FanPost

Cowboys’ Offense – 3-Year Trends and Analysis

Disclaimer: This is my first fanpost (not fishing for recs), so if the formatting is off, my apologies. I appreciate any help in the comments to smooth out any rough spots.

Less than a week from a third straight heartbreaking end to the season, our BTB community has already shifted to thinking about 2014. A thousand questions abound. Which coaches should stay or go? What are the causes and remedies for our mediocrity? What should our draft and free agent priorities be? How should we manage the salary cap? All critical questions to get right, if we want our beloved Boys to play in a February game again in our lifetimes.

OCC’s resent post on positional rankings, particularly when coupled with his similar articles from years past, got me thinking about trends. This close to the end of the season, with the disappointment still a bit raw, I’m not ready to offer thoughts on remedies (as though the Jones’ are looking at our fanposts). Right now, I’m more interested in looking to the past first (call it an after action, in the best military traditions) and figuring out what happened and why. There is some randomness to performance in any NFL season, and context is often important, so my intent for this post is to look at offensive performance trends in the last 3 years (2011-2013).

POSITION PERFORMANCE

Before looking at overall unit performance, starting with a position-by-position look at individual performance is useful. After all, our offense is made up of 11 men executing individual assignments on every play. So while sometime unit performance is either more or less than the sum of its parts, individual play is still a good place to start.

Fair warning to all, I’m going to be using PFF grades for this section, specifically OCC’s scaled positional rankings derived from PFF’s grades. While I’m not much of a commenter, and this is my first fanpost, I read enough comments to know that PFF grades are somewhat controversial on this forum. I’ll stipulate that they are imperfect –better than our "eyeball" test and worse than the coaches’ evaluation. Let’s just move on from there, shall we?

I’ve been asking myself a few questions as I started to put this together. What kind of performance are we getting from each position? Is it trending up or down? How are the position groups performing as a whole?

Let’s start by looking at each position over the last 3 years. As OCC explained, "because each positional group has a different number of qualifying players (e.g. the wide receiver list contains 111 players, others position groups have more, others have less players ranked), to make the rankings comparable across all position groups, I've converted all positional rankings to a scale of 0 - 100. The highest ranked player at a position gets 100 points, the lowest ranked player gets 0." The table below covers the last 3 years for the primaries at each starting position, to include WR3. In circumstances where there were multiple qualifying players (more than 25% of the snaps – e.g. Bernadeau and Waters this year), I used a weighted average.

Position

Players

2011

2012

2013

LT

Free, Smith, Smith

30

50

93

LG

Holland, Livings, Leary

79

80

32

C

Costa, Cook, Frederick

14

47

80

RG

Kosier, Bernadeau, Bernadeau/Waters

40

38

70

RT

Smith, Free, Free

95

18

76

WR1

Bryant, Bryant, Bryant

91

72

80

WR2

Austin, Austin, Austin

67

69

18

WR3

Robinson, Ogletree, Williams

77

22

36

TE

Witten, Witten, Witten

85

95

95

RB

Murray/Jones, Murray/Jones, Murray

65

53

85

QB

Romo, Romo, Romo

74

71

71

Looking at individual performance by position, here are my key takeaways:

  • OL - This confirms accounts from multiple places – our OL is noticeably better now, improving from an average across all 5 starters of 52 in 2011 to 70 this year. Three of the 5 positions had their highest overall performance in 2013.

  • While Leary turned in the lowest LG performance in the 3 year period, he can be excused somewhat as a 1st year starter. His grade of 32 needs to improve in year 2, but still represents the best score for our worst O-line starter over the period. I a line is only as strong as its weakest link, he represents the strongest weak link. Maybe this is a backhanded complement, but still notable.

  • Frederick score of 80 represented a huge improvement over previous years, particularly compared to Costa in 2011, who put up a 14.

  • Our skill positions have been remarkable stable, with only WR3 showing significant turnover.

  • For those looking for a decline in Witten’s performance, it has not yet appeared in PFF grades.

  • WR - Austin’s drop off this year was dramatic, and certainly not in line with his contract value. Bryant is pretty consistent, though embedded in this grade is very weak run blocking which drags his score down. Meanwhile, while Williams’ performance was worse than Robinson in 2011 and better than Ogletree in 2012. We know rookie receivers often struggle to adjust, making me personally optimistic about his development potential moving forward, with perhaps a reasonable expectation that he is in the 60-70 range next year, making him a legit replacement for Austin.

  • Overall, it looks like we have upgraded performance at 4 positions (LT, C, RG, RB) while declining substantively at 3 (LG, WR2, WR3). Of these, at least 2 are filled with young players we can reasonably hope to improve next year. The remaining 4 positions have remained essentially steady (RT, QB, WR1, TE).

From this look at individual performance, I would conclude we’re not looking for any new starters on offense, with the possible exception of WR3 (if Harris or Beasley aren’t ready for that role). Barring unforeseen injury or behavioral issues, I think we can expect significant positional stability next year.

I’d conclude that our offseason offensive focus will be improving down-roster depth. The above chart gives us no real conception of any possible depth concerns, an issue extending beyond this post. A normal year sees significant down-roster churn, looking for improved depth. I would suggest the upcoming offseason will see similar activity, with competition for backup spots across most positions. The biggest concern would be that we see injury injuries on offense like we did on defense this past year, or that Romo’s back issues linger for longer than expected. Unlike many, I am more comfortable with Orton as a backup for another year, but we will undoubtedly be looking for a developmental QB.

UNIT PERFORMANCE

Having looked at individual performance, let’s take a look at how those individual parts have come together over the last 3 years (stats via Pro Football Reference). To begin with, let’s look at performance of the offense overall (league rank in parentheses where useful), then hitting the running and passing game below.

Stat

2011

2012

2013

Scoring Average

23.1 (15)

23.5 (15)

27.4 (5)

Rushing TD

5

8

12

Passing TD

33

29

33

Other TD (ST, Def)

1

4

6

Field Goals

32

29

28

Average Starting Position (Yd Line)

29.0 (12)

27.2 (18)

29.9 (5)

Drive Scoring Percentage

37.8% (7)

36.7% (11)

39.9% (7)

Number of Drives

185

180

183

Points per Drive

1.96 (8)

1.92 (10)

2.18 (4)

Turnover Percentage

11.4% (12)

15.0% (26)

9.8% (9)

Yards per Play

5.9 (10)

5.7 (11)

5.7 (8)

Penalties

114 (28)

118 (30)

102 (20)

Sacks

39 (19)

36 (17)

35 (7)

Negative Rushes

35

40

28

The first thing that jumps out is the success we had in 2013 in almost every category. It does make me question the play calling controversies which have driven much gnashing of teeth. We were top 10 in every significant measure of offensive performance, and saw our best performance in every category.

  • Overall scoring average is almost 4 points game better than 2011 and 2012, and ranks in the top 5 in the league

  • We scored 8 more offensive TDs than in 2012, while kicking only one less field goal

  • We generated more TDs via defense and special teams

  • Starting field position improved by almost 3 yards on average, showing both our improved ability to generate turnovers compared to 2012 and the improved return game when Harris was healthy.

  • We scored on 2-3% more of our drives. That translates to 3-5 more scoring drives over the year. When we look at the number of TDs, it’s obviously we did a much better job finding the end zone

  • We also turned the ball over less, with our turnover percentage reaching our best level in 3 years

  • As a partial explanation as to why our yards/play was flat but scoring significantly up, take a look at the last 3 lines in the table. Just in those 3 categories (penalties, sacks, and negative rushes) we had 2-3 fewer negative plays per game compared to 2011 and 2012. In short, cutting the negative plays down allowed us to both sustain drives and convert in the red zone. To me, this is hugely significant.

  • I am stunned at the constant number of total drives. It seems we can almost bank on an average of 11.5 drives per game. Interestingly (and it’s not in the table), we ran the fewest offensive plays in the league this year, also a huge surprise.

In short, this was a really successful year on offense. I think it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees, such as disasters against Detroit and Green Bay. Yes, some of our turnovers came at critical times. Yes, some of our playcalling can be categorized as suspect at the end of games. But overall, this was a playoff caliber offense, and I suspect much of that performance can be attributed to strong OL play.

This raises questions for the offseason. Should we fire Callahan? Should we hire a new OC, or return Garrett to play calling duties? Do we have a scheme problem? I would probably have leaned towards yes on all those questions before starting this analysis. Now, I think we should focus more on tweaking vice wholesale changes, largely looking at some scheme wrinkles.

RUSHING OFFENSE

Stat

2011

2012

2013

Rushing Attempts

408

355

336

Rushing Yards

1807

1265

1504

Yard per Attempt

4.4 (11)

3.6 (30)

4.5 (8)

Fumbles Lost

8 (20)

6 (13)

5 (8)

Expected Points from Rushing Offense

-33.68 (21)

-45.66 (25)

10.56 (5)

First a note on Expected Points is in order. This is a Pro Football Reference statistic, using a decade's worth of play-by-play data to establish a formula that estimates the expected number of points given a combination of down, distance, and yard line. For example, this means that given a first and ten from their own 23, the expected value of the next score in the game is roughly 0.48 points. With a run for no gain (resulting in second and ten from their own 23), the play changed that to -0.07 expected points, meaning that the play itself had a value of -0.56 expected points. These expected points are added over the course of the season, giving the number in the table above.

Looking at the table, this was the most successful Cowboy’s rushing attack over the last 3 years. Why didn’t the Cowboys run the ball more, especially in critical situations? That, unfortunately, I can’t answer. We had the fewest number of attempts (exactly 21 a game) but the highest Y/A. The only team that ran less frequently was the Falcons. We were top 10 Y/A and top 5 in Expected Points. Football Outsiders ranks the Dallas O-line as the 4th best rush blocking line in the league, only behind NE, KC, and SD. This includes being top 10 when running left, middle, right, or around the right end (with the exception of around left end, where they had us ranked 19th). Ironically, we ran around left end 26% of the time.

Also, take a look at the decreasing trend in fumbles. While nothing guarantees this will hold moving forward, it is part of a broader trend of decreasing mistakes (penalties, sacks, rushes for loss). I think all these things imply a more disciplined team, and one that is well coached.

For 2014, I think we can conclude we will run the ball more. Given their youth, there is a strong possibility that Smith, Frederick, and Leary will improve their run blocking next year, making regression less rather than more likely. It is also possible we will look to increase the offensive tempo, wearing down a defense with power running and effective play-action. When we consider the success of the offense, the fact that we had the fewest number of offensive plays in the league, and a trend towards more up tempo offensive schemes, I can see this becoming a greater part of our offense. Additionally, this again makes me question getting rid of Callahan.

PASSING OFFENSE

Stat

2011

2012

2013

Completion %

66.0%

66.0%

64.0%

Yards Per Attempt

7.8

7.6

7.2

Passer Rating

100.1

91.3

95.7

Expected Points from Passing

126.31 (6)

129.09 (7)

77.73 (10)

Sack %

6.4% (7)

5.2% (10)

5.6% (8)

Interceptions

12 (6)

19 (29)

12 (11)

By most measures, this was a successful year for the passing offense. Yet there was a noticeably drop off from previous years, particularly 2011. Completion %, yards per attempt, and expected points were all our lowest in 3 years. Fortunately, we still had a top 10 passing attack. Is the decline a measure of a stoically suffering Romo, manfully nursing an ailing back for much of the season? Possibly, but nothing I could prove.

Moving into the offseason, there are a few factors pointing to a better 2014. First, Frederick and Leary could improve their pass blocking, a comparative weakness for both. Another year of experience should help them both, and line continuity should help the whole line improve stunt pick-up. Second, if Romo was ailing for much of the season, and that was a limitation, he could come back healthy. His age, and the elevated injury risk older players face, makes this a dubious prediction. A factor within the team’s control surrounds scheme improvements. While the stats don’t provide any insight, my subjective opinion is that we are schematically underwhelming. We seemingly use fewer bunch formations, pick routes, and other schematic elements to create matchup challenges for a Defense. With Garrett’s tenure running the Dallas offense, I am less optimistic we will see this type of creative adjustment from the current staff.

SUMMARY

I emerge from this analysis more optimistic about the future of the Dallas offense than I expected to be. We have a playoff caliber offense, one capable of winning a division and making a playoff run. In terms of execution, we were top-10 caliber both rushing and passing, though we were imbalanced in our play-calling. I am particularly encouraged by a clear trend towards more disciplined play, with fewer mistakes that put us in long yardage situations.

With the stability at almost every position, we have an opportunity to build depth, ensuring injuries and the aging/loss of core players (Romo excepted) won’t cause a significant drop off. We know we will have key decisions to make on Smith, Murray, and Bryant in the next year, and we know we very well might make a decision to move on from Austin in the next few months. Fortunately, we have a replacement for Austin in Terrence Williams, and a likely replacement for Witten in Escobar (promise as a receiver, must improve his run-blocking). I think we must assume we will resign both Smith and Bryant, although Murray is more of a question mark, as running backs are simply more replaceable, especially with an elite line. In fact, much of my optimism rests on the youth and talent on the O-line, provided that it stays comparatively healthy.

Schematically, our staff needs to ensure the offense continues to evolve. I think both a higher tempo and some schematic innovations could help keep the Cowboys offense playing at a high level for years.

So that’s my long winded analysis. What say you?


Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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