The Cowboys Offense, Drive By Drive - In Chart Form

So, this year's version of the Dallas Cowboys is an offensive juggernaut. This is not up for debate. They currently rank 4th overall in yards per game, 3rd in points scored and 2nd in turnovers committed. In a future post I plan to explore whether this is THE BEST Cowboys offense ever, but for today I just wanted to break this historical offense down by each individual drive.

I basically broke every drive down by result:

  • Touchdown
  • Field Goal
  • Missed Field Goal
  • Punt
  • Turnover
  • End of game

Note: end of game is a drive that finished a game and....had the drive ended sooner might have resulted in a loss. Or....the drive lasted of such duration that excluding it simply didn't make sense. So....a 2 play kneeldown at the end of a 10-point win is excluded, a 13-play drive at the end of a 14-point win is included, and any game-ending drive with the Cowboys leading by 8 points or less is included. I'll also note I coded the game-ending, unsuccessful drive against the Giants as a turnover for our purposes here.

In the image above, missed field goals (all two of them) are lumped in with punts. But I like this visual as it captures the season-long offensive performance pretty well. If you knew absolutely nothing about the Cowboys, from this image alone you could quickly figure out:

  • This team scores a lot of points. Since game 2 at least 3 TDs scored every game and at least 5 scoring drives every game but one (the Cincy game when the team led 28-0 at one point).
  • This team doesn't turn the ball over much in general and almost never in recent games.

The above is interesting, but also pretty self-evident. I was more interested in number of plays per drive. My favorite characteristic of this version of the Cowboys in their ability to impose their will on defensive opponents by grinding out long, clock-consuming drives. The following shows the cumulative percentage of all drives this season by number of plays:

The huge jump at 3 plays surprised me. I had no idea that one out of every four Cowboy's drives end after 3 plays. And considering how good the Dallas offense is, I imagine if I were to look at other teams the number of 3-and-outs would be even higher.

It's also interesting that drives of 6 plays or less make up only 49% of Cowboy's drives...which means that fully 51% of the team's drives are seven plays or longer. We'll see in a bit why this is important..

But that's just number of plays, I'm more interested in the outcomes of each of those drives:

Again...all those 3-and-outs! So many drives end in 3 plays (25) that all the other bars look tiny in comparison. Eightteen of the team's 31 punts this year have occurred after a 3-and-out. The above chart diminishes what's actually occurring, so I created the same chart showing the percent of results for each number of plays:

Here you're able to see what's really going on and some clear trends emerge. Such as:

  • Overall the Cowboys score on 56% of all drives with TDs on 35% of all drives. Again, I've never run these numbers for any other team or for the league overall, but I'm gonna guess these numbers rank very high. Assuming an average of 10 drives per game that translates to 3 TD and 2 FGs per game, which equals 27 points....which happens to be very close to the team's average of 28.7 pts per game.
  • Turnovers occur early in drives. Five of the team's 7 TOs have occurred on the 2nd or 3rd play of the drive.
  • The longer a drive continues.....the more likely the result is a score (this seems obvious but it's good to see the data support the intuition).
  • The longer a drive continues....the more likely the result is a FG and not a TD. That runs completely counter to expectations. And yet, when the Cowboys execute a 10 play drive, the result is a TD 70% of the time; each additional play after that, however, the likelihood of a TD actually decreases.
  • In fact, of the teams 7 drives of 13 plays or longer, only 1 has ended in a TD, 5 have ended in a FG and one in a turnover. This doesn't really make sense to me...and I believe it's largely a small sample size that given time would make more sense. But it's still interesting.
  • Seven is the magic number. When the Cowboys reach 7 plays in a drive the likelihood of a score (TD or FG) jumps to 87%; the likelihood of a TD jumps to 54%.
  • Below 7 plays the Cowboys score only 33% of the time, with TDs on 22% of such drives.

  • The Cowboys are effective at ending games by simply keeping the ball. Four times they've converted first downs with a single score lead and a fifth time they held the ball for for 13 plays and then took a knee to end the game.

Looking at every # of plays can be kind of overwhelming so I also grouped drives by number of plays. This makes some of the trends mentioned above easier to see:

Here you can easily see:

  • The team has had more 10-play drives than drives of 1-3 plays, 4-6 plays or 7-9 plays.
  • 29 of the team's 37 TDs have come on drives of 7+ plays.
  • 29 of the team's 31 punts have come on drives of 6 plays or less.
  • 14 of the team's 18 FGs have come on drives of 10+ plays.
  • The team is almost as likely to end the game with a clock-consuming drive (5) as they are to commit a turnover (7).

Here's how it breaks down from a percentage standpoint:

  • The rate of "success" (scores or ending games) is much, much higher for drives of 7+ plays than those of 6 or fewer.
  • Drives of 3 plays or less end in a punt (62%) or turnover (17%) 79% of the time.
  • Note that drives with 10+ plays have the highest rate of scores (94%).
  • But drives with 7-9 plays have the highest rate of TDs (63%).
  • I'm still scratching my head that as many 10+ play drives end in FGs as they do in TDs.

I also looked at points per drive and combined that number with # of drives by play count:

This result reflects, again, the fact that once drives top 10 plays, the scoring efficiency actually declines as these drives result in FGs as often as TDs. You can also see how 7 plays is the magic threshold where the offense switches from meh to almost sure points. I'm not certain, but I'm pretty sure the Cowboy's average of 3.3 points per drive is best in the league.

Here's the same chart, but this time showing "success rate" (which, again, includes TDs, FGs, and end-of-game drives):

This perfectly illustrates how 7 plays is the magic threshold where the offense switches from struggling to almost sure points.

Finally, I'm going to show how a seemingly good idea doesn't always translate to good results. The following shows my original idea for depicting all of the Cowboys offensive drives in a single chart. The image is too big for a single chart so I broke it up into two. Some notes:

  • The left side of each horizontal bar shows where the drive began.
  • The right side shows where it ended.
  • TDs are dark blue
  • FGs are green
  • Punts / missed FGs are yellow
  • Turnovers are red
  • End of game drives are orange
  • And black lines indicate a drive that yielded negative yards.

Very hard to read, so click here and here for full-size versions. It's just hard to make sense of the visual, though you can get a real sense of how the offense performed in each game:

  • The NYG-1 was lost due to not converting scoring opportunities into TDs as well as the final three possessions yielding 0 points.
  • The Wash-1 game featured five long scoring drives.
  • The first four drives against Chicago were dominant. However, the final six yielded only one score.
  • The beginning of the 49'ers game was a struggle but once the team settled they compiled three long TDs in four drives and were "successful" on 5 of 7 drives.
  • Cincinnati featured total domination through five drives but ended pretty sloppily.
  • Green Bay saw two turnovers, but also six scoring drives and a successful game-ending drive.
  • Philly-1 saw the most struggles, with five of the season-high 12 drives ending in punts or turnover. There were however five scoring drives of 70+ yards.
  • Outside of the second drive of the game, Dallas demonstrated textbook execution against Cleveland; five scoring drives of 65+ yards and a 13-play game-ender.
  • Seven scoring drives against Pittsburgh, including three TDs in the last four drives...all of which were needed.
  • The team struggled heartily against Baltimore starting with four consecutive punts. Their final five drives, however, all resulted in scores including four of 75+ yards.
  • The team had six "successful" drives against Wash-2 including 4 TDs and an end-of-game drive.

So, hope you enjoyed it. Not everything worked as I envisioned but I still found the results to be revealing.

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