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Dallas Cowboys Iron Man: Which Players Had The Highest Playtime Percentage in 2014?

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Want to know which Cowboys players were on the field for how many plays last season? Look no further.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Do you know how many plays the Cowboys accumulated over the course of the 2014 regular season? Probably not off the top of your head, but a quick glance at Pro Football Reference shows the Cowboys with 1,014 plays on offense and 978 on defense. Simple enough, right?

Not so fast.

When you look at the playtime percentage as reported in the official NFL game books, the Cowboys had 1,059 plays on offense and 1,027 plays on defense.

Further complicating matters is that Pro Football Focus reports 1,082 snaps on offense and 1,055 snaps on defense. It's become somewhat chic in some Cowboys fan circles to dismiss PFF data outright. But if you think a service that counts 14 NFL teams as paying clients (including your Dallas Cowboys) can get something as basic as snap counts wrong, then we really need to talk about that plot of land on the moon that I can get you a fantastic price on.

So what gives with all these different numbers, and which one is the right one?

Well, all three sources are correct. When it comes to play counts or snap counts, everybody's right and nobody is wrong, kind of like a new age kindergarten. The difference between the three sources is in how they treat penalties.

  • The 1,014 regular season plays on offense (per PFR) do not include any penalties. If the Cowboys run for 10 yards and a flag is thrown for holding, the play counts as a "no play," and the stats for that play don't enter the official tally.
  • The 1,059 offensive plays from the player participation stats include plays that were called back due to a penalty after the play, but they do not include plays that were whistled dead during or before the play (e.g. false start, neutral zone infraction etc.)
  • PFF's 1,082 regular season snaps show how often the Cowboys offense lined up, irrespective of whether the play was whistled dead or called back after the play. This is why they correctly call them snap counts and not play counts at PFF.

With that out of the way, let's now look at which Cowboys players had the highest playtime percentage in 2014. Of the three sources above, the player participation stats are the only one that lists the special teams play counts in addition to the play counts on offense and defense, so they are the ones we're going to use, and we're going to look at the data for all 18 games the Cowboys played, not just the regular season games.

Here are the 22 players with the most plays in 2014/2015

Player Position Total Plays Off Plays Def Plays ST Plays
J.J. Wilcox S 1,352 18 1,105 229
Travis Frederick OC 1,270 1,176 0 94
Tyron Smith OT 1,270 1,176 0 94
Jason Witten TE 1,261 1,164 0 97
Zack Martin OG 1,257 1,170 0 87
Brandon Carr CB 1,224 0 1,135 89
Barry Church S 1,222 0 997 225
Ronald Leary OG 1,198 1,108 0 90
Orlando Scandrick CB 1,116 0 996 120
Tony Romo QB 1,088 1,088 0 0
Dez Bryant WR 1,007 1,001 0 6
Terrance Williams WR 903 899 0 4
DeMarco Murray RB 871 870 0 1
Jeremy Mincey DE 856 0 790 66
Tyrone Crawford DT 850 0 719 131
Sterling Moore CB 843 0 834 9
Bruce Carter LB 810 0 644 166
Anthony Hitchens LB 755 0 608 147
Nick Hayden DT 753 0 663 90
Doug Free OT 751 699 0 52
Rolando McClain LB 672 0 662 10
James Hanna TE 606 353 0 253

Some random observations:

  • J.J. Wilcox is the 2014 Cowboys ironman, as he was on the field more than any other player on the team. If you're wondering how Wilcox' 18 offensive plays came about, Wilcox was the deep cover back on the final kneel downs the offense to to end games. Previous ironmen were Brandon Carr in 2013 (1,257 plays) and Mackenzy Bernadeau in 2012 (1,169 plays).
  • Travis Frederick and Tyron Smith didn't miss a single play on offense in all 18 games last season. Brandon Carr had the most plays on defense, beating out J.J. Wilcox by 30 plays.
  • Jason Witten will not be denied. He was pulled at the end of the Jaguars, Colts and Redskins games. If not for that, he'd have been right up there with Frederick and Smith with the maximum play count.
  • Narrowly missing out on the top 22 (he's 23rd) is the King of Special Teams: Kyle Wilber notched 364 special teams plays, coming in ahead of Dwayne Harris (330) and C.J. Spillman (319).
  • Two guys missed playing time and still rank among the top ten anyway: Orlando Scandrick was suspended for two games yet ranks ninth overall in number of plays, Tony Romo missed the Arizona game and ranks 10th overall.
  • For a defensive line that was supposed to be all about rotation, Jeremy Mincey, Tyron Crawford, and Nick Hayden rank surprisingly high, partly due to injuries along the line, but partly also because of the absence of quality depth.
  • Anthony Hitchens narrowly missed out on playing the most snaps of any linebacker. Not bad for a rookie picked in the fourth round, but not good for a team that thought Hitchens would be the sixth guy on their linebacker depth chart (Lee, Durant, Carter, Holloman, Wilber) when they drafted him.

In the end, these play counts aren't just a vanity stat, at least not as far as the players are concerned: Last year, each NFL team was given $3.46 million to divide among its players as part of the NFL's performance-based pay system (which does not count against the salary cap). Playing time and base salary level determine how much each player gets, and last year Ronald Leary led the team with an extra $307,104.43 in performance-based pay. Look for Wilcox and Leary to lead the team in performance-based pay when it's announced later this month, a well-deserved pay bump. Anthony Hitchens,Terrance Williams and Sterling Moore shouldn't be too far behind.