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Will Increasing Time Of Possession Help The Dallas Cowboys Defense?

Does winning time of possession correlate with having a good defense?

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

A recurring question for this year's Cowboys is "How can the defense improve?" One of the more interesting answers was offered by our own Dawn Macelli; running the ball more would improve our time of possession (TOP) and keep the other offenses off the field, thus helping our defense. It's pretty convincing logic. But do the numbers support it? Do teams that have high TOP also have strong defenses?

The answer is...kinda. Going back seven years and looking at top ten teams in TOP (say that three times fast!), the numbers are pretty mixed. While top TOP teams on average have strong defenses, the numbers fluctuate pretty wildly.

Top 10 "Time Of Possession" Teams ranked by avg. yards per game
Year Avg Rank Highest Rank Lowest Rank Variance
2013 11.7 2nd (New Orleans) 23rd (San Deigo) 21
2012 9.5 1st (Pittsburgh) 28th (Indianapolis) 27
2011 9.4 1st (Pittsburgh) 26th (New Orleans) 25
2010 9.1 1st (San Deigo) 27th (Jacksonville) 26
2009 8.6 1st (New York Jets) 21st (Miami) 20
2008 10.2 1st (Pittsburgh) 22nd (Houston) 21
2007 10.3 1st (Pittsburgh) 26th (New Orleans) 25
7 Year Avg 9.8 1.1 24.7 23.6

As you can see, while the best defenses generally have a high TOP, the same can be said of some pretty bad defenses as well. In general however, a high TOP will correlate with having a stronger defense.

Of course it's easy to say "have a high TOP". But how does a team go about increasing their time of possession? The easy answer is to run the ball. Again we must ask, do the numbers bear this out? And again the answer, kinda.

Top 10 "Time Of Possession" Teams ranked by avg. rushes per game
Year Avg Rank Avg. # of attempts Highest Rank Lowest Rank Variance
2013 15.2 27.6 6th (San Diego) 26th (Pittsburgh) 20
2012 13.3 28.3 1st (Seattle) 26th (Atlanta) 25
2011 13.4 28.3 2nd (Houston) 24th (Dallas) 22
2010 10.5 28.9 2nd (New York Jets) 29th (New Orleans) 27
2009 10.9 29.0 1st (New York Jets) 19th (Houston) 18
2008 8.9 30.0 1st (Baltimore) 17th (Jacksonville) 16
2007 10.6 29.1 1st (Tennessee) 26th (New Orleans) 25
7 Year Avg 11.8 28.7 2 23.8 21.8

The numbers show that while a strong running game does tend to coincide with high time of possession, it is not a determining factor. The trend is interesting to note: over the years, the rush attempts per team has generally decreased, both in ranking and in actual number of rushes. More and more teams are using the pass to keep drives alive and keep the clock moving. The table below shows a clear trend, teams with high TOP are throwing the ball at an increased rate and running the ball less.

Pass/Run Ratio for Top 10 "Time Of Possession" Teams
Year 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Pass Att 32.9 31.8 33.4 33.8 34.6 34.9 36.8
Rush Att 29.1 30 29 28.9 28.3 28.3 27.6
Pass/Run Ratio 53% 51% 54% 54% 55% 55% 57%

What Does It Mean For the Cowboys?

Here is how our beloved Boys stacked up against the average top 10 TOP team last year:

Dallas Cowboys vs Top 10 "Time Of Possession" Teams
Team W/L Record Defensive Rank Pass Plays Run Plays Total Plays
2013 Cowboys 8-8 (.500) 32 33.4 21 54.4
TOP Team 9-7 (.588%) 11.7 36.8 27.6 64.4

The problem isn't that we're not running it enough. The problem is, we're not running enough plays, period. The average top ten time of possession team ran 10 more plays than we did last year! The game clock is 40 seconds, and we all know that Romo loves to take each and every one of those 40. Let's say each of those 10 plays averages 30 seconds of time off the clock; that's an extra five minutes of TOP! The difference between the first and last team in TOP last year was 6:21. Those five minutes would make a huge difference.

So how do we get those extra five minutes? We do need to run the ball more, but that's not the total answer. The truth is, we have to do a better job of converting 3rd downs. In 2013, Dallas ranked dead last in 3rd down conversions per game with 3.9. Seattle was first with 6.2. Those two extra first downs would give us at least 6 extra plays a game. Want to know why Cole Beasley has a spot on this team? It's not to convert 1 and 10, or make a 20-yard play. It's because we need someone who can consistently convert 3rd-and-4. Want to know why we drafted Zack Martin instead of reaching for defense in the 1st round? Because if we can consistently convert 3rd-and-2 with the running game, both our offense and our defense is improved.

Since he took over our offense in 2007, Jason Garrett has been known to rack up a lot of yards and put up big plays. But he has fallen short in the efficiency department. Last year we solved our ongoing problem with red zone scoring. Let's see if we can finally solve our 3rd down problem this year. Doing so will be the biggest help our defense gets.

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