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Cowboys Playcalling With Brandon Weeden: Was It Too Conservative?

There is a common assumption that Dallas' offense was too predictable while Brandon Weeden was the starting quarterback. What do the actual numbers tell us?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys coaching staff wasted no time in making the decision to name Matt Cassel as the starting quarterback over Brandon Weeden during the bye week. There are a variety of reasons advanced for why the team made the call. One that has been cited is that Scott Linehan's playcalling became far too predictable, going with runs on first down until the team was trailing or fighting the clock to move the ball.

Is that really true? With only a three game sample size while Weeden was the starter, it is hard to be sure based on the numbers, but I became curious to see if anything could be gleaned from looking at how many times runs or passes were actually called. To do this, I went through all three games and charted not only how many times runs and passes were called on first down, but also whether or not the team converted that series of downs into either a first down or a touchdown.

The numbers are as accurate as I can make them by referring to the NFL's chart of game statistics for each game. They count a series as successful on the results regardless of whether the first down or lack of one came because of a penalty. Here is a table with the numbers broken out for each game.

1st Down Playcall
Game Runs Failed Passes Failed
Falcons 20 4 (20%) 10 2 (20%)
Saints 17 5 (30 %) 10 2 (20%)
Patriots 10 6 (60%) 13 5 (39%)
Totals 47 15  (32%) 33 9 (27%)

Again, the small sample size may limit the effectiveness of trying to glean much from these numbers. However, some things jump out.

The Cowboys did run more on first down. Of the 80 total plays charted, they ran on 47 of them, or 59% of the time. What is not so evident from the raw numbers is that the team started passing more on first down when they were trailing or when the clock was running down, which is what is to be expected. This was especially clear in the second half of both the Falcons and Patriots game, when things were running off the track. When the Cowboys were ahead or the score was still close, they went with the run much more often, again something that is not surprising.

Another thing that jumps out is that the failure rate for series that started with a run increased significantly each week. This may just be a reflection of the defensive philosophies, respective coaching skills, and roster talent each game. But it also may be a sign of what the teams were learning from watching the video of the team with Weeden at the helm, and adjusting accordingly. By the Patriots game, the other side clearly had far too good a grasp of what was coming, and New England largely shut down the Cowboys offense, as we are all too aware.

What was really unexpected was that throughout the three game stretch, the Cowboys had as good or a better chance of converting a series when they passed on first down. This was again most clear against the Patriots, when Dallas had a 21% better failure rate if Weeden threw the ball on first down.

It must be noted that the success was not really dependent on whether Weeden completed first down passes or not. Often an incompletion would lead to a conversion that series, even though the team generally had to throw the ball on second and third down. Despite his limitations, Weeden still completed a high enough percentage of passes overall to have a better chance of getting the first down through the air than when the team ran the ball.

The hard part is trying to figure out if this is the fault of Scott Linehan for not using more first down passes early, if the other teams were able to see the run was more likely because of formation and personnel, or because of the general lack of success in the running game after the first half of the Atlanta game. It probably was some of all three. The fact that the Patriots are so well coached is also something to consider, since they would be expected to do the best job of anticipating what was coming based on what they saw.

This was not a conclusive exercise by any means, but the hints seem interesting.

Will Cassel at quarterback lead to a change in the play selection on first down? That is something to be hoped for. It is obviously believed that teams had no respect for Weeden's ability to hurt them by going over the top when they crowded the box to stop the run. If Cassel can change that, then the team should be able to be more productive on first down. That will fall on Linehan. We won't know how that goes until the Giants game, and it is something that will be worth watching.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB

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