Who Is Getting The Looks In The Cowboys Passing Game?

Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

Kevin Ogletree, Jason Witten and most recently Dez Bryant have had big games as receivers for the Cowboys. Whose turn could it be against the Panthers?

In the season opener against the Giants, Kevin Ogletree was the Cowboys‘ leading receiver, with 8 receptions for 114 yards and two TDs. Since then, it’s become rather quiet around Ogletree. After catching only eight passes in the first three games, Jason Witten had 13 receptions for 112 yards and a TD against the Bears. A week later, Dez Bryant recorded a career-high 13 receptions against the Ravens for 95 yards and two TDs.

Do these performance spikes mean Tony Romo is playing favorites with his receivers? And what about Miles Austin, where is he in all of this?

One way to understand what role each receiver is playing in the Cowboys offense is to look at the number of "looks" each receiver gets. "Looks" is a very simple metric that takes the total number of times a given receiver was targeted and divides it by the number of times that receiver went out on a passing route. The result is a percentage that indicates how often a ball is thrown to a particular receiver when he is running a passing route. "Looks" are not an exact stat, but they are a good indicator of how confident the coaches (and quarterback) are when it comes to the skill position players at their disposal.

Five games into the season, here’s a breakdown of the main offensive skill position players on the 2012 Cowboys offense and the percentage of Looks they are getting:

Name Total Snaps Pass Routes Run Block Pass Block Receptions Targets LOOKS
Dez Bryant 320 212 108 - - 34 48 23%
Miles Austin 296 186 110 - - 20 33 18%
Jason Witten 343 187 135 21 27 42 22%
Kevin Ogletree 204 146 56 - - 17 29 20%
DeMarco Murray 222 89 22 31 17 18 20%
Felix Jones 106 43 11 29 7 10 23%
John Phillips 138 39 88 11 4 5 13%

One of the things Tony Romo and the Cowboys passing offense have traditionally done well is to distribute the ball to a large number of receivers. The stats above confirm that. In terms of Looks percentage, the Cowboys offensive skill position players are all bunched fairly close together.

It is worth noting that for the Cowboys, the running backs are an integral part of the passing game. Taken together, DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones have gone out on almost as many passing routes as the number three receiver Kevin Ogletree, and they got just as many Looks as Ogletree when on their routes.

Miles Austin’s percentage looks a little weak versus that of his fellow offensive players, but that may be a function of the role he has on offense, or more specifically, the role opposing defensive coordinators thinks he has on the Cowboys offense: while arguments have been made that Dez Bryant is the number one receiver for the Cowboys, it was Austin who was being shaded by Ed Reed in the Ravens game. That in turn gave Romo much more freedom to target Bryant on 15 of his 36 throws.

The Cowboys have often emphasized that they will "take what the defense gives us." If the Panthers decide that Dez Bryant is the Cowboys’ number one receiver and move coverage to his side, watch Miles Austin have a big game.

The odd man out here is John Phillips. Over the first five games of the season, he’s been used primarily as a blocker and hasn’t made much of an impact in the passing game (yet). But this may be less about Phillips’ abilities and more about the Cowboys’ scheme, which for the last four years has seen the second tight end in more of a blocking role. Here's an overview of the Looks Witten and Bennett have gotten over the last four seasons.

Looks in % 2008 2009 2010 2011
Witten 25% 23% 23% 20%
Bennett 17% 15% 27% 16%

Despite Bennett running his mouth about how much better life is with the Giants, his 2012 look percentage of 18% in New York is exactly in line with where it was with the Cowboys. The only difference is that he doesn’t have Jason Witten in front of him anymore and is running more passing routes while staying in to block less often.

Overall, the Cowboys have one of the more potent passing games in the league. Their 288 passing yards per game rank as the sixth most in the league and part of the reason for that is the Cowboys’ ability to effectively spread the ball around. And they’ll do it again against the Panthers.

The only question is, who’ll get the most looks in the passing game this Sunday?

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