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Has The Cowboys Offense Become Unbalanced?

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The Cowboys have a pass/run ratio of exactly 50% so far this year, which suggests a very balanced team. But a look at some playcalling details suggests the Cowboys may not be as balanced as that number would have you believe.

Joe Sargent/Getty Images

For years everybody and their uncle was screaming bloody murder at the lack of balance in the Cowboys' offensive playcalling, especially with the Cowboys increasingly relying on the pass in recent years. Per Pro-Football-Reference, the Cowboys pass/run balance only knew one direction:

2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Pass Attempts 550 576 570 658 586
Runs 436 428 408 355 336
Pass/Run Ratio 56% 57% 58% 65% 64%

By last year, the Cowboys' inability or unwillingness to run the ball resulted in a league-low 336 carries over 16 games, which prompted a cacophony of voices to scream louder than ever before for a more balanced offensive gameplan. Even the biggest morons could now provide a simple two-word solution for everything that was ailing the Cowboys, and their outraged cries of "Run More!" suddenly made them sound like the seasoned NFL experts they already were in their own minds.

So the Cowboys put their hand into the hat and presto! Out comes a running game! After 12 games, the Cowboys are about as balanced as it gets; their 364 pass attempts are almost perfectly balanced by their 365 runs for a 50% pass/run ratio. Buoyed by the Cowboys' 8-4 record (the loss against the Eagles notwithstanding) and a second-ranked rushing attack, many of the people previously calling for a more balanced offense are now giving themselves virtual pats on the back.

At a macro level, everything looks just hunky dory. After all, the whole idea behind a balanced offense is to be as unpredictable as possible - and with a 50% pass/run ratio, you're about as unpredictable as it gets.

So if the Cowboys are as balanced as they can be, why is the title of this post talking about the offense being unbalanced?

Because at a micro level, things don't look quite as hunky dory anymore. The Cowboys offense, when we look at the playcalling preferences on a down-and-distance basis, has become about as predictable as it can get.

The Cowboys offense, much more than in previous years, is geared towards creating favorable third down situations. When Rabblerousr and I talked about this a few weeks back, we jokingly referred to the Cowboys offense as a "Run, Run, Pass" offense, reflecting what we felt was a tendency to run on the first two downs and then pass on third down to get another first down. Obviously, that's a gross oversimplification, but let's see whether there's a kernel of truth in that via the following breakdown by down-and-distance situations for the Cowboys in 2014.

1st down

No team in the NFL runs the ball more often on first down than the Cowboys. The following graph illustrates the Cowboys' playcalling preferences on 1st-and-10:

1st-and-10

The league average split on 1st-and-10 is 48% passing and 52 % running. Even pass-heavy teams like the Eagles (54% passing) or the Saints (53%) are much more balanced than the Cowboys.

The absence of balance is not a bad thing per se - if you can pull it off. The 90s Cowboys used to brag that opposing defenses knew exactly what play was coming, but were unable to stop it. And that's an important aspect to keep in mind as we review playcalling tendencies: Nobody was complaining about running the ball a lot on first down when the Cowboys were 6-1 earlier in the season. It's only when you can't pull it off anymore that your playcalling will come under scrutiny.

The Cardinals and Eagles loaded up to stop the run on first down, and when they were successful, the Cowboys didn't have an answer.

Opponent 1st-and-10 call Quarters 1-3 4th Quarter
Eagles Run 15 0
Pass 1 8
Cardinals Run 10 1
Pass 5 7

You'd think that when the opposing defense is lining up to stop the run, the offense would play-action them to death. But that's not what the Cowboys did, instead sticking to the run on 1st-and-10, only rediscovering the pass in the fourth quarter when the offense was desperately trying to play catch up.

2nd down

If the Cowboys really were a "Run, Run, Pass" offense, you'd expect a heavy dose of running on second down, but that's not necessarily the case, as the following graph shows.

2nd down

Back in 2006, when Mike Zimmer was the defensive coordinator for the Cowboys, Zimmer remarked on the disadvantage defenses have when they are in second-and-short:

"When it's second-and-4, it's tough to make (defensive) calls," Zimmer said. "You're behind the eight ball."

The key to a successful third down offense is an effective first and second down offense that puts opposing defenses in unfavorable third-and-short situations. And here's where we see an interesting wrinkle in the Cowboys' playcalling. You'd think that a team like the Cowboys, that is so successful running the ball, would pound the rock on second-and-short to get the next first down. But that's not what they are doing at all.

On second-and-short, the Cowboys pass more often than any other team in the NFL. Perhaps because that distance opens up their playbook, perhaps because they think of second-and-short as two attempts at converting a third-and-short, whatever the reason, the Cowboys pass more than anybody else in those situations.

The league average on second down with three yards or less to go is a 38% passing ratio. Where the Cowboys like to pass 60% of the time, the Bengals have the lowest pass ratio (13%) and the Seahawks have the third-lowest (20%). Again, if you can pull it off, more power to you, but don't think for one minute that opposing defenses don't know about these tendencies.

On second down with 4-8 yards to go, the Cowboys are once again the poster children for a balanced attack, equally splitting runs and passes. On these interim distances, it's hard to say exactly what is good and what isn't. The league average is a 58% pass ratio, the Buccaneers lead all teams with a 76% pass ratio, the Seahawks pass the least (37% pass ratio). Despite what looks like a perfectly balanced 50% pass ratio, the Cowboys favor the run a little more in these situations than the average NFL team.

On second-and-long, the Cowboys once again get pass-heavy with a 72% pass ratio, the third-highest in the NFL. Hard to figure out why exactly this is the case. Perhaps the Cowboys are wary of following up a short gain on the ground on first down with another run. Perhaps they are worried they won't be able to get into 3rd-and-short (remember: the offense is geared towards creating favorable third down situations) with a run. Whatever the reason, the Cowboys are highly predictable on second-and long.

Third down

My working hypothesis here, as you've probably surmised by now, is that as an offensive playcaller you probably want to avoid playcalling tendencies that place you at the very top or the very bottom of the league rankings, because any deviation from the norm makes you more predictable.

And that's the situation the Cowboys find themselves in on the various third down situations below.

3rd down

The Cowboys rank within the top or bottom seven in all third down situations, though one stat is particularly striking: The Cowboys have faced 19 third-and-3 situations this year. They attempted a pass 18 times and ran only once. As a defense, that's fairly easy to prepare for.

Again, that is not a bad thing per se - if you can pull it off. And the Cowboys pulled it off masterfully over the first seven games of the season when they had a 59% third down conversion rate.

Since then, the Cowboys have fallen off drastically. In the last five games, the Cowboys are 20-58 in third down conversions, which translates to a 34% conversion rate. How much of that comes down to execution, how much to playcalling tendencies, and how much to unfavorable down-and-distance situations is anybody's guess.

Here's BTB-member Mr._Mulligan sharing an observation on third down performance versus the Eagles:

I think a large part of the recent failure is lack of creativity in the play calling. Run, run, pass was working earlier in the season, but EVERYone knows it’s coming now.

I also think Dallas’ formation gives away the play call. There were so many times when they were 3rd and short, only 7 defenders in the box, I was begging Dallas to hand it off to Murray. They never handed it off.

One more oddity that manifests on both second and third down: Outside of 3rd-and-1 the Cowboys show a remarkable aversion to running the ball on second- or third-and-short. The Cowboys lead the league in these situations (2nd down with 1-3 yards to go plus 3rd down with 2-4 yards to go) with a 67% pass ratio. It's almost as if they don't completely trust their ground game to deliver the critical yards when they count the most.

We've seen above that while the Cowboys look like a balanced team superficially, a closer look at specific down-and-distance situations shows that they are one of the more unbalanced teams in the league. And when you you are that unbalanced, you run the risk of becoming predictable.

Nobody is complaining about the success of the ground game, and nobody was complaining about the lack of balance when the Cowboys were 6-1 earlier in the season. But running more has not made the Cowboys a more balanced team, far from it. The only question is, will this be a strength or a weakness for the team over the final four games?

One final thought: The league average pass ratio is 57% this season. Last year, the Cowboys had a pass ratio of 64%, this year they are down to 50%. Which means the Cowboys are exactly as far away from the league average this year as they were last year, except in the other direction.

Think about it. In 2014 the Cowboys are just as unbalanced relative to the league average as they were in 2013.