Cowboys No-Tackling Policy in Training Camp: Much Ado About Nothing?

Last year at about this time, there was much derision when Dallas Cowboys Head Coach Wade Phillips announced that, like in previous years, there wouldn't be any live tackling in full pads during training camp.

"We're gonna tackle in the preseason games. There's no reason to tackle our own guys. You're more susceptible to injury when you go live."

That derision obviously came to a screeching halt once people started adding up the injury reports in other NFL training camps and compared the figures to the Cowboys figures. After four years of this policy, the Cowboys are consistently one of the healthiest teams in the NFL, and have come out of camp to a 9-2 record in September under Wade Phillips.

What the Cowboys may lack in tackle training intensity they apparently make up for in practice intensity. Gerry Fraley from the DMN hunted down the training camp schedules of all NFL teams and found that the Cowboys have one of the highest number of two-a-day practice schedules:

Coach Wade Phillips has set a camp schedule that calls for 12 days with two practices. Under current schedules, only Atlanta has more, with 14. Baltimore is the only other team in double figures for twice-daily practices, with 10.

New England could crack the list. The Patriots have set the schedule only for the first week of camp and will practice twice each day.

But has the lack of tackling in camp impacted the Cowboys ability to tackle?

You can plausibly argue that tackles increase the risk of injury. You can make a valid argument that play entry is the key to successful tackling, and that it's actually harder to get into the right position to make a tackle than it is to tackle people in practice. You might want to argue that there was no tackling to the ground under Parcells either and nobody gave a hoot. You could conceivably argue against the double jeopardy of training on Astroturf and tackling. All fair points, but all beside the point.

The relevant question here is: Are the Cowboys any worse than other teams at tackling, and conversely, at breaking tackles?

In 2009, FootballOutsiders introduced a 'broken tackle' stat. They define broken tackles as one of two events:

Either the ballcarrier escapes from the grasp of the defender, or the defender is in good position for a tackle but the ballcarrier jukes him out of his shoes. If the ballcarrier sped by a slow defender who dived and missed, that did not count as a broken tackle. If the defender couldn’t bring the ballcarrier down but slowed him and still had his hand on him when another player made a tackle, that did not count as a broken tackle.

Let's look at how the Cowboys performed on offense and on defense.

Offense

One of the more exciting things to see during a game last season was Miles Austin or Felix Jones breaking a tackle or two and turning those plays into into some serious yardage gains. According to the FO stats, the Cowboys had 53 plays out of 1,001 plays with at least one broken tackle for a broken tackle percentage of 5.3%, ranked 21st in the league.

Austin (9) and Jones (19) accounted for half of the broken tackles on the team. Unfortunately, the data for the other Cowboys offensive players is unavailable, but both Austin and Jones make it into the FO Top Ten list at their respective positions:

Wide Receivers Running Backs
Rank Player Broken Tackles Rank Player Broken Tackles Broken Tackle Rate
in % of total tackles
1. P. Harvin (MIN) 25 1. J. Stewart (CAR) 46 19.1%
2. W. Welker (NE) 16 2. R. Rice (BAL)
57 17.0%
3. B. Marshall (DEN) 14 3. D. Williams (CAR) 40 16.4%
3. S. Smith (CAR) 14 4. A. Peterson (MIN) 56 15.6%
5. Three tied in 5th place
11 5. M. Turner (ATL) 28 15.3%
... ... ... ... ... ... ...
10. M. Austin (DAL) 9 9. F. Jones (DAL)
19 14.3%

Felix Jones is likely to see more carries this year, so expect the overall team broken tackle percentage on offense to increase. And if the early OTA impression of Dez Bryant is anything to go by, opposing DB's will be slippin' n' slidin' all over the place trying to get a hold of Dez.

Defense

Nothing gets the collective blood pressure of the Cowboys fan base up more than a missed tackle in the secondary. But in all fairness, the Cowboys defense isn't all that bad. The defense allowed 5.5% of would-be-tackles to be broken last season, ranking the Cowboys 13th in the league. In total, the Cowboys allowed 54 plays with at least one broken tackle out of 971 defensive plays.

The Rams, of all teams, have the lowest rate at 4.7% and 46 plays with a broken tackle - which is only eight plays less than the Cowboys. And for eight fewer plays with broken tackles over the course of an entire season the Cowboys should be risking life and limb of their starters? Getouttahere.

Some names you wouldn't necessarily have expected populate the bottom of the list, like the Colts (31st: 7.6%), Saints (27th: 6.8%), Eagles (26th: 6.7%) and the Vikings (25th: 6.7%).

Similar to the running backs in the table above, FO calculate a broken tackle rate for defenders and have a Top 20 and a Bottom 20 list for broken tackles allowed. The Cowboys have one player on each list.

Keith Brooking allowed two broken tackles against 75 solo tackles for a broken tackle rate of 2.6% (broken tackles divided by broken tackles + solo tackles), ranking him the 12th best defender in the NFL. And in case you're wondering, no, there is no Falcon ranked higher.

Mike Jenkins on the other hand is credited with 10 broken tackles against 45 solo tackles for a broken tackle rate of 18.2%. Unfortunately, that is the 6th worst rate in the NFL. Keep in mind though that Jenkins also ranks joint 7th in the league with 18 passes defensed and joint 12th with five interceptions, so there may be a trade-off happening here that the numbers don't adequately show. Terence Newman, no slouch himself, ranked 13th in the league with 16 passes defensed, but his three interceptions are only enough for 42nd in the league.

Here's the broken tackle data for the remaining Cowboys defenders:

Defensive Line Linebackers Secondary
Player Broken Tackles Player Broken Tackles Player Broken Tackles
Jay Ratliff 2 Bradie James 8 Mike Jenkins 10
Igor Olshansky 0 Bobby Carpenter 4 Terence Newman 7
Marcus Spears 0 DeMarcus Ware 4 Orlando Scandrick 5
Stephen Bowen 1 Anthony Spencer 2 Gerald Sensabaugh 4
.. .. Keith Brooking 2 Ken Hamlin 4
.. .. .. .. Alan Ball 4

There is no reason to suspect that the lack of tackling in training camp has had any influence on the tackling performance of the team during regular season games. Wade Phillips' policy of having players tag up instead of tackling seems to be working just fine.

Of course, Bradie James and Mike Jenkins have elevated broken tackle figures, as do our other two corners, but that's something that a couple afternoons with the tackling sled should be able to help with.

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