Inside the Numbers: The Cowboys Passing Game (Part III)

This is the third and final part of our look at the Cowboys passing game through the lens of Expected Points Value.

In part one, we looked at the overall tendencies of the Cowboys passing game, in part two we looked at the value of individual Dallas Cowboys receivers.

We saw that passing plays involving Miles Austin generated the most value for the Cowboys over the entire 2009 regular season, Jason Witten's EVP numbers suffered from a lack of  touchdowns, plays involving Patrick Crayton generated a surprisingly high value while Roy Williams generated the lowest EVP per pass attempt despite scoring the second most receiving touchdowns.

In today's final installment on the passing game, we'll break down our top receivers further. Who was Romo's security blanket last season, was Miles Austin's emergence really that big a surprise, why all the love for Patrick Crayton and more.

This is a summary overview of our top four receivers using a mix of conventional and EPV data. Note that as I explained previously, I've removed interceptions and turnovers on downs from the individual player stats.

2009
Pass Att. Rec. Yards Avg TDs EPV/PA
Miles Austin
122 81 1,320 16.3 11 0.66
Jason Witten 121 94 1,030 11.0 2 0.44
Patrick Crayton 65 37 622 16.8 5 0.62
Roy Williams 85 38 596 15.7 7 0.23

Caution: Thin Ice

We are now moving onto statistically very thin ice. The sample sizes in some of the breakdowns below are so small that no valid conclusions or generalizations should be inferred from them. Some of the data may be little more than random statistical noise that suggests causality where in fact there may be none.

Apply your own judgment: if the numbers and conclusions 'feel right' then they likely are, if not, just move along, stop staring and pretend nothing happened.

The transubstantiation of Patrick Crayton: Patrick Crayton started the season as the number two receiver behind Roy Williams. Only with Williams' injury in game four against the Broncos and Austin's subsequent emergence against the Chiefs in game five was Crayton moved to the slot receiver role, starting in game six against the Falcons. Here's how his EPV numbers changed with his changed role:

P. Crayton, 2009
Pass Att. EPV/PA
Games 1-5 31 0.29
Games 6-16 34 0.92

The value of each play that Crayton was involved in tripled (!) after he moved back into the slot. Blogger Blue Eyed Devil had this to say about Patrick Crayton:

Crayton doesn’t have the physical gifts of an Andre Johnson or the talent of a Miles Austin [to be the Cowboys' No. 1 or No. 2 receiver], but he is good in his own right, very savvy, and very experienced. He can fake out a cornerback, keep a play alive, or find that hole in the zone defense.

And let’s not forget, at this point Crayton has been catching balls from Romo for WAY LONGER than any other receiver. Crayton is “on the same page” as Romo, there’s a reason he worked to keep that TD play alive in the red zone against Atlanta when the other receivers stopped. Crayton was catching balls with Romo when Austin was on the practice squad, Roy was in Detroit, and Ogletree was at his high school prom.

The transformation of Miles Austin? There is a popular misconception, particularly outside Cowboys nation, that Miles Austin suddenly exploded onto the scene in game five against the Chiefs. And while it is true that his four games to start the 2009 season were lackluster by his later standards, his subsequent performance was not that big of a surprise, certainly not to Jerry Jones at around this time last year, as reported by Matt Mosely (hat tip to Fan in Thick and Thin for digging up the quote):

Jones has talked about Austin's potential in the past, but on Tuesday he indicated that the undrafted wide receiver was already in T.O.'s league.

"We know this, if [Austin] is close, then you're ahead of the game simply because of where they are in their careers," said Jones.  

I then asked Jones if he truly thought Austin could be as good as T.O., which quite honestly, sounded absurd to me.

"I certainly think he has a chance to be or I would've never released Terrell," said the owner.

Jerry Jones, certainly got that call right, and EPV confirms that Jones' opinion was not just wishful thinking: In 2008, pass plays involving Miles Austin generated 1.02 EPV per pass attempt. After a slow start to the 2009 season, he maintained a very high EVP of 0.72 per pass attempt for the rest of the season.

M. Austin, 08 & 09
Pass Att. EPV/PA
2008 season 21 1.02
2009, Games 1-4 11 0.06
2009, Games 5-16 111 0.72

The transpiration of Roy Williams. "Transpiration?", you ask, "now you're stretching it!". No, no, the numbers bear me out: You make Roy Williams sweat, he produces!

R. Williams, 2009
Pass Att. EPV/PA
Games with 7+ pass attempts
61 0.45
Games with < 7 pass attempts 24 -0.35

In games where Roy Williams was thrown the ball 7 or more times, those passes actually generated a pretty solid 0.45 EPV.  Granted, this may be a chicken and egg debate - when he had a good day he got more balls thrown his way, when he was off, he got less - but it raises an interesting question: Is Roy Williams a receiver who needs a lot of touches/looks to get into the flow of the game and to have an impact?

Who was Tony Romo's security blanket last year?

Every week, NFL quarterbacks line up on third down knowing that if they can connect with their clutch receiver - that go-to guy who rarely lets them down - they can keep a drive alive rather than head back to the sidelines in frustration. So who's that guy for Tony Romo?

If you google Tony Romo and "security blanket" most of the hits will contain a reference to Jason Witten (apart from the ubiquitous Jessica Simpson references). And that is as it should be.

Witten has indeed been the guy Romo has looked for in the clutch more often than not, and it didn't change last year. Witten was thrown to 34 times on third downs, more than any other receiver, and had the highest reception rate of all four receivers. Unfortunately, his first down conversion rate drops off, particularly vs Crayton and Austin. The good news: The Cowboys have three highly reliable receivers to go to on third down.

2009, 3rd downs
Pass Att. Rec. Rec % 1st dwn 1st dwn % EPV/PA
Jason Witten 34 24 71% 15 44% 0.26
Miles Austin
31 21 68% 17 55% 0.83
Roy Williams 27 8 30% 7 26% -0.09
Patrick Crayton 22 15 68% 13 59% 0.85

[Hat tip to Brian Burke at advancednflstats.com for providing the EPV data]

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