Dallas Cowboys Red Zone Struggles: How Can They Improve?

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Dallas Cowboys Red Zone Struggles: How Can They Improve?
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

A rare Monday post subsequent to a rare Cowboys win on Sunday.  In all seriousness, “what we learned about Dallas” wasn’t all that much.  I am going to get to my thoughts on the game in a bit, but I wanted to first address the widespread concern over the Cowboys’ red zone struggles. 

How could a team that was so productive inside the opponents' 20-yard line in 2010 regress so badly in just one season?  Jason Garrett and the players must be doing something horribly wrong, right?

In reality, there is little reason for worry.  Red zone performance is critical to a team’s success, but that does not mean they should spend countless practice hours working on it.  Why?  Because red zone success is primarily fluky.  Although some teams are certainly superior to others in the red zone, the majority of the disparity we see between squads is due to a small sample size.

In 2009, the Cowboys’ red zone performance was awful.  They were second in the league in total yards that season, but just 14th in points.  I wrote an article detailing how the Cowboys could improve upon their success in the red zone, but I noted that most of the change is going to come from simple regression to the mean–something over which Dallas has no control:

The red zone is basically no different than any other part of the field.  Sure, some teams perform much better in the red zone (compared to their play outside of it) and others worse, but that is to be expected with a sample size of 32 teams.  Further, all of the stats show red zone performance is fluky due to small subsets of data.  That is, there’s really no difference between the opponent’s 20-yard line to end zone as there is to, say, in between the 40s.  Random data fluctuations are to be expected in such small sets of data.

So, even though the Cowboys could undoubtedly win more games by scoring touchdowns instead of kicking field goals, the team doesn’t need to harp on that importance because of the lack of predictive power which is inherent to it.  Like fumbles, the correlation between red zone performance from year to year is minimal.  The Cowboys will get better in the red zone regardless of the time they spend working on it, simply because they have been so poor thus far.

We saw a similar thing happen in 2010, when Dallas’ red zone play improved dramatically from the previous season.  What happened?  Did a team whose 2009 red zone performance was so poor suddenly “get it”?  And have they magically lost that special “ability to finish” in 2011?  No, they have just had poor luck. 

A fumble here, a missed block there, and suddenly your offense drops from the middle of the pack in red zone efficiency to the bottom of the barrel.  That’s a major reason the top piece of “advice” I had for Dallas following the 2009 season (which still holds true today) is if you want to do better in the red zone, just get there more often:

As the sample size of red zone plays increases, the team’s success will “regress to the norm,” i.e. they will get better.  I feel fully confident in saying the Cowboys red zone performance will improve in 2010 even if they make zero changes to their offense.  Statistics always win out.

The Cowboys improved in the red zone in 2010 for almost no reason whatsoever.  The same thing will happen in the second half of 2011, and the Cowboys will be better than 4-4 because of it.

Having said that, a team’s play calls on first downs in the red zone are one of the few things which can both have an impact on their efficiency and be repeated from game to game (as opposed to fumbles, penalties, and so on, whose presence is largely “unlucky”).  Specifically, offenses have more success running the ball on first down inside the opponent’s 10-yard line, but are generally more efficient when passing while outside of the 10-yard line. 

The field “shrinks” when near the opponent’s end zone, limiting the upside of passing.  Outside of the 10-yard line, though, the field is large enough that passing is still superior to running on first down.  If there is a reason the Cowboys improved from 2009 to 2010 while in the red zone besides luck, it is Jason Garrett’s play-calls.  Take a look at the graphs below.

 

 

You can see the Cowboys’ run percentage in 2009 (represented by the black line) did not change much whether inside or outside of the opponent’s 10-yard line.  He called a first down run over half of the time in every three-yard increment of the red zone, including on 17 of 29 first downs from the 11-20 yard line. 

In 2010, though, Garrett dialed up a first down run just 34.6 percent of the time outside of the 10-yard line, and Dallas had more success.  Actually, between the 13- and 15-yard lines, the Cowboys threw five passes for 50 yards and two touchdowns.  While simple luck is the primary reason the Cowboys were more efficient in the red zone in 2010, Garrett’s play-calling didn’t hurt.

So how can the Cowboys improve their red zone play over the second half of the 2011 season?  By doing absolutely nothing at all.  Garrett should continue to call runs on the majority of first downs inside the opponent’s 10-yard line (and passes when outside), but the players should just forget about their previous struggles.  Continue to drive down the field and the numbers will work themselves out.  They always do.

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