There are so many different ways to quantify offensive play in football that we can look at the Dallas Cowboys’ 2013 season in pretty much any light that we want. The team finished seventh in yards per play, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, even though their net-adjusted yards per passing attempt ranked near the middle of the pack.
Perhaps my favorite stat to analyze offensive efficiency—one that is wildly underrated—is points per drive. I’m not sure why writers continue to rank offenses based on bulk yards or even points when we know those things fluctuate wildly based on a variety of factors, like offensive pace, defensive strength and so on.
Should an offense that uses a quick tempo and thus racks up yards really be rewarded if 1) its efficiency is poor and 2) it can’t score with regularity?
Meanwhile, points per drive controls for things like tempo. We just want to know how many points, on average, an offense can be expected to score each time it touches the football. In 2013, the Cowboys actually ranked fourth in the league with 2.25 offensive points per drive, according to Football Outsiders—behind the Broncos, Chargers and Saints.
That’s a good number, but with the struggles the Cowboys could have on defense this year, the offense needs to not only keep it up but also improve this season. Here are five ways it can do that.
Capitalize in the red zone by targeting the right players
The goal is to score points. Gaining yards is a means to that end, but the yardage is of little value without points. One of the most unappreciated aspects of building a dominant offense is creating the right mix of players, scheme and play-calling to excel in the red zone.
The ideal red-zone offense for Dallas probably doesn’t look anything like what it should use between the 20s. Specifically, the team should be emphasizing size in the red zone.
Historically, there’s been a very strong correlation between weight and red-zone efficiency for receivers and tight ends.
All other things equal, the heavier the player, the better he’ll be in the red zone. Dez Bryant has shown how much it can mean by consistently using his size and strength (6'2", 220 lbs) to shield off defenders. Red-zone ability is less about jumping up to get the ball and more about shielding off defenders in tight areas.
Here’s how the Cowboys split up red-zone targets in 2013.
It’s not a horrible breakdown, but you’d probably like to see even more targets to Bryant and certainly a lot more to tight end Gavin Escobar.
Here’s how those targets stacked up in relation to overall targets for the top five receivers.
There’s basically no difference here, which suggests the Cowboys don’t really change their offense once they reach the red zone; Cole Beasley had nearly the same percentage of his targets come in the red zone as Bryant, which is a problem.
The Cowboys absolutely must convert yards to points this year, and targeting the right players—Jason Witten, Escobar, Bryant and even James Hanna—will be a big part of that.
Capitalize in the red zone by running the ball near the goal line
Although I’m a big proponent of a team like the Cowboys throwing the ball early and often, there are lots of times when it’s appropriate to keep it on the ground. Some of those include short-yardage situations and third downs.
It’s also advantageous to be able to run the ball near the goal line. Advanced Football Analytics has shown that first-down runs inside an opponent’s 10-yard line generate a higher payoff than first-down passes.
The Cowboys don’t need a dominant overall rushing attack to win this year, but they do need to be effective in specific situations, none more important than near the end zone.
Utilize more play action (and passing in general)
Quarterback Tony Romo has ranked sixth in the league in play-action passer rating in each of the past two seasons, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Nonetheless, he ranked 28th and dead last in the league in play-action percentage during those two seasons, respectively.
That alone is reason enough to throw more play-action passes, and this is actually a leaguewide trend; for the most part, NFL teams don’t show play action nearly enough.
It might seem like you need a dominant running game to be successful on play action, but that’s not true; there’s no correlation between rushing efficiency and play-action success. Defenses react to situations, not past efficiency, so the Cowboys need to really do a better job of capitalizing on an underutilized aspect of their offense.
Get the ball deep
How about this stat: Romo has ranked higher in deep passing touchdowns than deep passing percentage every season he’s played, according to numbers at Pro Football Focus. That is, the Cowboys have a ton of success throwing the ball deep (20 or more yards), but they don’t do it too often.
In 2011, Romo was second in deep touchdowns but only 18th in deep attempt rate. In 2012, he was sixth in touchdowns and 23rd in deep attempts. Last year, Romo was sixth in deep touchdowns and 29th in attempts.
In addition to the obvious benefits of throwing the ball downfield more, there are advantages that aren’t immediately recognizable in the box score—or maybe not even quantifiable at this point—because deep passes tend to open things up underneath. When you get the ball deep and force defenses into a two-high safety look, that can really help with offensive efficiency in the running game and underneath passing game.
During an interview with 105.3 The Fan (transcribed by Blogging The Boys), offensive coordinator Scott Linehan vowed to throw more deep passes, so let’s hope he’s telling the truth.
Get Dez Bryant more targets
You can bet that opposing defenses are going to key in on Bryant (93 receptions, 1,233 yards, 13 TDs) like never before in 2014. The Cowboys need to be creative in finding ways to get Bryant the football, even when defenses are doubling him.
So how is that possible? One way is to run more bunch formations with receivers lined up tight together so that Bryant can’t be pressed. Utilizing natural screens is an effective way to get defenses out of man coverage and into a zone.
Second, the Cowboys need to stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. It’s difficult for Bryant or any receiver to beat a cornerback with a safety sitting right over the top, especially if you challenge both players. But by running across the field, Bryant can effectively neutralize the deep safety and go one-on-one with the cornerback. That means way more crossing routes, which pair nicely with bunch formations anyway.
However they do it, the numbers suggest that Bryant needs to not only remain the focal point of the Cowboys offense but also take on an even bigger role.