Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

21 Nov 2009

The Breakdown: Dallas’s Deceptive Draw Play

This week's play digram preview for the Washington Post details the draw play the Cowboys successfully run, especially with Tashard Choice in the backfield.

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 21 Nov 2009

12 comments, Last at 22 Nov 2009, 11:06am by Bright Blue Shorts


by Key19 :: Sat, 11/21/2009 - 3:48am

"The Cowboys have struggled with an inconsistent passing game, but they have no issues running the ball. Dallas is second in the NFL in yards per carry at 5.1, and ranks eighth in yards per game with 130."

Please, FO, PLEASE stop saying that Dallas is just this fantastic running team. They are not (anymore). Please watch the games. The reason the passing game has been hit-and-miss is because the running game has been as well.

Against Green Bay:

Barber 5/26 Lg: 13
Choice 3/13 Lg: 11
Jones 3/6 Lg: 4

Against Philly:

Barber 12/50 Lg: 16
Choice 3/13 Lg: 9
Jones 4/10 Lg: 4

Against Seattle:

Barber 14/53 Lg: 16
Choice 4/11 Lg: 5
Jones 8/39 Lg: 11

The Cowboys' running success in recent weeks can be summarized as follows: they generally make a few double-digit yard runs which look great and boost the average, but they also have a ton of stuffs/negative runs that put the team in horrible down and distance. The Green Bay game is a perfect example of this. The Cowboys weren't able to run more than they did because the running game was either going for about 11 yards or it was going for anywhere from -1 to 3 yards.

This is not the same team that ran the ball seemingly at will in the beginning of the season. The decline of carries in recent games are not a product of poor play-calling, they are a product of ineffectiveness on the part of the running game itself. The running game has steadily gotten worse as the backs and offensive line have gotten banged up. They can still make 11-16 yard runs here and there, but they are getting stuffed a huge percent of the time as well. When that happens, Garrett dials up passes. The 5.1 ypc are a result of Felix having a monster ypc due to two huge games. Since his injury, he has been terrible. Barber has been bad for a while since his injury as well, but he is improving. Both don't have enough carries after their injuries to depress the ypc properly to show just how mediocre they've been since then.

This team in its current form is nowhere near the second-best running team on a yards-per-carry basis. You guys talk all the time about how analysts use faulty statistics to prove their points. Well, right now, you've fallen a victim of that yourselves.

Sorry, but this whole "they're so great at running the ball!" thing really hits a nerve of mine, especially when I see the stats thrown around here so often. The Cowboys are currently an above-average running team as far as I can tell. They were great. They aren't anymore. Please catch up to this by watching the games. The ypc, as I've said, remains intact because of recent games featuring long runs in small sample sizes that unnaturally up the value to mislead people into seeing an effective running game on paper. The amount of "stuffs" this running game accounts for lately is unacceptable, and a truly great running game would not possess that trait.

But I still love you guys. :) The diagrams/videos are fantastic.

Oh, I almost forgot, I have a question for you guys (maybe you'd know, Doug, since you did the draw diagram). What is the purpose of Romo faking the quick throw before handing off, as is seen so often on these draws? Who is he trying to fake out, and furthermore, do you see any evidence of it faking anyone out? Thanks.

by OmrothLOL (not verified) :: Sat, 11/21/2009 - 11:46am

I don't know because I haven't watched much Dallas, but isn't he trying to fake out the defense?

by Dr. Mooch :: Sat, 11/21/2009 - 2:27pm

"The Cowboys' running success in recent weeks can be summarized as follows: they generally make a few double-digit yard runs which look great and boost the average, but they also have a ton of stuffs/negative runs that put the team in horrible down and distance."

Good running teams don't consistently rack up 4-yard runs. Almost half of all running plays produce 0-4 yards, and more than half produce 4 or fewer. There's some nice FO analysis here: http://www.footballoutsiders.com/walkthrough/2006/too-deep-zone-two-yard... They've also done a column on whether good running teams are stuffed less often (I can't find it just at the moment).

Your observations are fine, but Dallas is still second in the league in rushing DVOA. And you might be right that they were much better earlier with a drop off more recently. After all, their best games of the season were weeks 2 and 3. But still, your cited numbers don't mean what you think they do. Yeah, the Seattle game was very bad (-19% DVOA), but it definitely doesn't match the games against Philly and Green Bay, which were both excellent running games (19% and 26%, respectively).

by Key19 :: Sun, 11/22/2009 - 12:24am

Good points, and I do remember that "stuffs" column you're referring to. However, I would argue that the rate at which Dallas is stuffed is high enough that the overall running attack is still limited beyond what DVOA would indicate. The Cowboys can't rely on the running game enough because of the propensity of stuffs. That's why there were only 11 runs against Green Bay. They faced 2 and 7 or longer on probably 4 drives because of the lack of running effectiveness. They'd run for 11 on first down, earning a new first down, then get stuffed and force passes on the next two downs. Garrett even tried running on 2nd and long a couple times. It didn't work. So why continue to go to the well if the well is dry so often?

We'll see how this game against the Redskins goes, because DVOA has them in the top-half of the league as far as run defense goes (if memory serves). If the Cowboys run well tomorrow, I'll begin the process of eating my words. If they run well in the next couple games after that as well, I'll fully eat my words. But to my eye, the running game has been good, but not great, in the past few weeks. And I don't feel that analysts are really giving credence to the last few games.

by Sifter :: Sat, 11/21/2009 - 5:43pm

Hmmm, I hear where you are coming from and I think you may be right for this week, but going forward the Cowboys should be an excellent running team. You say, "The Cowboys are currently an above-average running team as far as I can tell. They were great", and you give perfectly valid reasons for that earlier, mentioning the injury effects on Jones and Barber. Surely if they are good now with Jones and Barber still not 100%, surely they will returning to being great when they are 100%??

That may be cold comfort for this week, but it's something.

by Key19 :: Sun, 11/22/2009 - 12:17am

Certainly it's possible that they could regain that form. But as I said, a lot of their DVOA and ypc glory is from Felix Jones busting off huge runs with ridiculous consistency (I'd argue that Felix pre-injury was on another plane from the rest of the league, including Chris Johnson). He'd seriously bust a big gain every four plays or so. Felix, unfortunately, has been terrible since his injury. Last year, he had a toe injury that initially was supposed to be a few weeks off, but then it turned into IR. He is not a fast healer, and I don't expect to see him regain his explosiveness until next season probably. Barber was certainly great before his injury, and he seems to be improving weekly, so that's promising. But I don't know that we'll ever have that "elite" running attack again this year without Felix regaining his form.

Also, RT Marc Colombo will probably not play again. That certainly doesn't bode well, especially when his replacement is a LT filling in at RT who seems to be known more for his pass blocking than his run blocking.

by Vincent Verhei :: Sun, 11/22/2009 - 5:09am

Actually, Dallas's DVOA kind of fits with your observations. They were above 30% in rushing DVOA in four of their first five games. Then they were negative in back-to-back games against Atlanta and Seattle. They were very good against Philadelphia (18.8%) and Green Bay (25.8%), although not as good as they were early in the season.

The Green Bay game is an exception, because they were close to 50-50 runs and passes before the two-minute drill of the first half, and then they were behind the entire second half. But on the season they have run the ball just 41 percent of the time, 21st in the league, even though they've rarely trailed. That's a problem.

by Cliff Claven (not verified) :: Sat, 11/21/2009 - 6:26pm

I know there's a tight end on the left side of this play, but everything I know about football says that this is a strong offensive right formation. The question becomes, then, just what do I know about football?


by Vincent Verhei :: Sun, 11/22/2009 - 4:59am

The definition of "strong side" is "side with the tight end." Since the tight end is on the left here, it's strong left.

by Doug Farrar :: Sat, 11/21/2009 - 8:54pm

Sorry, Postman Cliff -- the play diagrammed is based on a play run with 10:53 left in the first half against the Chiefs in Week 5 this year. Jason Witten was on the left side, and Marion Barber took the draw up the middle for 11.

As far as the fake screen to draw, strategies obviously vary from situation to situation, but my general assumpion would be that it's done to loosen up any outside run blitzes or overloads. On this play, when the free safety and left outside linebacker cheated up to play run, such a move might have caused just the right amount of hesitation. I've seen the Pats run that fake screen as much as any team.

by Key19 :: Sun, 11/22/2009 - 12:11am

Ok, thanks. I'll have to try and watch the LBs' and Safeties' reactions when the fake throw next surfaces.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Sun, 11/22/2009 - 11:06am

Can someone explain why the video they show in link is classified as a draw play? I thought a draw was a running play that begins with the look of a pass play (the opposite of a playaction pass).

In the video you see the QB take the snap and then sprint into the backfield with his back to the defense. At no point is he reading the field to make a pass. He then hands off to the running back who is deep in the backfield. Meanwhile the offensive linemen who start on the 20-yard line fire out across the line of scrimmage.