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Looking at the Cowboys’ offensive success rate trends

Diving deep into the Cowboys “success” metric trends.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Previously we wrote about how the Cowboys’ have been the best team in the NFL in terms of offensive “success” on a play-by-play basis. Dallas ranks first is this “success” metric on second-down plays, third-down plays and all plays overall:

What this tells us is the Cowboys offense is consistently making plays and moving the ball. Commentators rightly pointed out this doesn’t necessarily mean the overall offense is successful; if you move the ball but don’t convert those yards to points it’s all for naught.

It does tell us the Cowboys have the ingredients for a very tasty offense that can rack up big numbers simply by avoiding those pesky mistakes: penalties and turnovers.

For the uninitiated, “success rate” in the NFL is defined as:

  • 1st down: gaining 40% of yards needed for a first down
  • 2nd down: gaining 60% of yards needed for a first down
  • 3rd down: converting a first down

Today we’re going to look at the team’s offensive success results by game. This will show us both how the team is trending as well as explain some of the team’s results thus far this season.

Before we get to the good stuff, though, I want to give full credit to Warren Sharp and his Sharp Football Stats website; it’s a treasure-trove of information and eye-popping visuals. Without his website none of this would be possible.

Overall game-by-game success rate

The red line shows the league average. The overall chart (far right) shows us the Cowboys have been fairly steady throughout the season. They’re generally succeeding on 53% to 63% of all plays; the league average is 47% so we see Dallas varies from “better than average” to “outstanding”.

The lone dark spot, of course, is the New Orleans game. The Cowboys succeeded only 42% of plays that game, which would be “below average”.

The running game has had two sub-par games: opening week against the Giants and the Saints game. They’ve also had three really good games, with success rates above 65% (Washington, Miami and Green Bay).

The passing game, by contrast, has been above average six of seven games. The last three games analyzed (numbers for the most recent contest against the Giants were not available at time of writing) have all fallen between 53% and 59%.

It’s not surprising Dallas managed only ten points in their loss to the Saints when you consider they had (by far) their least “successful” game and also committed two turnovers. Dallas moved the ball in their losses to Green Bay and the Jets (both with success rates over 53%); but turnovers and missed field goals negated those efforts.

A couple more thoughts and things to keep in mind:

  • A flaw with the “success rate” metric is it doesn’t differentiate between barely reaching the success threshold and vastly exceeding it. So, if it’s 3rd-and-4 at your own 20-yard line, a successful, four-yard run gets the same credit as an 80-yard touchdown reception.
  • Similarly, the metric doesn’t distinguish between an unsuccessful play and a disastrous play. So, if it’s 1st-and-10 on your own five-yard line, it looks at a two-yard run the same as a sack-fumble-defensive score.
  • The metric also doesn’t take volume into account. There’s generally only around 60 offensive plays per team in an NFL game. Thus, we’re dealing with fairly small sample sizes.

Here’s the volume numbers and conversion rates:

First down results

This is somewhat telling. Overall, the results are fine; six out of seven games Dallas has been above average on first down. But we see a wide gap between run and pass success rates. Only once has first down passing plays resulted in below average results (New Orleans, again). Four times first down passing plays have succeeded 62% or higher. Those are outstanding results.

First down runs, on the other hand, have been below average four times in seven games. In fact, each of those four instances had success rates of only 42% or lower. Those are poor results.

Which raises the question why Dallas continues to run on first down at a significantly higher than league average rate:

Looking at the share of first down runs by game - and the success rate of those first downs - is interesting:

The rate at which the Cowboys are running on first down is driven not so much by their success (or lack thereof) on first down; it’s driven more by “score effects”. Most of the games where Dallas is running at 60% or more on first down are games where they’re playing with a lead most of the game.

Against Green Bay and New Orleans, by contrast, Dallas was either behind or in a close game. As a result they passed significantly more often on first down. That’s pretty simple stuff.

The real head-scratcher is the 59% run rate against the Jets. Dallas trailed by late in the first quarter and trailed by as many as 18 points. So it’s hard to understand why the brain-trust continued to hand the ball off on first down. It will be interesting to see how rigidly they stick to the “run first” mantra moving forward, especially in road games.

Second down results:

We noted earlier that Dallas ranks first in second down success rate. That’s clearly illustrated here. Specifically, the run game has had some truly dominating performances, with success rates at or near 90% in two games. Only the opening week saw the run game struggle on second down. Even against New Orleans, the team ran the ball well on second down.

The passing game has been slightly less successful overall. Three times (New Orleans, NYJ and Philadelphia) the passing game had below average results on second down. We also see the trend going down over time; after opening with three very good results only once since (Green Bay) has the passing game been above average on second down.

Third down results:

As I stated yesterday, third down is when games are won and lost. If you can succeed on third down you’ll move the ball and (generally) score points; if you fail on third down you’ll have a hard time moving the ball or scoring points.

The Cowboys have been spectacular running the ball on third down, with an overall success rate of 67% (second in the NFL, behind the Kansas City Chiefs). Three consecutive games they were successful on every third down run. Now, part of this is due to the fact this is a very small sample; Dallas has only 24 third down runs on the season. Still, if you’re going to hand the ball off on the down that determines whether you extend the drive, kick or face a high-leverage fourth down you better do so with confidence. The Cowboys’ success on these run plays shows they have that confidence.

Here are the third run results by opponent (note, includes the second NYG game):

The key numbers to me are the average yards to go and the average yards gained. The numbers are skewed somewhat by one 3rd-and-21 situation. But what it shows is in 3rd-and-1, 3rd-and-2, 3rd-and-3 the Cowboys are comfortable running the ball and are doing so with success. That may not seem all that impressive, but consider the alternative.

Here are the results by runner:

Third down running plays you might remember:

Again, converting third downs is a key metric for NFL success. The Cowboys confidence and ability to run the ball on these plays makes them more dangerous to defend. The third down passing, however, is a different story.

They’ve had some good games (Giants, Jets, Eagles) but that four game period in between...yikes! The bottom came against the Packers when Dallas didn’t convert a single third down pass into a first down (0-for-5). The team is still above average on the season (46% versus the league average of 39%) but some consistency would be nice. They’ve done better lately and they have the weapons they need to succeed. But if Dallas wishes to continue to “succeed” they’ll need to be more consistent throwing the ball on these key third down plays.

Next week we’ll look at how “successful” the Dallas defense has been in 2019. I’ll end with some “addendum” visuals for those who just like data. First the Cowboys success rate by play type and overall:

Second, the raw numbers for the by-down information. This is useful for seeing the volume numbers:

And finally, since I think it’s important, all the third down running plays: