The Cowboys were masterful at converting their third downs last season at a whopping 47.3% rate. This could be a big reason why they were so successful on offense, which allowed their defense to rest. Since Jason Garrett began his tenure it seems as though they come into the year with a fatal flaw of season's past and fix it significantly.
In 2013, the Cowboys struggled time and time again on third-downs. They were simply awful with only a 35% success rate. Something had to give for them and it did last season. In the first half of 2014 the Cowboys hovered around 50% on third downs before finally coming back to earth. They only finished behind the New Orleans Saints, but we all know that team needed much more than good third-down percentage last year. Getting conversions on third downs are so important to the success of a team, out of the top five teams in third-down efficiency, New Orleans was the only team to miss the postseason.
So how was Dallas able to manage becoming so successful at completing third down tries? Well maybe it's less about how and more about who. The Cowboys had 201 third down attempts, of those, 164 were passes. Let's look at the biggest contributors to Dallas' third down magic:
Obviously, this could go without saying, but Romo was sensational last season in every way possible. According to PFR playfinder, Romo had 127 throws on third down and completed 85 of those attempts for a staggering 66.9% completion percentage. Romo also had 11 of his 34 touchdowns come on third down and only threw two interceptions. His average yards per attempt was 8.6 and he was sacked 15 times. Of course, Romo led the league in third-down percentage and posted a QB rating of 116.2 on his way to an MVP-caliber performance. None of this third-down success is possible without number nine.
The "Show Pony" did what he does best; get open. Beasley was targeted 17 times on third-down and caught 13 of those passes. Of Beasley's four touchdowns, two were on third-down tries and he often broke big yards after the catch. Beasley racked up 164 yards on third-down tries and showed to be Tony's new converting machine. At a 76.5% conversion rate, it's safe to say that Beasley just keeps finding ways to create a mismatch for himself. You can't really put a linebacker on him, he's too nifty for that. You almost have to cover him with a corner but that doesn't mean he's not going to find another way around it. He brought his June Jones-taught skill-set with him to the NFL, which is basically "just go anywhere but be open". Beasley never had a game where he didn't catch at least 50% of his targets. Beasley earned the quarterback's trust and should only get more looks in 2015.
Dez was targeted 38 times on third down, which is an awful lot. However, why not throw it to the best receiver on the team and perhaps in the league? He does have more touchdowns than any other receiver since 2010 with 56 total scores. Of those 38 passes, Bryant hauled in 18 for a 54.5% conversion percentage. Bryant also piled up 272 yards and had three of his 16 total touchdowns on third downs. Dez is so physical and such an absolute beast that it's better to bet on him than against him. His ability to just out-fight his competition to come down with the ball is a marvel to witness. When in doubt...throw the fade route.
It's becoming almost unfair how good Witten is at just about everything. Of course he would make this list as he has since he and Tony have been a tandem. Witten was targeted 37 times in 2014 and came down with the catch 26 times for a 70.3% conversion rate. Witten would also accumulate 249 yards and two touchdowns. For all the folks talking about when Witten is going to decline, he just keeps laughing in the face of father time. He's been Romo's favorite target on third downs and will continue to be until someone else can find more creases in the defense. For a guy who isn't that fast, he sure seems to find ways to beat defenses with the same maneuvers time and time again. Jason Witten is the ultimate total package for this offense and surely he'll continue his amazing ways in 2015.
Those four guys we're the big guns for Dallas on third downs, but there were a few notables that need mentioning. These are guys that have helped the Cowboys when it counts, but also need to take a bigger step forward this season:
Escobar just needs to make sure that he's the number two guy in Dallas. I don't know if it's lack of trust or something else but Escobar has had limited opportunities thus far. I would hope he shows some more abilities to complete his game. However, Escobar did some good things on third down for the Cowboys last season. Out of seven passes thrown, Escobar caught six for 68 yards and an 85.7% conversion rate. Escobar scored four touchdowns for the Cowboys and three of them came on third down. He's got some talent, let's see if he can put it all together in training camp and demand more from the coaches.
Williams sometimes gets unfair criticism because the guy has made it his priority to score touchdowns. However looking through PFR's playfinder it becomes easier to see why he's got some critics. Williams was able to gain 175 yards and two scores on the money down but only caught 7 of his 18 targets for a measly 38.7%. He will need to work on that aspect of his game in 2015. His yards after catch and deep-threat ability are great but it would be nice to see some more of those "toe-drag" plays from.
When DeMarco Murray was the lead back, nobody else was getting too many cracks on third down. Rightfully so, because Murray was the best option with his 26 attempts for 121 yards on third down. With that said, Randle has an element to his game that Murray does not. His vision added, to his breakaway speed, could really be an asset to the Cowboys this season. Randle has also been spending a lot of time working on his blitz pick-up and that should help him get on the field more. Anytime Randle was in the game last year he made big plays. Let's see if he can now add a consistency factor to his game as Murray had.
Dunbar was targeted eight times on passes and rushed another eight times for 38 yards. He caught seven of the eight passes for an 87.5% conversion rate and 88 yards receiving. He's got the speed and hands to catch and go but he hasn't shown much else. The Cowboys have talked about him as a secret weapon but it never really has come to fruition in that respect. Dunbar can do some good things for the team but could find himself on the outside looking in with the Darren McFadden acquisition.
Dallas has put an emphasis on third-down percentage that should carry over into 2015 because of the mismatches they create on that down. They have a lot of different wrinkles and looks they can throw out there and find success, it'll be interesting to see how other guys such as Devin Street perform when given their opportunities.