Dallas Cowboys TD Drive Killers (Pt. 3) - Sacks and Field Position

On the 40 TD drives the Cowboys recorded last season, Tony Romo was sacked only once. And that single sack looked more like a stuffed run: On the first TD drive against the Chiefs, Romo was sacked on 1st-and-10 for a loss of ‘only’ -3 yards.

Like in my previous posts on drive killers, this low number of TD drives with a sack may sound alarming, but in fact it isn't. 

The chances of a team scoring a TD after being sacked are very slim. Last season, only 5.3% of TD drives survived a sack, i.e a sack was recorded on only 60 TD drives out of 1,139 in the 2009 regular season. The Cowboys' TD-drive sack rate is 2.5% (1 of 40). Curiously, the Giants are the only team to score a touchdown last year after being sacked twice on a drive in the week 9 loss against the Chargers. You'll find the numbers for all NFL teams at the bottom of this post.

And of course, a sack is equally important for the defense: The Cowboys recorded 42 sacks last year. Only two of the Cowboys' opponents went on to score a TD after being sacked. The Chiefs scored a TD after a sack on 1st-and-10 for a loss of -4 yards; the Packers scored a TD after a sack on a 1st-and-10 for a loss of -7 yards.

Clearly, sacks are the worst drive killer of the fearsome threesome made up of 3rd downs, penalties and sacks. After the break we look at how the Cowboys compared with other teams last year regarding sacks on TD drives and also look at starting field position on TD drives.

The table below shows how the Cowboys 40 TD drives last season split by the fearsome threesome.

TD Drives by number of Drive Killers, 2009
Zero One Two Three +
3rd Downs 15 16 9 - -
Penalties 28 8 4  - -
Sacks 39 1 - - - -

The key difference here on sacks vs penalties is that they invariably involve a loss of down, while a penalty will 'only' cost you yardage. As a result, sacks are obviously a lot harder to overcome than penalties.

With the three drive killers, we've now looked at factors that are all detrimental to drive success. There is another factor that we need to look at as we discuss TD drive success.

Starting field position on TD drives

Quite often when analyzing stats it's easy to overlook just how big a factor field position can be in a game. If you get the ball on your opponents 10 yard line, you're a lot more likely to score than if you get the ball with 80 yards to go. Driving for 80+ yards and scoring a touchdown is tough. Terence Newman explains why this is the case:

"If they don’t get big plays, it’s hard for them just to go 80 yards. [They have to] dink and dunk and dink and dunk and not have something go wrong. Without getting that big play, it takes a little bit more risk for them to score, drive 80 yards and score touchdowns."

That’s why these types of scores are called ‘hard scores’ in the NFL.

Life gets a lot easier when a team finds itself in ‘short field’ positions. Take the Cowboys’ 20-16 victory in the first Eagles game last year: The Cowboys started their first TD drive on a short field at the Eagles 37 after a Gerald Sensabaugh interception that set up their first touchdown, a two yard run by Tashard Choice. Another interception in the fourth quarter by Mike Jenkins again set them up with a short field at the Eagles 42 and netted the Cowboys a field goal. McNabb's failed 4th and 1 attempt set the Cowboys up at their own 45 and four plays later, Miles Austin scores a touchdown to seal the game.

Short fields are often the result of a takeaway, a long punt or kickoff return, a missed field goal or really bad punting position for the other team. For the purpose of this analysis, I've designated every drive with a starting field position of 80 yards or more as a 'hard score', every drive starting at 50 yards or less is a 'short field'.

According to FootballOutsiders, the Cowboys ranked 29th in starting field position per drive for all of their 173 drives last season. On their 40 TD drives, the Cowboys had an average starting field position of 67.8 yards from the end zone and ranked 28th in the league. Playing a key role in this lowly ranking were issues in the return game and a low amount of turnovers.

At the very bottom of the starting field position rankings are the Colts. However, their 72.1 yard average starting field position on TD drives did not stop them from reaching the Super Bowl. At the same time, the two teams at the top of the rankings, the Buccaneers (55.9) and Bills (57.0) combined for only nine wins last season.

26% of TD drives in the league last year were hard scores which started 80 or more yards from the end zone. The Cowboys scored 10 TDs (25%) from 80 yards out. Incredibly, 48% (24/50) of the Colts TD drives last year began at or behind their own 80. This is all the more remarkable given that the Colts had no running game to speak of (they ranked last in the league in rushing yards) and speaks volumes of Peyton Manning's abilities. The Giants and his younger brother on the other hand scored only five times from 80 or more yards out, and their 12% hard score percentage is the lowest in the league.

21% of TD drives originated from short starting field positions with less than 50 yards to go. The Cowboys recorded only 4 TDs from short fields, and the resulting short field percentage of 10% is the third lowest in the league. Interestingly, the Saints only scored 5 TDs from short fields, despite ranking second in the league with 39 takeaways. It would appear that their high number of takeaways were more effective in preventing the opponents from scoring than in setting up short fields from which their own offense could score.

Last season, the Cowboys' starting field position was way below average. Add to that the tendency to take penalties and sacks (34, the highest number since 2006) as well as facing the longest average 3rd down distance of any team in the NFL last season (hat tip to Fan in Thick and Thin), and it's clear that the Cowboys offense cannot work with a ball control attack which can string together multiple long, sustained drives.

The Cowboys need to be a big play offense. This plays to the strengths of their individual players and minimizes the impact of their weaknesses. Both a return game and a defense that can get them into more advantageous field positions would also be really, really nice to have.

TD Drive Breakdown by NFL team, 2009 (click column header to sort)

Team TDs Sacks Field Position
Sacks on TD drives % of drives with sacks Avg. starting FP per TD drive Hard scores in % Short Field scores in %
ARI 43 0 0% 59.5 12 28% 13 30%
ATL 41 2 5% 63.7 10 24% 8 20%
BAL 43 2 5% 61.2 6 14% 8 19%
BUF 23 3 13% 57 4 17% 7 30%
CAR 34 2 6% 62.6 9 26% 8 24%
CHI 33 1 3% 61 8 24% 12 36%
CIN 30 3 10% 69.5 7 23% 2 7%
CLE 21 1 5% 61.7 3 14% 4 19%
DAL 40 1 3% 67.8 10 25% 4 10%
DEN 30 1 3% 60.2 10 33% 9 30%
DET 25 0 0% 65.2 9 36% 5 20%
GB 50 4 8% 62 17 34% 13 26%
HOU 42 4 10% 62.6 6 14% 9 21%
IND 50 1 2% 72.1 24 48% 7 14%
JAC 34 2 6% 66 8 24% 8 24%
KC 26 2 8% 61.9 5 19% 6 23%
MIA 37 1 3% 65 9 24% 5 14%
MIN 53 3 6% 63.2 17 32% 13 25%
NE 47 0 0% 65.6 10 21% 7 15%
NO 55 1 2% 65.7 14 25% 5 9%
NYG 42 4 7% 60.5 5 12% 12 29%
NYJ 33 0 0% 58.7 6 18% 9 27%
OAK 17 3 18% 67.5 6 35% 3 18%
PHI 41 4 10% 61.7 10 24% 11 27%
PIT 38 4 11% 71.4 13 34% 4 11%
SD 46 2 4% 64.5 10 22% 9 20%
SEA 27 0 0% 62.8 6 22% 6 22%
SF 35 1 3% 60.7 8 23% 10 29%
STL 16 3 19% 68.6 6 38% 3 19%
TB 23 1 4% 55.9 6 26% 8 35%
TEN 35 2 6% 66.1 10 29% 6 17%
WAS 29 2 7% 64.9 8 28% 6 21%
NFL Avg 35.6 1.9 5.3% 63.3 9.1 26% 7.5 21%
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