Breaking Down the ‘Boys: How to fix the Cowboys’ red zone offense – Part I

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Breaking Down the ‘Boys: How to fix the Cowboys’ red zone offense – Part I

If you’ve read more than a handful of my articles, you know that I think the Cowboys need to pass the ball more frequently. That’s not a standard view among most analysts or fans, but it is the prevailing consensus among most statistical analysts. Yes, you can find instances of run-heavy teams finding success (see the 2012 Seattle Seahawks), but that doesn’t negate the merits of efficient, pass-heavy offenses. When we’re trying to decipher which sort of offensive attack can maximize the probability of success—that is, which course of action will lead to optimal efficiency for the Cowboys—we’re playing the odds, not searching for individual confirming instances on one side of the debate or the other.

In my latest article that provides evidence that the ‘Boys should use a pass-heavy offense, I noticed an interesting comment: “Balanced or not, the problem has been the lack of production in the red zone.” That’s an accurate observation, and one I want to explore in more detail over the coming days. Interestingly, I believe a major piece of the red zone puzzle to be the rushing attack.

I briefly touched upon the Cowboys’ red zone woes when I posted this single image that sums up the Cowboys’ offense. In a nutshell, Dallas has historically been outstanding at moving the ball under Jason Garrett, but not great at punching it into the end zone. They’ve ranked higher in yards than points-per-drive in five of the six years Garrett has been in Dallas. There’s some variance there, but I think we’ve seen enough of his offense to conclude that there are shortcomings in the red zone approach.

Improving the Cowboys’ Red Zone Offense

So how can the ‘Boys improve inside the opponent’s 20-yard line? First, it’s important to understand where the “real” red zone begins. In terms of past efficiency, teams have often been best when running the ball inside of the opponent’s 10-yard line, particularly on first down. Check out this graph from Advanced NFL Stats:

The reason that running is more advantageous than passing on first down when inside the opponent’s 10-yard line is because the field shrinks. There are a bunch of defenders in a small area, and they don’t need to respect anything deep. You can’t stretch out a defense when there’s fewer than 20 yards of available real estate, so the value of rushing increases.

Outside of the 10-yard line, however, passing is still the superior option. Whereas most teams drastically alter their offensive approach once they enter the red zone, they shouldn’t really change much until they cross the 10-yard line.

In 2012, the Cowboys passed the ball 67.5 percent of the time in the red zone—the second-highest mark in the NFL. Despite that, they totaled just 2.49 yards per play in the red zone, ranking them 26th. On first down, the ‘Boys did a good job of continuing to run their normal offense when in the red zone but outside of the 10-yard line, passing on 62.5 percent of their first downs.

However, Garrett also dialed up a pass on nine of the Cowboys’ 15 first downs inside the opponent’s 10-yard line. Four of their six runs came at the opponent’s one or two-yard line. One of those was a Tony Romo overtime kneel-down against the Steelers. All told, the Cowboys passed on every first down inside of the opponent’s 10-yard line but outside of the four-yard line.

A major component of Garrett’s red zone decision-making was undoubtedly the offensive line’s inability to generate a push in the running game. So even though the Cowboys will live and die by the pass in 2013, they still need to improve their rushing efficiency. The primary reason is so that they can win in short-yardage and goal line situations. If that happens and Dallas can rush the ball more often inside the 10-yard line—the “real” red zone—they should greatly improve their scoring efficiency.

By: Jonathan Bales

Part 2 will be released soon.

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Breaking Down the ‘Boys: How to fix the Cowboys’ red zone offense – Part I Breaking Down the ‘Boys: How to fix the Cowboys’ red zone offense – Part I Reviewed by Mr. DCStands4 on 8:36:00 AM Rating: 5

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