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The Evolution Of Third Down: The Secret To Cowboys Success

In 2014 the Dallas Cowboys surprised many teams en route to a league leading 12 wins. Much has been written about a powerful run game keeping the no-name Dallas defense off the field, but little attention has been given to the biggest key in the Cowboys' ball control: their incredible boost in third down success.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys were coming off of three seasons of 8-8. They had released some of their best defensive players after a horrid performance. Conventional wisdom was that they would have to get worse before they could get better.

Conventional wisdom, however, forgot about ball control.

Much has been attributed to DeMarco Murray and, surprisingly, somewhat less to the offensive line. But the results are very clear. Dallas' incredible performance on third down last year jumps forward as a defining difference between 12-4 and 8-8. The statistics speak clearly:

Year Avg To Go Conversion % TD % TO %
2011 7.9 39.9 8.0 5.5
2012 7.6 42.4 2.8 5.6
2013 7.8 33.8 5.2 3.9
2014 7.4 48.0 7.9 3.9

2014 was far and away Dallas's best third down performance under Jason Garrett. They matched their lowest turnover rate, highest TD rate, and exceeded their previous best conversion rate by over 13%. That's a massive turnaround. While many point to their lowest "average yards to go" as a reason for this, there does appear to be more to it than that.  In 2012, they were close to the same average yardage to go, and were still less successful, while at the same time being less than half as likely to score and nearly twice as likely to turn the ball over.

Let's look at third down targets year by year and see if we can identify the process that led Dallas to this success.

2011

Player Targets Yds/Target Catch Rate TD Rate INT Rate
Dez Bryant 34 9.7 64.7 14.7 2.9
Jason Witten 30 9.4 70.0 6.7 0.0
Miles Austin 27 8.5 48.1 7.4 0.0
Laurent Robinson 21 6.6 42.9 19.0 4.7
Kevin Ogletree 12 2.9 41.7 0.0 16.7

Surprisingly, Dez Bryant was already becoming Tony Romo's go-to guy as early as 2011. The crazy success he and Jason Witten enjoyed, averaging over nine yards per target on third down with several touchdowns and few interceptions between them would seem to point to a tremendous year for the Cowboys. But when you get past the top two targets, the performance falls off a cliff. No other top five target even got to a 50% catch rate.  It's okay to have a receiver or two with a low catch rate, especially if they score touchdowns like Laurent Robinson did that year, but not having any reliable receivers beyond your top two makes the entire team less effective. Add in the three interceptions in 33 attempts to Kevin Ogletree and Laurent Robinson and we quickly see why 2011 was a poor year despite the high touchdown rate and superior performance of Witten and Bryant.

2012

Player Targets Yds/Target Catch Rate TD Rate INT Rate
Dez Bryant 42 7.1 42.6 4.7 2.4
Jason Witten 32 6.8 71.9 3.1 0.0
Miles Austin 28 9.0 60.7 0.0 3.5
Kevin Ogletree 21 8.0 57.1 4.7 14.2
Dwayne Harris 9 8.2 55.6 0.0 11.1

Such an odd year, 2012 clearly shows the effects of Bryant's growing pains and the weakened offensive line. Most notable was that Witten, despite catching the ball more often, had a 28% drop in yards per target, indicating that he was being used as a safety valve by a hurried Romo. Witten's career-low 9.4 yards per catch corroborates this data. This may also account for Dez Bryant's drastic drop in effectiveness, as Romo attempted to get the ball his way quite a bit, but was largely unsuccessful. While pressure surely contributed a good bit, there was also a significant disconnect between Romo and Bryant, particularly early in the year. The loss of Laurent Robinson clearly impacted the bottom line and explains why the touchdown rate was so low this season, but the shorter average yards to go seems to have been a boons for players like Miles Austin and Kevin Ogletree, whose catch rates both increased significantly.  A new name enters the list as Dwayne Harris had some impact here. But Harris and Ogletee accounted for four interceptions in 30 targets for a horrific 13.3% combined interception rate, and we can see that Dallas clearly struggled all around this year despite the shorter distances they had on average.

2013

Player Targets Yds/Target Catch Rate TD Rate INT Rate
Dez Bryant 34 6.1 47.1 14.7 0.0
Jason Witten 31 5.3 54.8 6.5 0.0
Terrance Williams 23 8.5 52.2 0.0 8.7
Cole Beasley 18 8.1 77.8 5.5 0.0
Miles Austin 14 1.9 21.4 0.0 0.0

Several things happened in 2013. Two new players entered the equation in Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley. Also, the line received a significant upgrade and anchor in Travis Frederick and his beard. There were some quick dividends, as turnovers immediately dropped and touchdowns became fairly common again. The high yardage-to-go and the rawness of some of the newer players may have held the team back just a bit and exposed an injury-weakened defense more than it needed to be. Dez Bryant continued to get the lion's share of the targets and continued to struggle a bit, but was back to making defenses pay as he scored at a tremendous rate. Rookie Williams and second-year player Beasley gave the team some much needed down the line options, each effective in their own way.  Willaims, however, showed a bit of inexperience in being the only top target to allow interceptions on third down. Miles Austin's presence on this list despite his injury-stunted stats and season shows that there was still a missing piece here. Most notably, however, Jason Witten was uncharacteristically awful on third down, with a rancid 5.3 yards per target.  To put that in perspective, the much-maligned Kevin Ogletree, above, combined those two seasons for 6.2 yards per target on third down.  One could be excused for thinking the Senator really should step down at this point, but what about that missing piece? Could the day be saved?

2014

Player Targets Yds/Target Catch Rate TD Rate INT Rate
Jason Witten 37 6.7 70.3 5.4 2.7
Dez Bryant 33 8.2 54.5 9.1 3.0
Terrance Williams 18 9.7 38.9 11.1 5.5
Cole Beasley 17 9.6 76.5 11.7 0.0
Demarco Murray 10 7.9 80.0 0.0 0.0

Amazingly, for the first time since the return of Romo in 2011, Jason Witten took center stage on third down last year. He returned to being a high percentage target and continued to be a scoring threat, with his overall yards per target rising significantly despite the increased usage. Take away a Brandon Weeden interception and Witten was a near perfect third down target. Bryant and Williams became fairly low percentage, but high-reward threats and saw a lot more downfield play as both of them had significant yards per target stats, despite relatively low catch rates. Beasley continued to be money, while adding a significant scoring threat. For the first time since the departure of Laurent Robinson, the Cowboys had four separate receivers who were legitimate scoring threats on third down. And, once more, the Cowboys added a new name to the top third down receivers list: DeMarco Murray. Was Murray the missing piece to suddenly emerge and make the Cowboys a top--notch third down offense?

I think the answer is "yes and no". It's certainly significant that Dallas developed an effective, high yard per target player out of the backfield. Running backs are notably absent from the rest of the list.  But Murray was on the team for all of the years in question. Did he suddenly develop into a third down player? Or did the addition of Zack Martin and Ron Leary as starters on a developing offensive line provide enough protection that Murray was able to get out into the pattern more often on third down? Or did the higher number of targets give Romo more ability to take the best options? Or did Romo settle down and begin to choose his downfield shots more carefully?

Like most things, the answer is probably "all of the above" in some combination. But I think there's a lot of evidence that it was much more than Murray's presence.

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