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Game Planning to Victory, Pt. One: Dallas' Red Zone Efficiency

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Although research suggests that any number of variables can and will intervene to affect performance and the outcome of a game, over the last few years a clear-cut pattern has been established... four factors have been identified that have a consistently high correlation to a team's winning and losing:

  1. Red zone efficiency
  2. 1st down efficiency
  3. Turnovers
  4. Explosive plays

-- Brian Billick, Developing an Offensive Game Plan (1997)

Billick frustrated Baltimore fans by running an anti-offensive while at the Ravens helm.  That was probably due to Baltimore's lack of offensive skill position weapons.  When he coordinated Minnesota in the '90, he ran one of the NFL's flashiest, most productive units.  His ideas hold up.

With that in mind, let's use Billick's standards to assess the Cowboys' offense and defense.  Some people like to slam Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett, using terms like "predictable" and "stupid."  We like to go beyond the slurs here at BTB.  Let's take a look under the hood to see how the '07 Cowboys offense and '08 Cowboys offense compare.  Today, we're going to compare red-zone performance for the '07 offense and the '08 edition.  Later, we'll examine the offense and defense in each of these four categories. 

When we're finished, we should have a much clearer understanding on the real causes for the team's decline from 13-3 to 9-7.  We should also have a better hand on what needs to be improved to restore the lost wins.

Dallas' Offensive Red Zone Statistics, 2007 and 2008

2007 2008
Possessions 56 44
Touchdowns 30 26
Field Goals 18   8
Empty possessions
  8  10
Possessions rank 4th 25th
Touchdowns rank 6th 20th
touchdown % rank 15th 8th
scoring % rank 16th 31st

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let's begin with the one good stat from 2008.  Last year's team was more efficient at making touchdowns than the '07 offense, though it notched four fewer wins.  Dallas ranked 8th in the percentage of times it turned a red zone possession into a touchdown.

That said, the Cowboys were not outstanding in scoring efficiency in either year.  In the 13-3 year Dallas ranked a mid-pack 16th in red zone scoring possession.

Why then, was the first team so good?  Look at the top two stats.  The '07 Cowboys played the numbers game.  They got into the red zone a whopping 56 times, ranking 4th in that category.  Only Tom Brady's Pats, Peyton Manning's Colts and that year's Jaguars had more red zone possessions.  And Dallas got the ball into the end zone 30 times, ranking 6th in that category.

Last year's team dropped 21% in red zone possessions from the year before.  Even though it made a modest increase in touchdown efficiency, it didn't score as many touchdowns.  Why the dip?  We can speculate on several reasons, but I think the first down and explosive play breakdowns will offer us the evidence we're looking for.  We can also look at injuries to see how they effected the offense's ability to move between the 20s.  For the moment, let's just note that Dallas had 12 fewer red zone trips last year than it did the year before.

Let's also eliminate one possible culprit from the list.  Nick Folk was 8-9 last year on field goal attempts where the ball was snapped inside the 20.  That's an 89% success rate.  The year before, Folk was 18-20 on such attempts.  That's a 90% rate.  Folk kicked the same.  His attempts, however were more than cut in half.

So what affected Dallas?  Let's begin the autopsy with category four, what I term "empty possessions."  This is the number of red zone trips where Dallas didn't score.  The Cowboys had two more of these last year, even though they had twelve fewer trips inside the red zone.  Turnovers are the biggest culprit here, but the Tony Romo haters should hold off lurching for their voodoo dolls.  There was plenty of blame to spread in this category.  I can think of Marion Barber and Romo coughing up the ball inside the ten versus the Eagles.  I can see Brad Johnson tossing a red zone pick in the Giants loss.  I can see T.O. fumbling away a Johnson pass later in the same game. 

Dallas had a red zone turnover problem, and it was team wide.  But that stat will get its own story later on.  Again, let's note for the time being that turnovers were a second factor, in addition to fewer possessions, that dropped this team to 31st in red zone scoring last year.

"More and more teams are playing a loose 4-across zone concept inside the red zone.  The result is that there are fewer of the man-to-man match ups that made pick routes prominent in earlier years.  This zone concept puts a higher priority on being able to run the ball effectively and hitting underneath routes that (hopefully) enable receivers to score after catching the ball."

-- Billick, Developing an Offensive Game Plan, p. 58

(emphasis mine)

Billick offers a common sense point.  The teams that run the ball most effectively tend to be the best red zone teams.  Think of the '90s Cowboys.  They could and would pound the ball on anybody.  When Dallas got inside the ten, Emmitt Smith was going to run off tackle or he was going to run an isolation play behind Daryl Johnston.  Smith was always among the league leaders in touchdowns scored.  Consequently, Michael Irvin and Troy Aikman were awful fantasy options because Dallas rarely threw for red zone touchdowns.

Now, let's examine the Garrett offenses:

Rushing TDs

  • 2007 -- 14
  • 2008 -- 12

Those are weak numbers.  Last year's are even weaker when you consider that Felix Jones and Tashard Choice had three long TD runs between them.  The '08 Cowboys had only nine red zone rushing touchdowns.

The reasons are crystal clear.  K.C. Joyner's new run stats (I cannot hype his new book enough.  Order it ASAP) break down rushing effectiveness by run type;  he cataloged all the toss plays, all the counters, all the draws, all the iso plays, stretch plays, dives and off tackles, and found some puzzling numbers.  The '08 Cowboys were quite good at plays that required the offensive linemen to pull -- the tosses, sweeps, counters, etc.  They were, conversely, awful on plays that called for straight-ahead, man-to-man blocking.  I can't post the stats here, but Dallas' yards per attempt on isolations, dives and off-tackle runs were abysmal.

These are precisely the types of runs you need to execute inside an opponent's red zone.  Tosses and counters are far less effective here, because all secondary defenders are bunched far closer to the line of scrimmage.  When you're inside another team's ten, you're facing eleven-man fronts.

How many times did you find yourself screaming at the TV when Dallas lined up in the shotgun in the red zone and ran draws?  How many times did you call Jason Garrett a nasty name?  The Cowboys self scout their plays.  They break down how each play call works. They've done this since the Landry days.  The heavy draw calls were not a case of an OC getting cute, but of a play caller working his strongest hand. I've seen the run breakdowns.  They don't lie.

The power run stats don't make sense.  The Cowboys have big, beefy linemen, who can man block.  Yet, the linemen were poor on plays that should be their bread and butter.  As a result, Dallas has passed for red zone touchdowns twice as often the last two years as it has run for them.  That's a lot of pressure to put on your quarterback.  It's certainly not the "Romo-friendly" style of offense the Cowboys want to run.

If Dallas wants to improve its red zone performance this year, it will be on Hudson Houck and his linemen to raise their power running productivity.  Turnovers will also have to come down, but the biggest change will need to come from the bigg guys on the line of scrimmage.

 

A reminder that camp is now just six weeks away.  Grizz and I are planning extensive coverage from San Antonio.  Your donations help us bring you the best camp coverage anywhere.  Just click the link in the right hand column.  Grizz and I thank you in advance.   Don't forget that every $10 dollars you contribute gets you an entry in our drawing for two tickets to the first Cowboys game in the new stadium!

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