Today, one of our esteemed FPWs published an article speaking to a perceived "issue" with Red Zone (RZ) scoring and declaring that it was an area demanding the attention of the organization. It's far from an outrageous perspective, and of course it always is wise to strive for improved performance in all areas, RZ included.
But the perspective is also wrong. Or, at least, it sounds much stronger alarms than necessary.
The logic in the article is pretty straightforward: Dallas has scored a Touchdown (TD) on 56.0% of its RZ drives, that figured ranks tied for 25th in the NFL, 25th is bad, and thus we have a problem area. That by itself is sensible, but there are some overlooked factors in this:
1) Small sample size magnifies flukes
2) Dallas has uniquely made its RZ performance look worse than it otherwise has been
Let's do a quick dive into each!
The article appropriately cites that the officials really blew it on a couple of QB sneaks for TDs that were arbitrarily ruled otherwise. While some RZ TDs have been awarded that perhaps didn't quite score or vice versa, these two suckas were bad calls on the extreme end.
The point here isn't to debate these calls, but rather to point out the statistical impact on the Cowboys assuming that these plays were not ruled properly: a rise from a 56.0 Conversion Rate to 64.0, which would then kick the Cowboys from 25th in the NFL to 13th. Think about that - just two more conversions, and Dallas leaps from "bad" in the RZ to "above average". And because there is reason to believe that Dallas *did* have two more conversions, just like that the extent of this issue begins to fade away.
Cowboys Not Relying On The Red Zone In The First Place
Even one game into the season, I had perceived that the Cowboys were in part looking a little worse in the RZ due to scoring from just outside of it due to 21 and 22 yard TDs in the game against the Buccaneers. With the 20 yard RZ designation being somewhat arbitrary, these scoring drives were not being lumped in with other RZ attempts, even though they were no different than reaching a first down on the 19 yard line, suffering a 2 yard loss, and then scoring from there. Thinking over Dallas's perceived RZ troubles as of now, I thought to take a look at this same element for all NFL teams.
And was I surprised by what I found!
The Dallas Cowboys have scored a whopping 5 TDs from the "just missed the RZ" 21-25 yard lines (in fact, all are from 24 yards or closer). I choose the word "whopping" for a reason, as the next-closest NFL teams have scored from that distance...twice. That's it. 7 duos, 16 solos, and 8 goose eggs, with the Cowboys standing all alone with their 5.
What this means is that the Cowboys so far have been abnormally successful at getting the job done all in one play from just outside the Red Zone. If the team had been just a little less capable, those TDs would have come close to the score, turning the drive into a RZ opportunity, and then the team might have scored from there.
Turn just 60% of these slightly longer scores into RZ opportunities and conversions, and Dallas's success rate jumps a few notches. Pair that adjustment with credit for the two would-be Prescott sneaks, and just like that the Cowboys crack the top 10 for RZ conversion rate.
How Important Is This Measure At This Stage Of The Season?
Please don't mistaken the above as an argument that the Cowboys should be seen as a "true" top 10 RZ team. Rather, the idea is to show just how fungible a team's conversion rate and resulting rank in the measure can be at this point, and in general. A bad or fortunate calls here or there, a few drives that sneak to the 19 or 20 on third and long or scoring drives from just outside the 20, and a team's RZ performance by the numbers can shift rather dramatically.
There is a saying that some statistics "are descriptive, not predictive". They tell us what happened, but not necessarily why...and thus don't necessarily help us understand what a team could be expected to do going forward. It's a "chicken or the egg" question. Does a team underperform because it wasn't good in the RZ, or did the team having less good fortune in the RZ lead to it winning fewer games than it "should" have? I'm not saying that there is a right or wrong answer, but at the least the pure numbers cannot be trusted at face value at their sample size, especially less than halfway through a season. Maybe it's mostly happenstance; maybe a team truly was less capable in this way and deserve blame for it.
And that leads to one final question: *should* the Cowboys be better than most teams in the RZ in the first place?
It seems pretty clear at this point that the Dallas offense is quite strong at moving the football. That's good! Ball movement is probably the single most important aspect of scoring, though it's not everything. This create a perspective that the Cowboys have a "good" or better offense, and there seems to be an insinuation that such an offense should be similarly as good in the RZ, relative to other teams.
Look at this quote from the original Front Page article:
The Cowboys have plenty of weapons to deploy in the red zone with two good tight ends, receivers that can create easy separation, and a physical player in Lamb who can high-point the football with the best of them. Even though they should go away from the run a little down in the red zone, both Elliott and Pollard are dangerous receivers and both guys are tough to bring down in the open field. For an offense with a legit top five quarterback, a quality offensive line, and the weapons they have at receiver, tight end, and running back, the red zone numbers have to improve if this team wants to beat some tough, playoff-caliber opponents.
The idea here is that Dallas's talent serves to set up strong RZ success. But is that true? We've seen even all-time great receivers such as Julio Jones be less impressive close to the goalline and thus fail to be scoring machines, and Gallup and Cooper seem to be cut more from that mold. They'll score, but not to their level of yard-moving quality. Lamb has the tools to match up on fade routes and such, but even if he has a good deal of goalline Dez Bryant in him he doesn't appear to be there yet. Schultz slips into coverage gaps in the manner of Jason Witten, and Witten was more a scorer of opportunity than a go-to one; Jarwin isn't one to create separation predictably in the first place, so he's just one for Prescott to hit when he happens to be open for the taking.
Even the RBs are limited in terms of their best routes - the backs to shoot for in the RZ are one ones who can make a single defender miss badly in the short field and/or slip unseen from behind the OL, whereas Elliott and Pollard are more plant-and-go types who will find lanes of space and then fight to add on a little extra after contact. That helps a lot more from 5-15 yards out than up close to the goalline.
Don't take this to mean that Dallas is badly-suited to punch in scores up close. The team's weapons, while not hyper-strong goalline fits, have plenty to offer, and the OL is strong enough to create the push for some easy scores. And then there is Prescott himself, a guy who doesn't look to take off all that often and isn't among the most explosive of QB runners but who has demonstrated a knack for converting with his legs at times. The Cowboys can get the job done, and making slight adjustments for "luck" the team has indeed done a solid job of getting that job done.
The goal for the Cowboy O isn't to be a goalline machine, but to be a scoring machine in general. Keep moving the ball, keep getting in the Red Zone enough that the end conversion rate doesn't have to be elite to add up to a high RZ TD total, and continue to find ways to tack on scores from outside the RZ - that's what we should want the coaching staff to focus on!