Should the Cowboys Increase Thier Offensive Tempo?

While research a post yesterday on Cowboys offensive trends over the last 3 years, something interesting popped out: the Cowboys had the fewest number of offensive plays in the league this season. I wanted to dive into that stat, and then take a look at the Cowboys offensive tempo.


I think it’s important to set some context for the question. Let’s take a look at some stats from around the league on both total plays and offensive tempo.





Cowboys Offensive Plays




League Average




League High

1117 (NO)

1191 (NE)

1156 (DEN)

Cowboys PPG

23.1 (15)

23.5 (15)

27.4 (5)

Cowboys Number of Drives




Looking at this table, there are a few things worth noting. First, the Cowboys were essentially at league averages in 2011 and 2012, but fell almost 100 plays below league average in 2013. Secondly, this didn’t impact our scoring average or the number of drives over the course of the season. So despite having 100 fewer plays then last year, and 200 fewer then the league leader (17% less), we ran a pretty efficient scoring offense in 2013, with shorter average drives than in past years. But fewer plays reduces our margin for error – if efficiency drops, scoring goes down and pressure on our defense goes up.

The next contextual point addresses offensive tempo. We’ve seen an increasing trend in fast tempo offenses in recent years, with Denver, New England, New Orleans, and Philadelphia among those going with high tempo offenses. Here are some of the trends (most of these stats are coming from Football Outsiders – with league rank in parentheses where appropriate):






Cowboys Seconds/Play

28.25 (21)

28.63 (25)

27.68 (18)

28.25 (26)

League Avg Seconds/Play





League Low Seconds/Play

25.74 (IND)

24.76 (NE)

24.12 (NE)

23.38 (PHI)

Fastest Four





Slowest Four





The Cowboys have been relatively constant, falling below the league average each year. We can see that 2010 and 2013 have the same average, but the league ranking fell. We can also see that the league average has been falling every year, as more teams adopt an up-tempo offensive philosophy.

As we look at the fastest and slowest tempo teams each year, something else jumped out to me. Some of the best teams in the league have a very clear identity, and consistency from year to year. Teams with "offensive" reputations (NE, NO, DEN, IND, PHI) tend to run up tempo offenses, with very efficient QB play, and an intent to dominate games with offense. Conversely, the slowest tempo teams seems to generally have a "defensive" identity (PIT, SF, HOU, SEA, CHI, CAR), looking to dominate games with a stifling defense. At this level of analysis, neither philosophy appears to be "better", but the sheer high number of playoff teams on either list hints that a clear identity has a higher chance of success. To quantify that, of the 32 teams listed, 18 made the playoffs, a 56% playoff rate. I should also acknowledge that the slowest teams tended to be slower in the 2d half than the 1st half of games, indicating the likely played with a lead much of the year.


Ideally, an NFL team develops a cohesive identity, a team philosophy that unifies management decisions, player personnel decisions, offensive and defensive schemes (special teams as well), game planning, and play calling. Consistently elite teams develop an effective identity that serves as an organizational foundation and governs decision-making, ideally over longer time horizons to allow for stability. On the field, each phases of the game supports the others, creating a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. As an example of this, a successful up-tempo offense scores a lot of points, forcing many opposing offenses to press and gamble as the game progresses to either catch up or to avoid falling behind, thus increasing the opportunities for a defense to force turnovers.

Consider the Steelers over the last 4 decades: tough, physical defense; an offense built on the running game and limiting mistakes; a team built through the draft. This identity reflected their town, and persisted through 3 different head coaches and 6 Super Bowl victories. The other model I’ll call the Peyton Manning model: an attacking and efficient up-tempo offense and a defense that gambles to get the ball back to the offense. In the Manning model, you don’t need a top flight defense, but you do need one that gets the ball back to the offense, putting a premium on turnovers, sacks, and other big plays. These teams must have a good pass rush (think Freeney, Mathis, Von Miller, etc.) to generate big plays on defense.

So what is the Cowboy’s identity? We certainly can’t claim to be a defensive oriented team. Our talent level and our performance over the last 4+ years don’t support that conception. We do seem to have a consistently top 1/3 offense. We do have a quarterback, who not a HOF caliber player, has been very effective and efficient over the years. We have also seen our "2-minute" offense often be the most successful (setting aside the prevent defenses implemented in many cases) over the last 2 years. That leads me to my real question – do the Cowboys need to adopt a higher tempo offensive approach, and build the team accordingly.


Borrowing heavily (largely quoting) from an article by Bucky Brooks published in August 2013, here are a few of the advantages of an up-tempo scheme:

  1. A faster pace leads to more plays and scoring opportunities. "Proponents of up-tempo football say the quickened approach leads to more offensive plays and possessions, which eventually results in more points." Looking back on our four top teams above, 6 of the 8 teams on the list in 2012 and 2013 finished in the top 10 in scoring.

  2. No-huddle offense limits defensive substitutions. "As the league has shifted to a more pass-oriented game, defensive coaches have begun countering this transition by sending in designated specialists to rush or cover as part of exotic nickel or dime packages. Additionally, defensive play callers have been rotating in seven and eight defensive linemen to keep a fresh set of pass rushers on the field at all times. Offensive coordinators, however, have thwarted those tactics by extensively utilizing the no-huddle offense to keep opponents from substituting personnel. By eschewing the huddle, the offense forces the defense to stay alert and ready, while also restricting the defensive coordinator from sneaking in replacements and specialists to get after the passer. This is especially problematic when the offense rips off six or more plays in a rapid sequence. Defensive linemen exert a ton of energy battling through blockers and hunting quarterbacks, which makes the prospect of lining up over and over again without sufficient rest a daunting task. Additionally, the fatigue brought on by the up-tempo pace makes defenders vulnerable to running plays late in drives.

    From a schematic standpoint, the formational flexibility of "11" (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) and "12" (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) personnel packages makes it easy for offensive coordinators to cleverly create mismatches in the run and passing games."

    That’s a long quote, but I think it is important. Can’t we all agree we would like to see the GB and DET defenses a bit more worn down in one particular game this year? Additionally, we seem to have building some personnel to run both "11" and "12" personnel groupings. We have a young, reasonably fit offensive line, which should be able to handle the pace if they prepare for it.

  3. Young quarterbacks can thrive against simplified fronts and coverages. "Proponents of no-huddle and up-tempo offenses point out that the rapid pace of play forces opposing defensive coordinators to simplify their game plans. Fear of miscommunication from the sideline to the field tends to make defensive play callers scale back on blitzing, while the inability to freely substitute defenders eliminates most of the exotic fronts and coverages utilized on passing situations. Additionally, the quickened tempo forces defenders to abandon the pre-snap disguises that can create indecision in the quarterback's mind at the line of scrimmage."

    Hmm. Reduced defensive complexity (until they adjust). Less blitzing with fewer exotic schemes. Easier for a QB to diagnose, leading to more confident decision-making. This sounds like a good environment for a QB like Romo.

  4. Better and more efficient practices. At Oregon, they frequently get 30 plays in a 10 minute practice segment. Little coaching is done on the field, but everything is videotaped. Most of the actual coach of position groups takes place in the film room. As a result, practices are more efficient, with less down time as a coach corrects a single player. With a higher practice tempo, we could also dedicate more repetitions to our backups, improving our player development arcs. Finally, the faster tempo should improve team fitness, making us more potent in the 4th quarter, while preparing us for the most difficult schemes to face.


There has been a lot of discussion on BTB about coaching changes desired, and schematic fixes or adjustments. However, as many teams are discovering, the answer may not be a new scheme, it might be the old scheme implemented at a faster tempo, one that puts the defense at a disadvantage.

I’ve mostly discussed advantages of an up-tempo offense. Do you agree with these, and if not, what are the disadvantages? Most importantly, do you think this should be the future for the Cowboys offense, and a centerpiece in team identity?

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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