullbacks, having replaced those one-dimensional lead blockers with TEs who may not take on LBs in the hole as well, but they also provide far more defensive stress for the chance they may be a receiver who just starts in the backfield.


If there is one thing we need to look at to better understand how a game of football in the NFL works, it is knowing why personnel groupings matter more than formations or even the plays themselves.

Offensive Groupings are how the defense decides who to put on the field.  After every play, the defensive coaches watch the offense change players and then quickly respond.  If the Cowboys bring on another WR, the Redskins are watching and quickly yell for another corner to run out and replace a LB.  But, if Dallas does the opposite and takes off a WR and puts on a Fullback, then the opposition needs to take a corner off and put a bigger LB out there because they are now feeling a power run coming on.

Formations matter, but a defense has to then adjust with the 11 players already on the field.  When formations are being changed by the offense, the defense cannot swap players, they simply have to match up their 11 as best they can before the snap.  That is why if you can only study personnel or formations, any coach will tell you to concentrate on who is on the field.

Once you do this for a while, you will be able to count in your head as you see the screen and note what the offense is in.  You might even be able to look at the defense and see how the defense has decided to match up.  It is an amazing chess game that goes on before every snap.

Now, understand that the offenses around this league now love to take advantage of the defenses by having a group that can run or pass.  If they can get you "stuck", then they want to play up-tempo so that you can not change your guys for the entire possession.  Once again, I believe Dallas has decided that this will be one of their plans.  They will use their "11" personnel - from shotgun or under center, with Elliott, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, and Terrance Williams as their best group that can spread you out and pass, or bunch you up and decide to use runs and play action.  If you go big to stop them, they will pass and expose your coverage.  If you go small to cover the pass, they will pack it in and let that OL take over.  The design of the Cowboys offense is in a very advantageous position as we enter the season.

Let's show you the Cowboys' favorite 6 groupings.  For the most part, the entire NFL world will roll with these 6:

11 Personnel - 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR - Under center - The Cowboys almost never used this grouping from 2008-2012, but in 2013 they started using it more and more and in 2015 it was up over 100 snaps.  The Broncos almost never run anything besides "11", but most of it is Shotgun 11.  If you look around the league, the modern NFL seems to believe in "11" as they would rather have a 3rd WR in the game than a FB or another TE.

12 Personnel - 1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR - Under Center - This is what you have heard so much about.  The Patriots, the 49ers, the Packers, the Saints, and the Cowboys have all tried to make this their diet.  It is the ultimate balanced package both from personnel (the defense has to make a choice between DBs and LBs and the offense then picks the opposite strength) and from formation - if each side of the offense has a TE there is no weak side!

21 Personnel - 2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR - Under Center - Below is the standard personnel grouping that you grew up watching.  This is also called "regular" as it has always been the default grouping.  Of course, we know that the fullback is a dying breed and there is almost no 2-half backs (Tony Dorsett and Ron Springs!) lined up next to each other anymore.  So, while this is the grandfather of them all in the Super Bowl era, it is now just a change-up.  Most teams want a 2nd TE now over a FB.

22 Personnel - 2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR - Under Center - This is the new ground and pound grouping that the Cowboys were so good at during the Martellus Bennett/Marion Barber run in 2009 that ended up in the playoffs when they ran this grouping over 200 times in one season.  This declares run to the defense, they bring in extra "bigs" and we have a street fight.  You have power, but they have 9 in the box to stop you.  My favorite idea here is play action over the top to Dez Bryant running in a wide open secondary because everyone is up for the run.  To be honest, the Cowboys are moving away from this, but in that visit to Seattle in 2014, this was how they closed the game.

S11 Personnel - 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR - Shotgun - This is the most run personnel package in the entire NFL now days at it isn't even close.  The Cowboys love it, but their efficiency is not great.  It is the 2-minute offense and the 3rd Down offense, and also the most favored of them all in any situation.  It spreads out a secondary and makes the DBs prove they can cover without a ton of safety help.  The bad side is it reduces your protection options and really encourages blitzing (especially if you aren't great at stopping them).  This is actually also a great running option because the defense is set up for the pass and has few "bigs" in the game.  Especially delayed runs when the DBs all vacate on routes.

S12 Personnel - 1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR - Shotgun - And this is what Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Julius Thomas, and other hybrid TE/WR types love.  This is 12 out of the shotgun and may actually make defenses decide to go dime (6 DBs) so that they can cover everyone with a corner and still have 2 safeties.  But, if they do, they are undersized.  The Cowboys don't use this much anymore, mostly because they have decided that Cole Beasley is a much better weapon than Gavin Escobar.  As a reminder, Beasley was an undrafted free agent, and Escobar was taken in the 2nd round.  Oh, well.

Ok, so once you can identify the groups, you are in good shape to understand what the offense is good at and what they are not so good at.  It is far more advanced than saying, "we are a good passing team".  We need to know in what situations are the Cowboys good?  How are defenses adjusting?  Who is winning the match-up game of chess?

Those are the questions we want to answer here every Tuesday.  See if you can learn to look for RBs and TEs on each play and you will have it down.  Each personnel group is named by the total of each.  2 RBs and 1 TE?  21 Personnel.  1 RB and 2 TEs?  12 Personnel.  Easy.


Here are the rankings for the last 5 years on what the Cowboys did most.  We are listing the 4 groups from each of the last 5 seasons that they ran the most often ranked from 1st to 4th.  Then, we list how many times they ran the group for total yardage and then the yards per play (ypp).

Every season has a different number of plays, but 1,000 is about normal.  Also, yards per play are context free, so expect more yards per play from a shotgun situation than from a "Run 1st" situation.  It is nearly impossible to get 7 yards an attempt on the ground, but 7 yards an attempt in the passing game is considered mediocre.

1. S11 Personnel1. S11 Personnel1. S11 Personnel1. S11 Personnel1. S11 Personnel
303 - 1733 yds479 - 3141 yds345 - 1911 yds331 - 2238 yds401 - 2362 yds
5.71 yds per play6.55 ypp5.53 ypp6.76 ypp5.89 ypp
2. 12 Personnel2. 12 Personnel2. 12 Personnel2. 12 Personnel2. 12 Personnel
224 - 1475 yds143 - 767 yds190 - 1063 yds233 - 1333 yds149 - 886 yds
6.58 ypp5.36 ypp5.59 ypp5.72 ypp5.94 ypp
3. 22 Personnel3. 21 Personnel 3. S12 Personnel3. 11 Personnel 3. 11 Personnel
124 - 693 yds121 - 820 yds105 - 735 yds78 - 418 yds110 - 515 yds
5.59 ypp6.77 ypp7.00 ypp5.36 ypp4.68 ypp
4. S12 Personnel4. 22 Personnel4. 11 Personnel4. 21 Personnel4. S12 Personnel
93 - 703 yds73 - 272 yds95 - 451 yds75 - 483 yds69 - 422 yds
7.55 ypp3.72 ypp4.74 ypp6.44 ypp6.12 ypp
Dallas YPP: 5.91Dallas YPP: 5.71Dallas YPP: 5.70Dallas YPP: 6.05Dallas YPP: 5.57
NFL YPP: 5.45NFL YPP: 5.41NFL YPP: 5.36NFL YPP: 5.44NFL YPP: 5.48

The final 2 lines of the graphic above are the overall "Yards Per Play" for Dallas (overall for all plays) and then the overall NFL YPP to provide some comparison numbers.  You will notice that 2014 was the high point (again).

And yes, you read that correctly - the average play in the NFL is about 5.4-5.5 yards.  That seemed high to me, but it is true.

That is a ton of info, but that is how we roll here.  I hope you can handle it - but as I said at the top, this may not be for every football fan.

Now, we wait to see the Scott Linehan offense on Sunday with a rookie QB and a rookie RB and then begin to figure out what the changes will be. It should be fun to see how he plays with these new (and very young) toys.

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