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The Cowboys Don’t Use Play Action Much - We Try To Figure Out Why

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Our staff offers some thoughts on why Dallas uses a standard of the passing game so sparingly.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at St. Louis Rams Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

One of the best things about being a part of the writing team here at Blogging The Boys is that we sometimes kick around ideas among ourselves. A lot of our discussions never really see the light of day, but sometimes thoughts come up that just seem too interesting to not share with the rest of you. One Cool Customer kicked off one of those with an interesting question.

The numbers suggest the Cowboys don't use play-action a lot.

Per Football Outsiders:

2011: 14% play action, ranked 30th

2012: 11% play action, ranked 32nd

2013: 13% play action, ranked 30th

2014: 17% play action, ranked 28th

2015: 15% play action, ranked 30th

Going by these numbers, it looks like the Cowboys have taken a distinct dislike to play action, regardless of whether they had a good or bad ground game.

Any explanations why?

Danny Phantom came up with a thought that the team may have wanted to move that way until circumstances intervened.

I think they were heading in the right direction when Linehan came aboard, but losing Romo lessened the threat in 2015.

But Joey Ickes thought that was not really something that was evident.

The difference between 2014 & 2015 is honestly almost negligible...

17% of their 475 or so pass attempts in 2014 is about 81 attempts...

15% of their 525 or so attempts in 2015 is like 79 attempts...

The % came down because of situation (behind in the score, etc) but they called almost the same number of PA passes in ‘15 as ‘14.

Joey proposed that it had more to do with the quarterback.

They like Tony Romo facing the LOS (line of scrimmage) when they're gonna throw.

The pick some spots for PA based on matchup etc. but even in 2014 they were 28th in the league...

They don't use PA to open up short or intermediate Windows like a lot of teams do, they use it to take shots which is the reason for the high YPA w/ PA...

One of the times that most teams will use Play Action is on 2nd & less than 5... That's Dallas' favorite time to go empty and let 9 work.

That is a thought that factors in the demonstrated ability Romo has of dissecting a defense and figuring out how to defeat it. In play-action, the quarterback has to fake a handoff to the running back, which means he is facing away from the line of scrimmage. This takes his eyes off the defense, hampering the ability to read the coverage as it develops to find holes to exploit. It limits Romo in something he is very, very good at. The staff would almost certainly believe that the chances of success go up with Romo scanning downfield to see which of his receivers are coming open.

Jim Scott added one other consideration that may well have a large impact on the thinking in Dallas.

. . . the Cowboys don't feel they need to create the space with play action. The negatives of play-action all basically amount to increased risk of sacks. As Romo ages that negative becomes more and more pronounced.

Even with the sometimes uncanny ability Romo has to sense and escape pressure, turning away from the line of scrimmage still has to have a similar effect on his ability to see the rush coming as it does on reading the coverage.

Does this offer the Cowboys a better chance of success than the very effective tactic of using play action? It is a question that is not unique to us, as OCC pointed out in providing this link to an article from 2013, by Bob Sturm.

Play-action passing has been around for decades in the NFL, and it is maybe the most useful and effective form of deception in pro football history. It is crazy how much effective it truly is, because the only thing that it generally requires is the fake handoff before running the same passing plays you normally run. It is run better with things added to it like pulling offensive linemen and all involved really selling it hard - including the QB hiding the ball with his body - but like cats to a ball of yarn, the linebackers and safeties cannot ignore a run fake. They almost always respond by taking a step or two forward. And when they do, they open up huge spaces right behind them for easier passing lanes.

People have argued for years that play-action only works when a team can run the ball well, but I have not seen proof of that. What I have seen is that defensive coaching staffs will dedicate fewer players "in the box" to stop the run, but those who are there still respond to run fakes by filling the holes. The idea that they just stand there with their arms crossed is not correct when you look at film.

It is Passing 101, and for reasons I cannot possibly understand, the Dallas Cowboys appear to despise play-action passing. Why? I am not sure.

Sturm is one of the smartest reporters covering the Cowboys, and I don’t want to claim the BTB staff is any better than him, but there are some very valid points raised by my fellow writers. And one other thing has to be considered. The Cowboys offense is very Romo-centric. It is designed around him, as evidenced by how things came off the rails when he was injured last year. The reluctance to use more play-action may very well be driven, at least in part, by his input. He may feel very uncomfortable faking the handoff with his back turned. Clearly, the staff is going to listen to him. His resume as the starter demands it.

It is also obvious that Dallas does not totally avoid play-action. They just are more selective in its use than almost any other team. As Joey observed, when they want to pass, they value having more receivers with 11 or 01 personnel on the field, and will go with an empty backfield to get those receivers in place to run their routes, rather than tying up the running back on a fake. They apparently don’t feel the deception involved in play action gains them enough to use it more than they do. And Danny found some evidence that the Cowboys may be trading frequency for increased effectiveness when they do elect to throw play-action at the defense, as shown in this stat from 2014 (via ESPN).

"Tony Romo still ranks 23rd in the NFL with only 75 play-action passes in attempts, but the production has been impressive starting with his league-leading 10.7 yards per attempt. Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is second with 10.3 yards per attempt on play-action passes."

Based on the trends and our speculation, it is unlikely that there is going to be any significant change in the percentage of passing plays off of play-action for the Cowboys. They will still be a factor in games, just more limited than you will see with most other teams. But when they do go to it, the results are usually very good. Maybe this is a case of less being more.

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