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Why Second Down Is The Money Down For The Dallas Cowboys

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The Cowboys lead the NFL in third-down conversions, but what happens on second down may be even more important for the success of the 2016 offense.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

In 2014, the Cowboys were one of the most successful offenses at converting third downs, recording a blistering 47.3% third-down conversion percentage, the second-best value in the league. An equally important stat that year, but one that is almost never referenced anywhere, was the second-down conversion rate. In 2014, the Cowboys had a 36.7% conversion rate on second downs, also the second-best value in the league.

This year, the Cowboys offense is out-doing the 2014 offense. They lead the NFL with a staggering 50% conversion rate on third downs, and also lead the NFL with a second down conversion rate of 42.2%.

Importantly, converting on second down allows teams to avoid third downs altogether, and for the 2014 Cowboys, this was a critical component to their high-flying offense: the 2014 team achieved 127 first downs from second down situations, but only 95 from third down situations. Here's how those numbers compare on a per-game basis with the 2016 offense:

Cowboys conversion rates, 2014 vs 2016
Conversions per game
2014 2016 Difference
1st down 5.9 6.2 +0.3
2nd down
7.9 9.8 +1.9
3rd down 5.9 6.2 +0.3

Keeping drives alive hinges on achieving that next first down, be it on first, second, or third down, and while the 2016 Cowboys are marginally better than the 2014 Cowboys on first and third, they are clearly outpacing them with their second-down play.

Nowhere was this more evident than on the first three drives against the Bengals last week, all of which resulted in touchdowns, and may have been the most impressive offensive performance we've seen from the Cowboys in years.

Three drives, 13:17 minutes off the clock, 26 plays - and only three third downs. That's right, the Cowboys faced just three third downs, in large part because they converted seven of their 10 second downs. Here are the three drives in all their glory:

Down & Distance Drive # 1, Play Detail
1-10-DAL 36 (14:52) E.Elliott left guard to DAL 39 for 3 yards.
2-7-DAL 39 (14:20) L.Whitehead left end to DAL 48 for 9 yards.
1-10-DAL 48 (13:40) D.Prescott scrambles right end ran ob at CIN 50 for 2 yards.
2-8-CIN 50 (13:08) D.Prescott pass short left to T.Williams to CIN 39 for 11 yards.
1-10-CIN 39 (12:29) E.Elliott left end to CIN 22 for 17 yards.
1-10-CIN 22 (11:49) E.Elliott left tackle to CIN 13 for 9 yards.
2-1-CIN 13 (11:15) E.Elliott up the middle for 13 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Down & Distance Drive # 2, Play Detail
1-15-DAL 6 (5:56) D.Prescott pass short left to E.Elliott to DAL 16 for 10 yards.
2-5-DAL 16 (5:24) E.Elliott left guard to DAL 17 for 1 yard.
3-4-DAL 17 (4:40) D.Prescott pass deep right to T.Williams to DAL 34 for 17 yards.
1-10-DAL 34 (3:57) E.Elliott right guard to DAL 41 for 7 yards.
2-3-DAL 41 P6 (3:17) D.Prescott pass short right to B.Butler to CIN 46 for 13 yards.
1-10-CIN 46 (2:43) E.Elliott left end ran ob at CIN 31 for 15 yards.
1-10-CIN 31 (2:06) A.Morris right tackle to CIN 25 for 6 yards.
2-4-CIN 25 (1:24) D.Prescott pass deep middle to T.Williams to CIN 4 for 21 yards.
1-9-CIN 9 (:32) D.Prescott to CIN 11 for -2 yards. FUMBLES, and recovers at CIN 11.
2-10-CIN 10 (15:00) D.Prescott pass incomplete short left to B.Butler.
3-10-CIN 10 (14:49) D.Prescott pass incomplete short middle to J.Witten. PENALTY on CIN - NO PLAY
1-5-CIN 5 (14:47) D.Prescott right tackle for 5 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Down & Distance Drive # 3, Play Detail
1-10-DAL 20 (7:47) D.Prescott pass incomplete short right to G.Swaim.
2-10-DAL 20 (7:41) A.Morris right tackle to DAL 37 for 17 yards.
1-10-DAL 37 (6:58) A.Morris left tackle to DAL 45 for 8 yards.
2-2-DAL 45 (6:21) A.Morris left tackle to DAL 48 for 3 yards.
1-10-DAL 48 (5:42) D.Prescott pass incomplete short right to A.Morris.
2-10-DAL 48 (5:36) D.Prescott pass short left to B.Butler ran ob at CIN 45 for 7 yards.
3-3-CIN 45 (5:04) D.Prescott pass deep middle to J.Witten to CIN 14 for 31 yards.
1-10-CIN 14 (4:17) D.Prescott pass short right to C.Beasley for 14 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

The green rows above show the second downs the Cowboys converted, the yellow rows show the three second downs they didn't convert, and which resulted in third downs. All three third downs were converted, even if one was converted by penalty.

The Cowboys offense would not be quite as efficient the rest of the game. Where they were 7-for-10 on second down on their first three drives, they were 4-for-13 on second down the rest of the game, and 1-for-5 on third down.

It used to be that penalties, sacks, and long third downs were drive killers for the Cowboys. The 2016 Cowboys are showing remarkable mental resilience when faced with such drive killers, and their 50% conversion rate on third down confirms that. But even better than converting third downs at a high rate is avoiding them altogether.

Third down is often called the money down in football, because what happens on third down usually determines whether the offense gets a new series of downs. But for the 2016 Cowboys the second down is the money down.