A while back, the hardworking folks at PFF tweeted some exclusive data, much of which cannot be found on their site (though I don't have a subscription), because it derives from work they do exclusively for some NFL teams. However, the small tidbits of data did reveal some statistical proof behind the Dallas Cowboys ‘Air Coryell' influenced passing game under head coach Jason Garrett. It also forced me to question whether the improved wide receiver depth will allow Dez Bryant to be utilized more efficiently...and thus more effectively.
It's understood that an aggressive passing attack will challenge the opponent deep and spreading the defense vertically is a staple of the Don Coryell passing philosophy.
Coryell is credited with a laundry list of innovations. He was the architect behind the one-back formation, developed the "joker" tight end, pioneered the use of option routes, devised the flood route combination, conceived the numbered route tree/play-call lexicon, and was integral in the advancement of the use of pre-snap motion and running back screens...
Of course, the main thing was to throw the ball deep. And they did that a lot.
"The first thing in our offense was always the bomb," said Hall of Famer Dan Fouts in Ron Jaworski's The Games That Changed the Game. "It was built into almost every pass play, where the quarterback initially looks for that chance to hit the big one. And I think if you start with that premise and then work your way back toward the line of scrimmage, that's the Air Coryell offense."
This is a great SB Nation article that provides a lot of insights into the coaching philosophy at the heart of the Cowboys offense. These principles of the Coryell passing attack are clearly visible in Jason Garrett's offense. However, Dallas did not capitalize on the go route in 2013 as well as fans would like despite their primary receivers running go routes so often. With the understanding that NFL go routes can be used to attack a blitz with an intermediate hot route or create touchdowns with a back-shoulder fade to Dez, these routes are usually more of a deep threat to the defense than an efficient passing route for the offense.
Often, even in the Air Coryell offense, while the go route may be the first read for the QB as he then begins to "work [his] way back toward the line of scrimmage," these deep routes are primarily used to open up other routes by keeping one safety deep. It is only when the QB reads single coverage with a corner that the go route because a more viable option. It is for this reason that go routes, although essential for a threatening passing attack, are not very efficient routes. Not only are they often the "distracter" route, but they are also difficult to complete even when the pass is attempted. So, while it was expected that PFF's data would show a low YPRR (yards per route run) for receivers running go routes, I was surprised by which receivers were the most efficient at go routes.
You will notice that the PFF stats show that the most efficient ‘go-route' receivers from a YPRR perspective were not the receivers leading the league in percentage of go routes. This is disconcerting, especially since the Cowboys had two receivers ranked in the top four in percentage of go routes. However, it is my hope that the improved wide receiver depth will now free up Dez to run fewer go routes (hopefully while working his way up the efficiency list) and instead be able to run more higher-efficiency routes.
This has been on (limited) display during preseason games. While the longest reception from Tony Romo to Dez Bryant was a touchdown on a go route (game two), Dez has converted several first-downs on more efficient routes this preseason. And while Brandon Weeden had his best touchdown pass on a go route to LaRon Byrd (game three), who made a phenomenal catch, he also missed on a touchdown to Terrance Williams on a go route and threw an interception as he tried to split the coverage on a go route to Dwayne Harris (game two). Even Cole Beasley is getting more involved in these deep routes, as is Devin Street.
If the Cowboys can continue to rely on T Will to run a high percentage of go routes, but replace some of Dez's percentage of go routes by utilizing Street, Beasley, Harris, or Byrd, it will allow him to become more effective by running more efficient routes more often. Not only will the Cowboys passing offense become more efficient by utilizing Dez more frequently in other routes, but like his preseason week two touchdown, corners will be more likely to bite on his double move when he does run a go route, hopefully improving his go route YPPR. So, what kind of routes could Dez use more often and become even more dangerous as a receiver?
You will notice that the best YPRR for go routes is actually only the "average" YPRR for slant routes. The numbers also make it clear that the Cowboys are not the only team to have receivers running a high volume of go routes compared to slant routes. But in the NFL, the more ways a player proves he can attack a defense the greater challenge he becomes for defenses. If the Cowboys continue to have Dez run go routes nearly 40% of the time, corners will be far less likely to try to "jump the slant route" when Dez makes a double move on his go route or Romo uses a pump fake to try and draw the corner or safety away from the deep pass. It will also allow Dez to be used more often in efficient routes to help convert third-downs (where the Cowboys struggled greatly last season) while other receivers are used to threaten the defense deep.
Preseason isn't a great time to evaluate any changes in gameplans and play-calling for the upcoming season since coaches run vanilla schemes. But it will be interesting to see if the 2014 season and the addition of Scott Linehan will change some of these tendencies moving forward. After all, Calvin Johnson (Linehan's former all-star receiver) leads the list in slant YPRR, but is nowhere to be found on the go route statistics. In fact, there are not very many top talent receivers atop the ‘percentage of go routes' list. It appears teams are utilizing their most dangerous receivers in a greater variety of more efficient routes. Hopefully, this is a change the Cowboys are already considering for Dez Bryant.