Over the weekend I finally got some time to dive in to Warren Sharp’s 2019 Football Preview. It’s a must-have in my opinion and sheds some light on a ton of interesting things across the National Football League as we get closer to the season’s beginning.
Sharp is one of the brighter, and more analytically-driven, minds in football media these days, he’s so heavily focused on data and in the business of football teams handling things as efficiently and intelligently as possible. Who isn’t (looking at you, Dan Snyder)?
Sharp dropped an astounding statistic on Sunday evening, one that shows just how much the NFL game is changing right before our very eyes. Consider how many running backs carried the ball over 15 times in over 10 games last season. It’s wild.
I’ll give you some time while I write more words to think about who the one runner could have possibly been during the 2018 season. There are a lot of talented ball-carriers, but so many of them are making their hay with the way they’re used in the pass game, which means they’re carrying it less and catching it more. Give up?
Of course it’s Ezekiel Elliott.
Zeke carried the ball over 15 times in 13 games last season. 13! 13! That’s almost all of them! That’s incredible when you truly think about it.
It’s no secret that the Cowboys are a team that wants to run the ball, establish the run if you will, at will. They have a big-time offensive line and perhaps the best running back in the league. It makes sense that they would want to run a lot. It also makes sense to do things a little bit different and take note of important trends.
The Cowboys hurt themselves by how they ran the ball in 2018
One thing that Sharp notes in his 2019 Preview is that the Cowboys managed to win nine games last season that were decided by a single score. Talk about walking a thin line.
He also notes that the Cowboys brought these bottleneck situations upon themselves, particularly with how they handled the third quarter. It will come to no surprise to anyone that watches this team to learn just how starkly they adjusted their style in a negative fashion when the second half began.
On first downs in first halves, last year’s Cowboys passed at a 48% clip and recorded a 56% Success Rate with 8.0 yards per attempt. Yet in the third quarter, Jason Garrett’s club passed on just 41% of first-down plays, averaging 6.2 YPA. As the Cowboy shifted to nearly 60% first-down runs out of halftime, their first-down rushing Success Rate plummeted from 47% in the first half to 39% in the third quarter.
The Cowboys caused this. Dallas chose to simply ignore what made the offense successful in the first halves of games, instead playing conservatively and tentatively on first downs in the third quarter. Ignoring one broken play, the Cowboys’ average depth of target on first downs was two full yards shorter in the third quarter than in the first half. On first-half first downs, Dak Prescott threw 19 attempts at 12-plus Air Yards. On second-half first downs, Dak threw just one pass of 12-plus Air Yards all year.
This is among the biggest criticisms that people have of Jason Garrett... he fails to make adjustments at halftime and relies on a conservative approach. It’s undeniable when you look at this. It’s actually difficult to comprehend a team acting this way, especially in the day and age of football that we currently occupy.
Again, this team’s identity is being a classic “ground and pound” squad. If Dallas had their way then they’d put together a long and methodical drive in the third quarter that would result in a touchdown that helped ice the game along with allowing their defense even more time to rest. It’s trying to thread a needle with one eye closed and one hand tied behind your back. It’s possible, but incredibly improbable.
What’s more is that the Cowboys tend to have limited opportunities in the third quarter due to their insistence on starting the game originally with the ball in their possession. So to summarize the point here they are trying to pull off an incredibly unique thing in a situation that is almost specifically designed for that unique thing to not exist. It’s madness.
This type of disposition benefits no one and is incredibly predictable
When you specify this data to the point of first downs for the Cowboys in the third quarter on possessions that are taking place on their side of the field they are, not surprisingly, even more conservative.
Possessions that began on the Dallas side of the 50 last season resulted in only 38% passes on first downs which means 62% of the time they’re running on this down. The only teams that ran as often or more than them in these situations were the Bills, Dolphins, Steelers, Titans, Jets, Redskins, Texans, and Seahawks. Seattle is obviously a very good team but they have a specific approach to things, similar to Dallas, where they live and die with the run game. It works for them and maybe you’re fine with all of this and think it works for Jason Garrett and Co. as well.
It’s flabbergasting how the Cowboys handcuffed their own quarterback (and offense as a whole) in this regard. The third quarter was their enemy last season and so much of why games became so close. Do you know how many times Dallas scored at least seven points in a third quarter last season? Four. FOUR. That’s 25% of the season! Largely in part to the way they’ve chosen to handle the all-important period. Consider their point differential by quarter in 2018:
- First Quarter: 76 scored, 24 allowed, +52 differential
- Second Quarter: 77 scored, 90 allowed, -13 differential
- Third Quarter: 63 scored, 79 allowed, -16 differential
- Fourth Quarter: 117 scored, 128 allowed, -11 differential
- Total: 333 scored, 321 allowed, +12 differential
Look at the leads that the Cowboys let dissolve and therefore had to scramble to protect. Their worst differential was obviously in the third quarter specifically and to their credit they managed to bounce back mightily in the fourth quarter, but their defense couldn’t keep the pace that they started the game with. It’s a house of cards built on top of the thinnest ice in the world.
One of the most important things that Kellen Moore has to be focused on in 2019 is for the Cowboys to keep their momentum going in the second half. They cannot retreat and try to play possum until the game is over because the evidence overwhelmingly shows that their opponent doesn’t play into that. It worked last season because they managed to pull it off, but that is extremely rare and predicated on an idea that isn’t sustainable.
Throw the ball in the third quarter, Cowboys. It’s okay. All of the cool teams are doing it... literally. Scoring points is cool, so go be cool, too.