Since Week Four of the 2013 season, I've wondered pretty loudly whether or not Tony Romo and the Cowboys offense has become gun shy. Save for a momentary reprieve in the shootout against Denver, I think it's pretty safe to say that Dallas has removed itself from the "vertical first and last" grouping of NFL teams. My thoughts have always centered around the belief that this was a bad thing. Now, almost 10 weeks into the season, I'm not so sure that the choice isn't the correct one.
This shouldn't be confused for me saying that there isn't anything wrong with the Dallas offense. There most definitely is. While there are many things that have improved about the offense, the first 15 scripted plays of the halves, red zone play calling and the like... there are still several times a game where the arm-chair elitist in me is questioning what exactly the Cowboys are doing. One thing I'm eliminating from that complaint form though, is that the Cowboys unwillingness to go deep.
Last year, Tony Romo tied a career high for interceptions, throwing 19 balls to opposing jerseys in maddening fashion. It wasn't just that he threw 19 picks, it was the way which he threw them; in bunches. There were five against the Bears in October, four more against the Giants in the infamous "fingertip" game, and then finally another three against the Redskins in the win-or-go-home, Week 17 match-up.
To put it in context, Romo had only thrown three or more picks seven times his entire career, and only once did he have two such games in one season. To put this in further context, Romo has 19 games in which he's thrown more interceptions than touchdowns out of 104 legit appearances. That's a little bit higher than 18%, or less than 1 out of every 5 games. Four of those were in 2012. By career comparison, Brett Favre, the ultimate gunslinger and career interception leader, threw more picks than touchdowns in 87 of 300 games; 29%.
In addition to his actual interception totals though, Romo has always seemed to have his fair share of "almost" picks. Last year, there might have been upwards of 7-10 "should-be" picks that were dropped by defenders. Just think back to the Cincinnati game where Terrance Newman failed on three such opportunities. Without watching every game of every team, I honestly don't know whether or not this is the norm, but I feel secure in guesstimating that it isn't.
Clearly, the Dallas Cowboys needed the risk of interception to come way down this season. So far, they've been rather successful. Romo is on pace to throw between 10-11 interceptions for the season. More to the point, Romo's total of six picks thrown is not accompanied by very many throws that defenders have let get away.
Romo is on pace to have the second-most passing yards in his career, but that's a misleading number. This year, the team is giving him far more yards after the catch than it has in previous seasons. The team has undoubtedly shifted from a vertical passing game to more of a short, shallow game and putting the onus on the receivers to make something happen after they have the ball.
There's no question that Dallas has curbed the deep ball from the playbook. Yards In the Air (YIA) is a metric that keeps track of the distance the ball travels between the quarterbacks hands and the receivers. It's basically the other part of the equation to Yards After the Catch. Here's a look at Tony Romo's YIA figures over the last six seasons.
With figures from 2006 and '07 unavailable, you can see that this is, by far, the shallowest the Cowboys passing game has been with Romo at the helm.
The attempts and completion totals per year are the total amount of throws and catches that have begun with Romo's windup. YIA per attempt is a tiny number, but doesn't represent the average length of each pass; rather the total YIA of all completions divided by total attempts. YIA per Completion is exactly what it appears to be; in 2013 Tony Romo's average completion starts the receiver 5.8 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
I'll leave the merits of this open to individual interpretation, but I'd like to present a few data sets that have me thinking it really isn't that bad of an idea for the Cowboys to quell their proclivities.
So, Romo isn't going deep nearly as often. Meanwhile interceptions and near interceptions have been cut considerably. The next question is, what has been affected? Romo has 20 touchdowns through 9 games; a pace that would see him equal his career single-season high of 36, set in 2007.
OK, no problem there.
What about the payoff from the rare opportunities when Romo does go deep?
Pro Football Focus qualifies a "deep" pass as any that travels 20 yards in the air. Various outlets use different cutoffs; I regularly see 15 yards downfield as the minimum for a deep pass and believe that's what the official NFL game books use. However, PFF provides this data, so 20 yards downfield it is. Here's a look at Romo's deep passing percentage over the same time period: 2008-present.
Less than one out of every 10 pass attempts is a shot down the field!
I must admit, seeing 2009's deep passing percentage so low surprised me. That was the year Miles Austin burst onto the scene. But look at the rest of the numbers. Romo has reduced the number of times he's throwing deep, but actually improved his TD to INT ratio to the second best of his last six years. Maybe limiting those downfield throws is a good idea?
Case in point. Of Tony Romo's 34 completions this past Sunday, only two of them were considered "deep" passes according to the official game book. The Cowboys only completed 14 passes the week prior against Detroit, but none of those were classified as deep passes. The 60-yard score to Terrance Williams and 50-yarder to Dez were both short passes that the receivers took to the house.
Now make no mistake, there is definitely something to putting the ball on a receiver so that he is in a position to run unabated for a score. That is a definite talent and the immediate results remain the same; a touchdown is a touchdown. However, for a team that struggles so mightily to run the ball, having the defense fear a vertical threat might just help widen some running lanes.
Again, I can't reach a conclusion on the best way to achieve this balance (and I could care less how many times they run a game). I leave the interpretation to the reader.
Finally, I wanted to look at how Romo stacks up against the rest of the NFL's regular signal-callers. Where does he rank among his counterparts? It is here that one can clearly see the Cowboys insistence that the deep ball regress to a strategically-timed weapon. Romo ranks 20th of 23 regular signal callers in YIA.
Now compare again Romo's previous totals against the 2013 QBs. 3 of Romo's 5 previous seasons would slot into the Top 10. Being No. 20 is a huge change from how this offense has functioned in years past.
Kind of surprising to see Kaepernick at the top, huh? Also interesting is the fact that the most renown quarterbacks of this generation, Brady, Brees, Rodgers and Peyton Manning all are middle of the pack in YIA/Completion, but towards the top in YIA/attempt.
So, as always, take this evidence into consideration and formulate your own opinions. I entered this article with the intent of displaying the problems with Dallas no longer chasing the big play. Now, I'm up in the air and considering there are multiple ways to skin a cat.
I guess the rest of 2013 will provide our answers in context. Your thoughts?
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