The game of football is wonderful in that you can enjoy it on whatever level you wish. You can watch the ball and hope your team crosses the line at one end of the field and stops the other team from doing the same. Or, you can try to learn what all those other people who never touch the ball are doing and what is going on all over the field in this complicated and wonderful game of human chess that is employed each Sunday.
This is the beauty of this game. You can consume it at the most basic level that anyone can enjoy on Day 1 of their exposure to football, or you can try to dig a bit deeper and find out, with each layer of the onion that is peeled, how complex and and challenging the idea of playing winning football truly is.
So, each week I write about the offense on Tuesdays (on normal game weeks) and the defense on Wednesdays. We call Tuesdays "Decoding Linehan" and Wednesdays are called the "Marinelli Report." These weekly reports are an effort to dive way deeper than most media summaries, but not so deep that a casual football fan cannot follow. I started doing the offense posts in 2008 and the defense in 2011, so we now have many years of data to consider and a system in place that hopefully allows a new level of enjoyment among the fans who join the journey. And luckily, since 2008, there have been many like-minded media people across the NFL who have helped add to the data frenzy so we can keep enhancing our learning without just leaning on traditional football stats.
So, let's discuss what we are trying to do. We are trying to figure out the main objectives of the offense we are following. We are trying to figure out its characteristics, strengths and weaknesses by tracking each snap in a number of different ways. The great thing about this sport is that due to the complexities and infinite combinations between personnel and play calls, there is no end to how many different ways the offense can attack its opponent. Many game plans are just for a certain week and that opponent. Others are seen every week against every opponent.
With that in mind, we attempt to track their tendencies. That starts with identifying who is on the field. Of course, you must have 11 players on the field when you run a play, but which 11? Well, we know that six players never change: the quarterback and the five offensive linemen (left tackle, left guard, center, right guard, right tackle). These six never change on offense. From there, we just have to note the other five players. The NFL has had a numbers system for years that we have adopted. Teams have a two-number label for each personnel grouping of those other five players.
The first number is the total number of running backs. The second number is the total number of tight ends. There is no third number because it is just the difference between the first two numbers and the total of five.
"11 Personnel" - 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR
"12 Personnel" - 1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR
"13 Personnel" - 1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR
"22 Personnel" - 2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR
And so on.
Why do we care? Well, because the defense is reacting to the offense's personnel by matching up with their own substitutes. If you put another tight end out there, they are going to try to match up with a different player to defend big James Hanna or Rico Gathers than they would tiny Ryan Switzer or Cole Beasley. The same defender likely couldn't do that. So, the defense knows how you like to do certain things and react accordingly. Then the offense knows how the defense will react and will attempt to force you into situations you don't want to be in.
For instance, some teams want to force you into "10" personnel (1 RB, 0 TE, 4 WR), because they know you will put a bunch of defensive backs (sometimes six) out there. That leaves only five other defenders (defensive linemen + linebackers). That is when some teams like to spread out the defense and hand the ball off to their running back, because they have five O-linemen against five D-linemen, and that should give the running back lots of room to run away from defensive backs up the middle.
Conversely, you go big with "22 Personnel" -- you then have eight "bigs." If the defense doesn't respond with bigs, you run it. If they go big, then you often have that last wide receiver (Dez Bryant) matched up one-on-one for a play-action shot.
You make the defense choose, and then you punish them for choosing wrong. This is the essence of offense.
This table shows how the Cowboys' offense has functioned on a snap-percentage basis from 2013-16. As you can see, if you add all of the Shotgun 11 snaps to the general Personnel 11 snaps, you will see the Cowboys were in some version of 11 Personnel on 61 percent of their plays.
12 Personnel has fallen from 2013, but I think that is more of a function of tight end health rather than a massive departure from the way they want to do things. Everything else is pretty rare for Dallas, but they do love 13 Personnel.
Once you see what they are running, we want to then figure out what they are running well.
Now, the chart below is the same stuff, but I add the letter "S" to denote "Shotgun." Shotgun, as you can imagine, has become a huge part of the modern game, and it certainly suggests "pass." Teams pass between 70-85 percent of the time out of shotgun and are about 50/50 from under center. So, we have always designated the two differently. So, Shotgun is S11 and regular 11 is under center. Same for all the packages that are listed twice.
Below, see how productive each grouping was in 2016:
It was a very good offensive year.
So, each week, I will pick some plays or some points about what made the Cowboys' offense work -- or not. It is an enjoyable exercise, but it all starts with you learning the different personnel groupings, then seeing how often they run or pass when they are in a certain grouping. Once you start each play looking for the grouping, you will start to see patterns very quickly. I might even use a notepad to jot down the run/pass in each grouping, or even on each down, to see what the coaches and players on each side are seeing.
We want to know what makes the Cowboys' offense tick. And it is more complex than just saying they "have good players." That helps, but strategy and tactics are everything in this sport.
-- They were the best first-down rushing team in the league. They averaged 5.1 yards per rush on first downs, making second downs manageable.
-- When you are willing to run and run well on first and second downs, the defense is forced to step up and stop it. That sets up play-action (a pass that, at first, looks like a run), and the Cowboys ran the third-most play-action plays in the league, averaging almost nine yards per play.
-- Also, because of this, they faced third downs in a very advantageous way. Or, often not at all. They converted third downs at a very nice rate (especially with a rookie quarterback)of 42.3 percent. But, more importantly, they faced the 29th-most third downs. In other words, they never had third downs. And, did you know that in the past three (and even five) years, no team in the NFL has faced fewer third downs than the Cowboys? Thanks, running game!
-- According to Football Outsiders, that also puts the Cowboys as the best red-zone rushing offense and second-best rushing offense in goal-to-goal.
Which all leads us back to the questions about Dak Prescott. If people are going to say he has it easy and could succumb to a "sophomore slump," we need to ask what that looks like. Quarterbacks look poor in certain situations -- third-and-long is the toughest spot, and playing from behind is another one.
Prescott was phenomenal, but in fairness, he hardly faced any third-and-longs. The Cowboys had the 31st-most third-and-long situations. And they were never behind.
In 16 regular season games last year, do you know how many snaps the Cowboys were behind in the second half, down by seven or more points?
That would be 42. The Eagles game at home, and the Eagles game on the road (which didn't matter at all). That is it.
In other words, Prescott was great. Nobody is debating that. But how much of it was him, and how much of it was that he was never asked to deal with third-and-longs or playing from behind?
I suspect the answer is both. Blake Bortles would love to live in this world. Jacksonville had 318 snaps like that. Cleveland had 385. It is a different job when the scoreboard is constantly upside down.
The good news is that if this offense is right, it is keeping him out of those spots. Put your young quarterback in a position to succeed, and he will. So, he may not have to find out how hard it is to pass when the opponent is expecting it because you have to.
It all starts Sunday night. I hope you join us this season for "Decoding Linehan." Leave questions below and tomorrow we will look at our defensive studies.