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The Dallas Cowboys & Innovative Play-Calling

Dallas was known for its running game in 2014, but a huge part of their success was changing up from a power running game to a spread offense when needed.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

In 2014 many Cowboys fans had their prayers answered. After years of seeing DeMarco Murray put up great rushing averages only to have the run abandoned at key moments, the Dallas Cowboys became a running team in 2014. After averaging 21 rushes a game in 2013, Dallas saw that number jump all the way to 31 rushes in 2014 good for fourth in the league. What really made many fans happy was the use of the run to close out games. Dallas ran the ball 141 times in the 4th quarter, behind only the 146 times they ran in the first.

As much as we all loved the commitment to the run game last season, one critique that popped up frequently as the season wore on was our disinclination to pass on first down. Dallas ran the ball 70.8% of the time on first down, the highest mark in the NFL. In fact over the last four years the next highest percentage of runs on first down was 64.5%

Things were different on non-first-downs.

Dallas passed the ball more than they ran it on every other down. Now that in itself isn't a big deal; it makes sense that teams pass more than they run on third down for instance. But Dallas only ran the ball 38% of the time on 2nd down. Even on second and short, Dallas passed more than it ran.

On 2nd and less than five (an optimal running down) Dallas ran the ball 51 times, but passed the ball 58 times. So what's the story here? I'll let Bob Sturm explain. Here he's talking about our week 15 victory over the Eagles:

this is one of the Cowboys newer toys; Shotgun 02 personnel (0RB, 2TE, 3WR). They love running this out of shotgun with an empty backfield. They ran it 7 times on Sunday – all 7 on 2nd down. What this does is pretty much show the coverage of the Eagles to Romo in presnap. He knows it is one of 2 possibilities with a high safety: 1) 5 man blitz with man under the safety or 2) 4 man rush with man under and a high safety as well as a robber in the middle (95-Kendricks). That is what we have here and now Romo can use his eyes to move the robber and then find his matchup.

The phrase that really stands out here is "newer toys". This particular formation/down combination wasn't something that was used very often early on. Through Week 10 Dallas had used the S02 formation 16 times for 157 yards. But in the last six games of the season Dallas used the S02 formation 18 times for 193 yards. The formations use grew organically, in season, as the coaches continued to tinker with the offense. Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan got some flak last season for being too predictable. What this shows us is that the patterns that are established at the beginning of the season aren't necessarily true at the end of the season, whether we fans recognize it or not.