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Cowboys still running the ball in questionable situations

This was supposed to be the season the Cowboys arrived in the modern-age of football.

Los Angeles Rams v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

It seems a legacy handed down from the previous Cowboys regime is still haunting this organization. The Cowboys were often criticized under Jason Garrett for relying too much on the run, especially choosing to run the ball so often on first downs. There was hope that the “pass-happy” Mike McCarthy wouldn’t fall prey to that. The thought was he would unleash Kellen Moore to play some modern-era football.

It didn’t exactly work out that way. Yes, the Cowboys did pass the ball more than they ran it. But some of that was due to playing catch up late, and the sequence before halftime when they executed a beautiful hurry-up drill for a touchdown.

Overall the offense had 39 official pass attempts versus 27 runs. It was actually a little more on the pass side as Dak scrambled on a couple of pass attempts. Conversely, those number were skewed in the passing direction by five passing attempts on the drive right before half, and six on the final Cowboys drive, when they eschewed rushing for the most part based on game situation.

The overall numbers aren’t the main concern here. It’s when they ran the ball, and the results when they decided to basically forego the run.

Runs on first down have driven the Cowboys fanbase crazy for years. It happened again.

When the Cowboys passed on first down, Dak Prescottt was money, 11-for-12. When Dallas was forced to the air on third down, they were terrible, they only converted one third down through the air. We can blame some of that on Prescott, and some on Aaron Donald, but the Cowboys could have avoided some of those pressure situations if they would have stopped running the ball early in a series.

When you look at it from a results perspective, something jumps out. The Cowboys had two drives that ended in touchdowns. On the first, Dallas ran eight official plays. Six of those plays were passes and two were runs. One of their most successful drives was dominated by the pass. On the second touchdown drive they ran nine official plays. Five were passes and four were runs. But one of the runs was a scramble by Prescott on what was a called pass play. Two of the runs were by Ezekiel Elliott at the goal line. On that drive, besides Elliott’s attempts at the goal line, they actually called one run. Yes, they were fighting the clock, but the experience just goes to show how efficient and productive Prescott is when you run tempo and let him throw the ball.

None of this is a knock on Ezekiel Elliott. He played a fantastic ball game and was elusive and punishing as a runner. Congrats to him on a solid game. Still, the Cowboys should be less concerned about feeding him the ball. Even playing with a hampered offensive line, the Cowboys were more effective when they went to the air.

Then there was the controversial sequence when Mike McCarthy went for it on fourth down instead of taking the chip shot field goal. There has been a ton of discussion about this sequence. Much of it concerns whether he should have gone for it or not, but what also stuck out was his decision to run the ball on third and six. Clearly they had decided to go for it, so they ran on third down with the idea they would go anyway on fourth down.

The argument is that the Rams showed them a light box on third down so running was the right call. The idea of passing instead of running into an overloaded box is one that should really be followed almost all the time. The converse is not so clear, though. If your team is more effective throwing the ball, and the down and distance might be unfavorable for a run, then passing the ball is a legitimate decision even with a light box. To compound the error of running on third down, if you do believe it was an error, was that the Cowboys ran at Aaron Donald.

Let’s hear from John Owning:

For example, the decision to run the ball before that crucial fourth down (a third-and-6 with 12:26 left in the fourth) was much more ill-advised. What we don’t know is whether the Cowboys called that run, or if Prescott checked into once he identified that Los Angeles was in a light box (five men) with two high safeties. Even if running into a light box, it’s not wise to do it right at Donald, who — as previously stated — was nearly unblockable all night. Donald proved it again by beating Martin to force Ezekiel Elliott to cut into the teeth of the defense, ending the possibility of a first-down conversion.

Hindsight is 20/20, but it would have been smarter to stick with the passing game in that scenario. Calling a pass would have made it more likely that the Cowboys would pick up a first down. If the pass fell incomplete, fourth-and-6 isn’t much worse from a historical perspective on conversions than fourth-and-3 is — teams (from 2009-19) convert on fourth-and-6 around 42% of the time, while fourth-and-3 isn’t much better at 49%.

I couldn’t have said that much better, so I went with Owning. He also echoes the point about the Cowboys choosing to run so much in certain situations.

The need to keep the running game involved seemed to come back to bite the Cowboys on a few occasions. All four of Dallas’ punts were preceded by a run on the first down of those series. In fact, the Cowboys converted a first down or touchdown on 87.5% of their series (14 of 16) that started with passes but just 62.5% of the series that started with runs.

Throwing more on first down will create shorter down-and-distances, which are advantageous situations in which to run the football. Additionally, throwing more heavily on first down will cause defenses to allocate more resources toward defending the pass, meaning that when Dallas eventually runs on first down, it will see lighter boxes than usual.

We thought this type of stuff would be a thing of the past for the new-look Cowboys. In Week 1, we saw it wasn’t so. The Cowboys are just a better team when they are predominately passing the ball, but the presence of one of the better running backs in the NFL keeps drawing them back to the run like a moth to a flame.

Perhaps a lesson will be learned and Week 2 will be a different story.

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