Breaking Down Changes in the Cowboys' Running Game Under OC Bill Callahan

Jonathan BalesAnalyst ISeptember 3, 2013

It seems like just about everyone wants the Dallas Cowboys to run the ball more often in 2013. Rushing is correlated with winning, so why not come out with a balanced attack? Well, rushing the ball is correlated with winning because winning teams run the ball, i.e. rushing is the effect, not the cause. 

Some teams can win games when rushing often—namely teams that run the read-option—but the Cowboys aren't one of them. They win more frequently when they pass the ball early and often. Actually, it's that way for the average NFL team too. Check this out:

Year in and year out, we see the same thing: the best passing teams are the best teams period.

Having said that, it’s still important for the Cowboys to run the ball effectively. And while offensive coordinator Bill Callahan might or might not bring a more balanced early-game approach to Dallas, it's clear from watching the preseason games that the Cowboys’ approach to running the football has shifted dramatically.

I track around 50 aspects of every play from Cowboys games. One of the things I track is play type. I've posted this data before, but take a look at the Cowboys’ run types from 2012: 

  • Bootleg: 0.5%
  • Counter: 2.5%
  • Dive: 57.2% (3.27 YPC)
  • Draw: 14.8% (4.36 YPC)
  • End-Around: 1.5%
  • Power: 18.2% (2.95 YPC)
  • Sneak: 0.5%
  • Toss: 4.3%
  • Trap: 0.5%

That’s a whole lot of running right up the middle on dives and without much success. On top of that, the Cowboys have historically loved to run the ball with heavy personnel on the field—often “12” or “22” personnel with two tight ends—under Jason Garrett. That’s fine at times, particularly in short-yardage and goal-line situations when defenses pretty much know you’ll run it anyway.

Otherwise, most teams run the ball better from spread formations. The Cowboys are no exception:

Spread runs are sometimes used in different situations from tight runs, but the average distance-to-go on the Cowboys’ spread runs wasn't even one yard more than that on tight runs, i.e., the team is just better at running to the outside.

So we want to see more runs to the perimeter and more runs from spread formations. And in the preseason with Callahan calling the plays, we did. The Cowboys ran outside in abundance—most notably on stretch plays—and it worked. It started on the very first drive of the preseason.

After a stretch play from a tight formation on the first offensive play of the preseason, the Cowboys lined up with “11” personnel—one running back, one tight end, and three receivers—two plays later. The formation is shown in the primary image for this article.

The formation was a simple “Tight End Spread”—one the Cowboys used 49 times in 2012, running on just 15 of those plays (30.6 percent). They totaled 4.87 YPC on those 15 runs. Miami played accordingly, using small personnel and placing just seven defenders in the box. When Lance Dunbar took the handoff, there was a lot of space with which he could work. 

And that’s really what rushing outside, from spread formations, or to the weak side of the formation can do; it forces defenses into sub-optimal personnel and matchup situations. It's not inherently beneficial to run where there are fewer blockers, but in practice, the net effect is often positive since in those places where there are fewer blockers, there are also fewer defenders.

As you watch the Cowboys in 2013, you’ll notice that, superficially, not much has changed in terms of the repertoire of plays or the personnel groupings. But there will be lots of subtle changes that could potentially benefit the offense. This one—Callahan’s willingness to play to defensive weaknesses in the running game—could perhaps have the most positive effect on the Cowboys’ rushing numbers by year’s end.