FanPost

WMQB Part II: Team strengths, team construction, rules changes and a note on randomizing


This is Part II of some thoughts following the Giants game. Part I here.

In Part I I explained why I think Dallas may still play 0.500 for the remaining games. Now we'll revisit the team strengths. In Part I, I posted this table of Dallas’s efficiency rankings prior to the Giants game (via Advanced NFL Stats)

Ranking

TEAM

Offensive Pass Efficiency

Offensive Run Efficiency

Offensive Int. Rate %

Offensive Fumble Rate %

Defensive Pass Efficiency

Defensive Run Efficiency

Defensive Int. Rate %

Penalty Rate

DAL

4

19

19

1

16

17

30

33

Here’s what they look like after the Giants game.

Ranking

TEAM

Offensive Pass Efficiency

Offensive Run Efficiency

Offensive Int. Rate %

Offensive Fumble Rate %

Defensive Pass Efficiency

Defensive Run Efficiency

Defensive Int. Rate %

Penalty Rate

DAL

6

21

13

1

25

22

18

32

These tables show why I’m a fan of Jason Garrett. If you want to build a football team it’s better to be a good passing team than a good running team.

Teams with 10 or more wins are no more likely to have strong running games than those with weak or even extremely weak running efficiency. In contrast, the teams with at least 10 wins are far more likely to have had above-average passing efficiency.

And Dallas is a very good passing team. This has been the case for most of Garrett’s tenure as OC. Here’s a CHFF quote. It’s about San Diego but it’s equally applicable to Dallas.

Firing Norv Turner isn’t going to help what ails San Diego. At least not right now. When the Broncos fired Mike Shanahan after the 2008 season, it was assumedly because they felt they needed a change. But Shanahan took his zone-blocking acumen with him, and Denver really hasn’t been the same since. They can barely run for a first down, let along plug any scrap running back in the lineup and get 1,000 yards.

Taking Turner out of the equation might lead to a different feel, but it could also put a big dent in San Diego’s incredible passing game, which has been one of the most constant qualities in the league and the main reason the Chargers will still probably win the AFC West. The Chargers are still a three-game winning streak away from first place, and Turner’s offense is the reason they go on such streaks.

I think Dallas would be shooting themselves in the foot if they gut the strongest facet of the team (i.e. fire Garrett). I look at the above table and the only thing I see that’s better than average is the offensive passing. Maybe I’m weird but considering it’s the relative strength of the team I don’t conclude that’s the problem (that's also why I'm skeptical that the OL is as broken as people believe). Rather, I think if you take away the passing game Dallas is Buffalo (and yes I’m aware Dallas has only won 1 more game than Buffalo, save me the jokes).

I'm worried about what Dallas doesn't do well (i.e. defensive pass efficiency). That’s the area that needs to be improved. It warrant's mentioning that this isn't a knee jerk response. Dallas's defensive pass efficiency was below average last year as well.

Team construction

Here's another comment from CHFF.

There are a lot of incredible football bodies on that Dallas team, but are there a lot of genius football minds? ... Jerry Jones has proven that he’s got an eye for talent, but as defacto GM he doesn’t seem have the football genius that allows him to build a real team.

I believe that CHFF hits the nail on the head. Jerry Jones hasn’t been able to build a team. Why might that be?

My starting point for thinking about how to build a successful team is Brian Burke’s observation that it’s better to be a good passing team than a good running team. If you’re building a football team you want to be:

- good at passing, and

- good at defending the pass

Consider the following comment.

If I were advising a general manager, I’d tell him to largely forget about the run. Get a running back who’s good at picking up blitzes or catching the ball. Never draft a running back in the first few rounds, and whatever you do, don’t waste precious cap space (or payroll budget) on him.

Compare that to Jerry’s strategy. Dallas has not 1, but 2 big name RBs. So let’s say you’re building a team. You have $100M total, and $50M for the offense.

Start with some givens (by the way this isn’t that far from how Dallas looks):

QB = $5M

3 WR @ $5M / year = $15M

TE = $5M

That leaves you with $25M for everything else. OL, RB, TE, backups, etc. If you allocate $5M to a RB, you’re down to $20M for the rest of the team. If you’ve got 2 high salary RBs the problem is even worse. Remember how I said in Part I that Alex Barron was specifically a OL depth problem? Flozell Adams was cut for money considerations, right. It's reasonable to guess that Dallas gambled on the OL staying healthy so they could spend money elsewhere.

With a fixed budget for salaries what's the best area to skimp on? WR, QB, TE, OL, RB? I suspect Brian Burke is right and the best place to skimp is at the RB position. Keep you QB, WRs, TE, make sure the OL can pass block. And while investing in the OL will benefit the running game and the passing game, I’m focused on the passing part. Even a small improvement in passing will outweigh than the benefit of having a marginally better RB (e.g. the difference between Felix and Choice).

How about this advice

Get lots of pass rushers on defense. Got a LB that’s a great run stopper but can’t play coverage? Trade him to some sucker team that cares that they only give up 3.8 yards per carry rather than 4.2 yards per carry.

Doesn't that perfectly describe Dallas’s ILBs and DE’s? Dallas clearly chose the run stuffing LB (Bradie James) over the LB who could play pass coverage (Kevin Burnett). Their DEs (Igor & Spears) can stop the run but can’t rush the passer. Dallas has the 10th best success rate stopping the run but only the 20th best success rate stopping the pass. How many times in the last 2 years have you seen Dallas stop the run on 1st & 2nd only to allow 3&7? It doesn't matter how well you stop the run if you allow long 3rd downs.

No discussion of team construction is complete without considering the salary cap. Consider that all the marquee players on Dallas are at the most expensive positions. QB, CB, WR, DE (Romo, Newman/Jenkins, MA/RW/DB, Ware/Spencer). Total salaries have to be less than the salary cap so money spent on one position is money not available for other positions. It may be that having this many marquee players at the most expensive positions doesn’t leave enough to be solid at every position.

Position

Franchise Salary (Top 5)

$M

Quarterback

14.65

Cornerback

9.96

Wide Reciever

9.88

Defensive End

8.99

Offensive Line

8.45

Linebacker

8.3

Running Back

6.62

Safety

6.34

Defensive Tackle

6.06

One last point about team construction. How much has Dez Bryant improved the Cowboys? My guess is in the short run it's a very small change. Don’t get me wrong, I love the pick and think it’s a great choice, but I suspect Dez doesn't make a big difference in terms of wins this year. Why?

Dallas effectively replaced Crayton’s production with Dez. So what's the benefit of replacing Crayton with Dez? Well that depends on:

-# of plays where Dez is taking Crayton's place

-Crayton's production

-Dez's production

So what do those stats look like?

I don’t have this year’s breakdown by formation but I do have Bob Strum’s breakdown from 2009. We can assume the figures are about the same. Dallas has 3 WRs on the field in the 11 package and the Shotgun 11 package. Those 2 formations accounted for 30% of the snaps in 2009. So for starters, Dez isn’t on the field 70% of the time (think about that).

In addition, Crayton has been an efficient WR his entire career. This year is no different. With San Diego Crayton’s EPA/A (a measure of per pass production) is 0.60 which is actually higher than Dez Bryant’s EPA/A of 0.48. Both figures are top 15 in the NFL which is great. But WR was already a strength. Adding Dez meant subtracting an equally productive player. Is it the right move long term? I think so. Does replacing a 0.60 EPA/A player (Crayton) with a 0.48 EPA/A player (Dez) on 30% of your snaps move the needle in terms of wins? I’m not sure.

Rules Changes

The rule changes in 1978 significantly improved the payoff for passing. Teams responded by increasing the proportion of passes they threw from a roughly 50/50 split to the 43/57 split we see today. It will be interesting to see if the rules protecting a defenseless WR result in an similar increase in passing efficiency. Some of the scores from Sunday suggest that passing just got much more attractive.

Randomizing

One last comment on randomizing. I frequently see complaints about how predictable Garrett is because he calls 3 runs in a row or 3 passes in a row. Bill Walsh via Advanced NFL Stats.

We know that if they don't blitz one down, they're going to blitz the next down. Automatically. When you get down in there, every other play. They'll seldom blitz twice in a row, but they'll blitz every other down. If we go a series where there haven't been blitzes on the first two downs, here comes the safety blitz on third down

There’s a difference between randomizing and alternating.Randomizing ends up in a many long streaks.

There's a story about a statistics professor who challenges his class to a contest. He divides the class in half and tells one group to flip a coin 100 times and write the sequence on the board-- THHTTH... The other group is told to invent and write their own sequence of heads and tails on the board as randomly as they can, without looking at the other group's sequence …. The professor can identify the fake random sequence so easily because it has too many alternations between heads and tails, and too few long streaks. The fake sequence looks like HTTHTHHTHT, while true randomness often looks like HHHHHTHTTH. True randomness can be quite streaky (which is partly why people fall for fallacies like "being in the zone" or "the hot hand").

So JG may be more unpredictable than you’re perceiving.

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.