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Explosion And Efficiency: Measuring The Cowboys Offense

What can we determine about an offense beyond points scored? What scoring efficiency and explosiveness can tell us about the Cowboys, and how Dallas measures up in the division.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Talking about offense in the NFL is a hazardous proposition. The NFL ranks offenses based on total yards, but there is mounting evidence that yards gained really has no predictive value in regard to wins. Smarter fans will talk about points per game, which makes sense... the team that scores the most wins right?

But even points per game has flaws. Last year the Cowboys scored 48 points against the Denver Broncos, which by any measure is fantastic. But they still lost the game, 48 to 51. What good is it to score at a record rate when you allow your opponent to do the same? The real key to offensive football is not scoring a lot; it's scoring efficiently.

Scoring Efficiently

The thinking here is very simple. So far in 2014 teams are averaging 11.2 drives per game. If I'm averaging two points a drive, and my opponents averaging three, I'm going to lose. Same for more up-tempo teams; you may run more plays and have more drives in your typical game, but you still have to score efficiently.

An example is in order. Dallas is playing Washington. Dallas averages 2.37 points per drive, and 11 drives per game. Washington averages 1.66 points per drive, and right at 12 drives per game. If both teams play their average game Washington will have one more drive than Dallas, but Dallas wins, 26 to 20. If Washington does a great job of game management and gets 13 drives to Dallas's 11 drives, Dallas still wins, 26 to 22.

In fact, at their average points per drive, Washington would have to have to have five more drives than Dallas, (16 to 11), to win, 27-26.

In a game where both teams are going to have a similar number of possessions it doesn't really matter how much you score. It matters how efficiently you score.


One way that a team can overcome poor efficiency is through explosiveness. Explosiveness really just means big plays; long offensive plays and defensive and special team scores. If you are scoring on defense and special teams you can afford to miss out on normal offensive possessions. Big plays on the other hand don't change your points per drive (PPD), but they do make it easier to score on each drive. On offense, explosiveness complements efficiency. It's extremely difficult to march down the field two-to-three yards at a time; the more explosive your team is, the more likely you are to score on any given drive. But there is a balance that must be struck. A team that goes three-and-out for three drives, then scores a 70-yard touchdown is explosive, but not efficient. The best offenses use explosive plays to augment efficient drives, not as a substitution for them.

Measuring Efficiency and Explosiveness

So how do you measure these two traits? An easy way to measure efficiency and explosiveness is through points per drive (PPD) and points per play (PPP). The more you score per drive the more efficient your offense is, the more you score per play, the more explosive your offense is. Then what constitutes good points per drive and points per play? A good measurement is what an average team would need to score between 20 and 30 points respectively.

For instance the average team runs 11.2 drives per game. That means an average team would need to score 1.74 PPD to score 20 points and 2.68 PPD to score 30 points. We can therefore say that anything below 1.74 PPD is bad, anything above 2.68 is great, and in between ranges somewhere in the middle.

The same system can be used to measure points per play. The average team in 2014 so far is running 64.4 plays per game. That team would need to score 0.31 PPP to get to 20 points, and 0.47 PPP to get to 30 points. So anything below 0.31 PPP is bad, anything above 0.47 is great.

How Does Dallas Measure?

Here is how Dallas does in points per game, points per drive, and points per play in each game so far this season.

Opponent Points per Game Points per Drive Points per Play
49ers 17 1.70 0.27
Titans 26 2.36 0.34
Rams 34 3.40 0.65
Saints 38 3.45 0.58
Texans 20 1.81 0.27
Seahawks 30 2.73 0.40
Giants 31 2.82 0.52
Redskins 17 1.55 0.27
Cardinals 17 1.70 0.29
Jaguars 31 2.21 0.53
Averages 26.1 2.37 0.41

As you can see Dallas scores high in both PPD and PPP. How do the Cowboys compare to their NFC East rivals?

Opponent Points per Game Points per Drive Points per Play
Dallas 26.1 2.37 0.41
Eagles 29.9 2.28 0.41
Giants 20.5 1.70 0.28
Redskins 20.4 1.66 0.32

This pretty much confirms what the eyeballs tell us. Washington and the Giants are struggling offensively. The Eagles have a good offense, but their points per game is somewhat inflated by their high volume of drives (12.9, first in the league) and their explosive plays (defense and special teams scoring). Dallas runs about two drives less a game than the Eagles, which is a difference of about five points at our normal scoring efficiency. What this tells us is that if we can avoid turnovers, our offense is slightly better than the Eagles, and if both teams were play to their normal standards, Dallas should win a direct matchup.

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