Cowboys Ball Distribution: Keeping Miles Austin, Dez Bryant And Jason Witten Happy

Austin's health may have a bigger impact on the 2012 season than many realize.

If you had to take a guess, how many NFL teams do you think had three receivers with more than 850 receiving yards last season? Would you be surprised to find that only three teams did, and that those three teams were the Patriots, Falcons and Cowboys?

Of course you're not surprised. After all, the simple fact that you're on this site in the doldrums of the offseason qualifies you as a hardcore football fan, and is proof that you are able to recite football stats like other people are able to recite lyrics from 80's hair metal bands, quote scripture or describe in detail every play from all Eagles Super Bowl victories.

So it also won't come as a surprise for you to find that the Cowboys are also one of only five teams with three receivers who notched at least seven TD catches each last year (ATL, GB, NE, NO are the others). You'll probably reply with a bored "So what ese is new," when I tell you that the Cowboys' 850+ yard receivers (Witten, Bryant, Robinson) are not the same as the 7+ TD receivers (Robinson, Bryant, Austin).

But what may surprise you is to find that despite all the receiving prowess of the Cowboys' top three receivers, those top three guys have been targeted successively less in Jason Garrett's offense over the last five years.

Percentage of total passes targeted at Cowboys' top three receivers
2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
69% 60% 61% 55% 53%

That is quite a big drop from 69% to 53% over five years, and after the break we'll try to figure out what, if anything, this means.

The top three guys in 2007, T.O., Jason Witten and Patrick Crayton had 367 passes thrown their way. By 2011 the top three guys had changed to Witten, Bryant and Robinson, and they were on the receiving end of passes only 298 times. That's 69 passes missing for the top three guys. Add to that the fact that the Cowboys threw 39 more passes last season than in 2007, then 108 passes went missing for the top three players last year. With the Cowboys throwing an average of 35 passes a game, that's three games worth of passes that simply did not go the way of the top three guys.

But before drawing all sorts of early conclusions from that data, we should perhaps try to first understand which of the five years in the table above should be considered the baseline years. When you put numbers in a sequence like in the table above, it's quite natural to infer some kind of trend where in fact there may not be one, and I admit to doing just that by listing the numbers the way I did.

The only constant in the Cowboys' passing game over the last five years is Jason Witten. In that span, Witten has started in every single one of the 80 regular season games the Cowboys played. And when we look at Witten's numbers over those years, it's fairly easy to see which year is the odd one out:

Jason Witten, Targets and Targets/Game, 07-11
Years 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Targets 142 121 125 128 117
TAR/Game 8.9 7.6 7.8 8.0 7.3

2007 was a remarkable year for the Cowboys in many ways, not the least of which was the fact that 69% of passes were aimed at the top three guys. Witten's numbers suggest that the last four years could represent the norm in the Cowboys' passing game, and that 2007 may have been the aberration.

Here's a detailed breakdown of who the top three guys were in each year under Garrett as the offensive playcaller.

2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Name TAR YDS Name TAR YDS Name TAR YDS Name TAR YDS Name TAR YDS
Owens 144 1,355 Owens 140 1,052 Austin 125 1,320 Witten 128 1,002 Witten 117 942
Witten 142 1,145 Witten 121 952 Witten 125 1,030 Austin 119 1,041 Bryant 103 928
Crayton 81 697 Crayton 70 550 Williams 88 596 Bryant 72 561 Robinson 81 858

The drops in passes aimed at the top three guys in 2010 and 2011 are probably more a result of injuries than any strategic change in Garrett's playcalling tendencies. 2010 saw Romo out of action for 10 games, and 2011 saw Austin miss six games, while Bryant missed one and played hurt in a couple of others.

Who are the Cowboys' top guys?

There's a popular perception that the Cowboys are going to miss Laurent Robinson, more specifically, his 11 TDs and 858 yards. I don't think that's going to be the case - provided Austin, Bryant and Romo stay healthy.

And the reason for that is one of the Cowboys' most underrated players: Miles Austin. After spectacularly arriving on the NFL scene against Kansas City in 2009, things have grown remarkably quiet around Austin. He didn't connect as well with Kitna as he did with Romo in 2010, and two separate injuries in 2011 have made him somewhat of a forgotten man on the Cowboys' roster. Here's a table documenting Austin's ups-and-downs over the last three years, as measured by targets per game:

Miles Austin Targets per Game, 09-11
Year
2009 2010 2011
Period Wk 1-4 Wk 5-17 Wk 1-7 Wk 8-17 Wk 1-2 Wk 6-9 Wk 14-17
TAR/Game 3.0 9.0 8.7 6.3 12.0 5.3 6.8

The 2009 year is split into games prior to the Kansas City game and the games after that, 2010 is split into games with Romo's and games with Kitna/McGee, and 2011 is split into the periods during which Austin was healthy. What we can see is that when Austin is healthy and connects with Romo, he is good for a good nine targets per game. He just hasn't been doing it consistently, and even coming back from his injuries last season, he wasn't his usual self. Expect Austin to come back this season as the explosive receiver he is.

Another interesting thing to look at is how the top three wide receivers split their targets during the 2011 season, given the now-you-see-him-now-you-don't nature of Austin's health:

Avg. Targets Per Game by Cowboys Receiver, 2011
Period Wk 1-2 Wk 3-4 Wk 6-9 Wk 10-13 Wk 14-17
Austin 12.0
- -
5.3
- -
6.8
Bryant 7.0
4.5
7.0 8.5
5.5
Robinson - -
7.5
4.5
8.3
3.8

What I found interesting in this way of looking at the ball distribution is that outside of the week three and four games when Bryant was struggling with a thigh injury, Romo consistently threw more passes to Bryant than to Robinson. That may not be the way you remember things happening last season, but the numbers don't lie. Bryant (103 targets) wasn't just targeted more often last season because he played in more games than Robinson (81 targets), he was also targeted more often than Robinson when they were both in the game.

Looking ahead to 2012.

The biggest question here obviously remains the health of both the quarterback and the receivers, but assuming they stay healthy, here's what an expectation for 2012 could look like based on the numbers above:

  • Miles Austin: 9.0 targets per game, 144 targets
  • Jason Witten: 7.5 targets per game, 120 targets
  • Dez Bryant: 7.0 targets per game, 112 targets

That's a projection of 376 pass attempts targeted at the top three receivers on the team. Assuming the same number of passes as last year (35.6 per game, 570 total) the top three could account for 66% of the total targets. Also, Austin's health may have a bigger impact on the 2012 season than many realize.

The Cowboys offense is not an offense that just 'takes what the defense gives'. Far from it. Outside of parts of the injury-marred last two seasons, the Cowboys have shown that they will throw the ball where they want to throw it, when they want to throw it. Sure, it takes scheme, playcalling and different personnel groups to make it work, but the Cowboys like their playmakers in the receiving game and will try to get them the ball as often as they can.

Add to that a second tight end with surer hands than the previous guy, and two running backs with exceptionally sure hands in Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray, and there may not be that many balls left for the remaining wide receivers on the team. In 2007, wide receivers not named Owens or Crayton accounted for 47 targets over the entire season (Hurd: 37, Austin: 10), in 2008 that number climbed slightly to 69 (Williams: 43, Austin: 23, Stanback: 3). That's about three to four targets per game for the wide receivers number three, four and five on the depth chart.

Finally, and this is something that you, the avid and stat-savvy fan noticed immediately, is that over the last five years, the Cowboys have had seven 1,000+ yard receivers. You know of course that that is a remarkable achievement, particularly since the Cowboys didn't have a single player cross the 1,000-yard mark in 2011. You also know that over the five-year span we're looking at, only the Patriots and Cardinals (eight each) had more 1,000+ yard receivers than the Garrett-led Cowboys. The Packers are tied with the 'Boys at seven receivers.

Garrett has his go-to guys, and he likes to keep them happy.

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