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Run or pass: Looking at Kellen Moore’s play selection for the Cowboys

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Are the Cowboys too reliant on the run still? Maybe not.

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys
Let’s look at just how good an idea this is.
Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

It has been exciting so far. Fans of the Dallas Cowboys are reacting to the newfound offensive potency with emotions ranging from satisfaction to absolute giddiness. With Kellen Moore now handling the deployment of the impressive weapons on the roster, this team is not just venturing into unfamiliar territory of offensive potency. It is building a house and settling in.

But no matter how well things are going, we do have a tendency to look for the dark cloud around the silver lining. While it is a bit difficult to find something negative about Dallas’ offense this year, there is still one thing that not only draws criticism, but causes some flashbacks to the frustrations of last season.

The Cowboys are still running a lot on first down.

Here is a chart (derived from the run/pass numbers presented by Bob Sturm in his simply outstanding Decoding Moore weekly posts at The Athletic) showing the distribution of plays for each down so far this season.

Cowboys run/pass splits by down

Down Game 1 (NYG) Game 2 (WAS) Game 3 (MIA) Total
Down Game 1 (NYG) Game 2 (WAS) Game 3 (MIA) Total
1st 17/11 18/10 23/11 58/32 (59% run)
2nd 9/14 10/15 8/14 27/43 (39% run)
3rd 3/7 5/6 2/8 10/21 (32% run)

Yeah, that 59% is still too lopsided in favor the run on first down. This is at first glance a bit deflating to those of us who want to see the team buy into the argument that throwing the ball is always more valuable than running it.

But first glances can be deceiving. As a matter of fact, if you look a bit deeper into these numbers, and add in some other stats of note, a different image emerges.

First, let’s look at the other downs, because things are absolutely weighted towards the pass then. It seems obvious that when Moore is ready to move the sticks, he is far more disposed to have the ball thrown than handed off. There are still some situations, like short yardage and end of game/running out the clock, when handing the ball off is the most effective option. That makes the preference on plays where the yards needed are greater more obvious. No more handing the ball off on 2nd and 10 for the Cowboys. That is a bit of a sea change.

But there is something that the raw numbers don’t consider. So far this season, the Cowboys have gone into the fourth quarter with a large (two scores or more) lead every game. In that situation, the intelligent plan is to not risk the ball and use up clock. You still want to get some first downs and even score, but if you burn four or five minutes and then punt the ball deep, you still have not moved the win percentage needle appreciably.

So I went back and looked at all the first down plays the Cowboys have had in the fourth quarter this season. If it heavily favors the run, then we probably need to adjust our percentages a bit to have a better feel for Moore’s strategy.

There was a bit of a lean here. Like all the way flat. The Cowboys have not passed the ball once on first down during the fourth quarter this season. Zip. Nada.

Suddenly, that changes the complexion a wee bit. In essence, those fourth down handoffs when the game is effectively already decided, don’t matter. And they absolutely don’t tell us a thing about how Moore calls plays when he has a real decision to make. Obviously, this number is going to change when the Cowboys finally have a close game. But for now, we need to understand how this skews things.

So let’s subtract all the fourth quarter first down calls. (Second and third downs are also strongly weighted, but there are a handful of passes.) That gives us a ratio of 38 runs to 32 passes for the first three quarters of all games. That drops it down to 54%. Still favoring the run - but rather less obviously.

There is a lot of talk about offensive balance. It is not all that useful a concept, especially if you do buy the whole idea that passing is inherently more valuable than running. But if there is one situation where it can be beneficial just from the aspect of making it hard to predict what is coming, first and ten is it. If defenses have to be ready to defend either the run or the pass, they are by definition compromised. With Dallas, it is close to a 50-50 split, and we are still early in the season, with relatively small sample sizes. Then throw in the plus of having a running back who is a legitimate threat to get a chunk play, like, oh, say, Ezekiel Elliott, and you really start to mess with the other side’s minds. It is the essence of the much-desired unpredictability we longed for a year ago.

And you might just beat them to death. Against the Miami Dolphins, the Cowboys had eight first down runs that went for either ten yards or a touchdown, plus one that was called back on a penalty. Yes, we know, the Dolphins are in tank mode, and it did include some runs late in the first half when Miami was just playing prevent with Dallas facing a long field and an expiring clock. But that is still a danged good success rate. This is in terms of absolute success, not the arbitrary and sometimes misleading 40% of the yards needed benchmark commonly referenced.

It is hard to argue against something that is working so well. The data really indicates that Moore has a very effective plan, and a feel for calling the plays. Dallas has gone over 200 yards rushing the past two games, and it isn’t all Elliott. Tony Pollard has proven to be a dynamic and powerful runner in his own right, and Dak Prescott is just as much a weapon with his legs as with his arms. Admittedly, you want to be a bit more cautious about how often you let your quarterback run the ball, but as we saw when he got in the face of Josh Norman, teams that fail to account for Prescott as a runner do so at their own peril.

In looking at this, there were some other things that catch the eye. One number that relates to the efficiency of an offense is how many third downs they have to face. In looking at the table above, you might notice that the number is rather small. That average of 10.3 is tied for the second lowest in the league. The way you get to that, especially when you are averaging over 470 yards of offense per game, is to convert a lot of first and second downs. Which is just what the Cowboys are doing.

Related to that is the number of first downs Dallas has had. They are second in the league, which means they are one of the best at keeping the sticks moving. (It is also related to how quickly the defense gets the ball back, but extending drives is much more of a driver here.) Both are extremely good numbers, but what is more impressive is how much this has changed from 2018. Dallas faced the sixth most third downs, and of course had a much lower conversion rate than the current 58%. And they were just middle of the pack on how many first downs they had in a game.

Back to the subject of play selection, the Cowboys may be making an old NFL trope stand up: Using the run to set up the pass. In this case, the ever present threat of running the ball on first down makes those passes you use more effective. And when you near 50% on downs where the choice matters, you tend to move smartly down the field and score.

It really may mean exactly what this guy (an excellent follow, BTW) said in a tweet that kinda got the train of thought started to get to this article:

It seems counter intuitive, but Moore may actually have figured out how to make the pass the most important part of the offense by being centered around the run. Teams know Elliott is going to get fed. But because they can never be exactly sure when, they face being gouged either by a pass when they are crashing the line to stop the run, or a big gainer as they have too many in coverage while Elliott (or Pollard, or Prescott) is running free.

So when you start to fret a bit about whether Moore is calling too many first down runs, “try not to get worried, try not to turn on to, problems that upset you, oh, don’t you know everything’s alright, yes, everything’s fine.”

It really is.