Cowboys Ball Distribution, Part Three: Feeding the Hungry Receiving Birds

In part three of this multi-part series, I look at pass distribution over the past four years and consider how much the Cowboys offense will change in 2010?

Everybody, it seems, it s a coordinator and most everybody, certainly on this site, has pet players to improve Jason Garrett's 2010 game plans. 

"Free the Ogletree." 

"Dez Now, More Than Ever"

"More Red Zone Work for Witten."

The week-to-week passing options, real week-to-week options, are limited.  There are only so many throws the Cowboys can and should make per week.  The Cowboys have averaged between 31 to 34 attempts per game the last four years.  There is only one ball.  The question of who should get it is not really a big one.  The Cowboys have been a consistent team, through the brief Sparano/Haley play-calling regime and for the three years Jason Garrett has handled the play sheets. 

The overwhelming percentage of pass attempts go to the starting receivers and to the starting tight end:

2006 -- Tony Sparano & Todd Haley

Percentage of total throws to top three targets -- 70%

2007 -- Jason Garrett

  • Terrell Owens -- 139 attempts, 8.7 per game
  • Jason Witten -- 141 attempts, 8.8 per game
  • Patrick Crayton -- 80 attempts, 5.0 per game

Percentage of total throws to top three targets -- 69%

Note that the big three in the Dallas passing game slice up almost three quarters of the passing pie.  Garrett called more overall attempts and distributed those passes differently, but his quarterbacks still got their passes to the starting wideouts and Jason Witten.

Note also how Garrett changed the emphasis of his passing game after losing Terry Glenn.  Witten's role flourished, as he went from 5.0 passes to almost 9.0 attempts a game.  Garrett in effect swapped the emphasis on his tight end and second receiver from the '06 mix.

With Terrell Owens' departure in '09 and with Roy Williams' ceiling uncertain, Garrett mixed and matched more.  In September, he still called throws for his big three, but the distribution was more even than the past:

2009, Games 1-3

  • Witten -- 23 attempts, 7.7 per game
  • Williams -- 18 attempts, 6.0 per game
  • Crayton -- 17 attempts, 5.7 per game

The blend, as I explained in an earlier piece, went haywire in Denver.  Witten saw four passes aimed his way.  Williams and Crayton saw seven each.  Miles Austin, who had only four attempts in games one through three, saw eight Romo throws directed at him. 

The next week, Austin took the injured Williams' place in the starting lineup, dropped 250 yards on the Chiefs and showed the team he could handle the top slot. 

Note the passing blends Garrett called from week 5 to the end of the season.  Looks a lot like 2007, when he had T.O. as his receiving anchor, no?

2009, Games 5-16

  • Austin -- 112 attempts, 9.3 per game;
  • Witten -- 97 attempts, 8.1 per game;
  • Williams -- 51 attempts, 5.0 per game;
  • Crayton -- 43 attempts, 3.6 per game

Garrett gave Miles Austin a small number more passes per week than Owens.  He gave Witten a fraction less than he did in '07.  Williams got the exact same workload Crayton shouldered back then. The one tweak was a greater role for the slot receiver, as Crayton got a noticeable, and productive 3.6 balls per game.  Crayton generated more receiving yards from his attempts than Williams did from his. 

Which brings us to 2010.  The patterns suggest some familiar and some not so familiar pass distribution patterns for the fall.

1.  The starters will continue to get theirs.  Crayton made the rotation a four-man event in 2009, but he, Austin, Witten and Williams still accounted for 76% of all Tony Romo's pass attempts.

2.  Some people argue that you should just 'throw the ball where the coverage dictates, but this shows the offense can dictate where it wants to go, to a great extent, with personnel groupings, motion and play calling -- creating matchups for the best players to get the ball in their hands as often as possible.

3.  The major question in my mind is where Dez Bryant fits into this mix.  Will he play the second receiver role?  If he's as good as observers claim, those 5 attempts which have been earmarked for the third target should be his.  Or, does Garrett try to replicate what he showed in '09, perhaps taking one pass from Austin, one from Witten and creating throws for both Bryant and Roy Williams?

4.  All Ogletree and Martellus Bennett partisans and fans looking for more throws to the backs on a week-to-week basis will be disappointed.  Garrett likes going down the field as much as possible.  As I've argued in the past part of this is scheme, part of this is dictated by Dallas' penalty-prone o-line, which creates a lot of 1st and 2nd-and-longs. 

The support players have had to divide up roughly 25-30% of the pass pie.  I don't see how this changes.  The Cowboys certainly have more weapons, with the backs as receiving options, Ogletree, Bennett and even John Phillips.  It does not seem likely that we'll see a big breakout from any of them, unless injuries to the starters push one of them into the top three of four on the receiving totem.

The challenge, to paraphrase a popular ad campaign of recent vintage, won't be to necessarily get one or two of these guys a lot more balls.  Garrett's task will be to make their receptions better.  Take Bennett for instance.  He didn't catch many passes his rookie year, but many of them were notable.  The long screen against Philly in week two.  The game-winning TD pass over Chris Horton in Washington. 

More production of this type, from a Bennett or an Ogletree will make defenses pay.  The Cowboys tell their targets that they have to be prepared to play dozens of snaps in anticipation of two or three chances to get the ball.  If your name isn't Miles Austin or Jason Witten, this reality is more true than ever.

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