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Cowboys Offensive Line One Of Best Units Against The Splash Play

The basic idea behind pass protection is to keep the opposing defenses from making what NFL scouts call splash plays - plays that can turn games around - like sacks, QB hits, and QB hurries. We look at how the Cowboys O-line held up vs. the splash play.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In 2014, three Cowboys offensive linemen were named first-team All Pros, including Zack Martin, who became the first rookie offensive lineman in the Super Bowl era to be named first-team All Pro. The line run-blocked for the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year, who led the league with 1,845 rushing yards. And the line pass-blocked for a QB who led the league with a 113.2 passer rating.

Yet suddenly there's talk about how the Cowboys offensive line is overrated. Granted, you can find crazy junk all over the internet. And just because you can find five animated gifs of the Cowboys O-line pass blocking poorly doesn't mean they are overrated, nor does that make you an analyst.

I could go out and find all five animated gifs of Aaron Rodgers throwing an interception last year and write an article concluding that Aaron Rodgers is overrated because he throws interceptions all the time. You may think I'm kidding, but that's the type of moronic analysis you see with increasing frequency as game film has become readily available and every Tom, Dick, and Harry fancies himself a film analyst.

One of the principal issues with film analysis, or any type of analysis where you choose a handful of examples to evaluate a large body of work is something called the "Availability Heuristic" or "Availability Bias."

An availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to mind. When you are trying to make a decision, a number of related events or situations might immediately spring to the forefront of your thoughts.

As a result, you might judge that those events are more frequent and possible than others. You give greater credence to this information and tend to overestimate the probability and likelihood of similar things happening in the future.

Here's how that works for football: Try to visualize what you remember about Doug Free's performance last year. If you're like me and probably 99% of all football fans, chances are the only thing you can visualize about Doug Free is an image of how he's helping up Tony Romo after somebody ran by Free for a sack on Romo (and there's a good chance that image is from from 2013, and not 2014).

Per Stats Inc., Free allowed three sacks last year. Pro Football Focus also has Free with three sacks last year, but adds that Free allowed those three sacks on 366 pass blocking plays. Three snaps out of 366 snaps is a little less than 1%. Effectively, for most football fans and for an increasing number of "analysts", the mental image of Doug Free as a pass protector is based on less than 1% of his total body of work.

The same thing applies when people talk about the "eye-test", the underlying mechanism is nothing more than the availability heuristic: you're basing your evaluation of a performance on a handful of plays you remember and inevitably assigning greater weight to those plays than is warranted. And if you allow your personal biases to drive the selection of that handful of examples, you're just a guy posting crazy junk on the internet.

Which is why today, instead of hand-picking a few plays, we'll take a look at the overall performance of the Cowboys' O-line, and we'll look specifically at how they performed against "splash plays."

The basic idea behind pass protection is to keep the opposing defenses from making what NFL scouts call splash plays - plays that can turn games around - like sacks, QB hits, and QB hurries. The fewer splash plays an offensive lineman allows, the better.

But before we start simply adding up the number of splash plays allowed, it's important to understand that there are significant differences in the amount of pass blocking snaps each team played last year. The Cowboys for example had the lowest number of pass blocking snaps with 518, while the Colts led the league with 726. That's something that needs to be taken into account when evaluating the pass blocking performance.

PFF shows that the Cowboys O-line allowed nine sacks, 17 QB hits, and 81 QB hurries in the 2014 regular season (Note that the PFF numbers can differ from the official totals because PFF only lists splash plays that are directly attributable to an O-line player). Simply adding up those numbers without weighting them results in 107 snaps where the O-line allowed some type of "pressure" and the defense made some kind of splash play. Divide the 518 pass blocking snaps by the 107 splash play snaps, and you'll see that the Cowboys O-line gave up a splash play every 4.8 snaps.

Here is how that compares to the rest of the league. For your convenience, the table is sortable (just click on the blue column headers).

Splash plays allowed by O-line, 2014
Rank Team Passing Plays Sacks QB Hits Hurries Total Splash Plays Frequency of splash plays
1 DEN 626 12 25 74 111 5.6
2 GB 595 18 18 76 112 5.3
3 CIN 546 12 22 71 104 5.3
4 BLT 583 13 21 83 117 5.0
5 DAL 518 9 17 81 107 4.8
6 CLV 550 17 23 75 115 4.8
7 PIT 651 22 18 106 146 4.5
8 JAX 649 31 23 95 149 4.4
9 PHI 672 15 31 115 161 4.2
10 OAK 668 17 20 125 162 4.1
11 NYG 644 19 27 111 157 4.1
12 WAS 629 29 26 100 155 4.1
13 HST 548 8 27 107 142 3.9
14 DET 664 27 25 121 173 3.8
14 CHI 671 20 28 127 175 3.8
16 NYJ 588 10 30 116 156 3.8
17 BUF 632 24 36 108 168 3.8
18 SF 586 25 12 122 159 3.7
19 ARZ 611 14 42 112 168 3.6
20 NE 647 19 52 108 179 3.6
21 IND 726 18 61 126 205 3.5
22 NO 702 16 38 146 200 3.5
23 SEA 548 14 20 124 158 3.5
24 CAR 623 29 18 134 180 3.5
25 KC 578 27 30 110 167 3.5
26 ATL 687 21 38 141 200 3.4
27 TB 608 27 41 118 186 3.3
28 SL 570 25 30 121 176 3.2
29 SD 630 27 28 142 197 3.2
30 TEN 594 34 25 131 190 3.1
31 MIA 649 31 46 133 210 3.1
32 MIN 608 36 32 130 198 3.1

What these numbers show is that the Cowboys O-line was a top five unit in terms of splash plays allowed. What these numbers don't show is the quality of splash plays allowed. You can't tell from these numbers whether a sack was a coverage sack or whether it was a sack where the lineman was beaten like a rented mule. And the numbers also don't account for the amount of times that Tony Romo spun his way out of a sack, just as they don't show the number of times that Romo had seven or more seconds to complete a pass.

On average, NFL O-lines allowed some type of splash play every 3.8 snaps last year. Pressure in the form of sacks, hits, or hurries is a reality for every single NFL QB. If your expectation of an O-line is perfection, you're going to be disappointed on almost every drive. The Cowboys O-line is far from perfect, and is far from being called the next Great Wall of Dallas. But relative to their NFL peers, they are one of the best units in the game.

And it's not unrealistic to think that the 2015 version of the O-line could be even better than the 2014 version. So much so that Tony Romo expects to play longer than he may have originally thought.

"When you have a good offensive line like we do the thought definitely crosses your mind to ensure you do everything possible to play longer than maybe what you had envisioned," Romo said. "We’ll reassess that in a few years. My wife will tell you, I’m talking a little more long term than I maybe had been. So we’ll see."

"I just think the way Jason and Stephen and Jerry have built this team over the last three or four years has been from the inside out and you’re seeing the benefits of that," Romo said. "We’re still going. This wasn’t a one-year, two — we’re building this for the next five, six, seven years to sustain and any time you get an opportunity to get a guy like Collins you should take advantage of that."

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