Dallas Cowboys Play-Calling: Tony Romo and Jason Garrett Must Manage Clock

Jonathan Bales@thecowboystimesAnalyst ISeptember 14, 2011

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 11:  Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys throws a pass against the New York Jets during their NFL Season Opening Game at MetLife Stadium on September 11, 2011 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

I alluded to the idea that the Cowboys must more effectively manage the play clock in my review of the Jets game, but I wanted to dedicate a few more words to the topic.

For several seasons (really since Jason Garrett has been calling plays in Dallas), the offense has continually allowed the play clock to dip down to one second before snapping the football. Even worse, that number sometimes reaches zero and costs the team five valuable yards.

This is a problem that might not seem monumental but really has major consequences on how efficiently the offense can be run.

When Garrett calls plays into Tony Romo, he often provides the quarterback with two plays: the first is the play which is most likely to be run and the second is a “conditional” play that the offense will run if Romo checks out of the first play. Each time you hear Romo yell “Kill, Kill, Kill” prior to the snap of the ball, he is “killing” the first play, alerting the offense to run the second play that was dialed up.

If Garrett gives Romo instructions to call an off-tackle power play (first) and a screen to the left (second) in the huddle, for example, the offensive players will line up with the mentality of running the first play.

In the first scenario, Felix Jones will analyze the defense as though he is running off-tackle. If the defense shows blitz from its left side, however, Romo might check out of the first play using a “Kill” call. When this happens, the mental assignments of the players shift to the second play. In this second scenario, Jones is now scanning the defense so as to be prepared to run the screen to the left. This has a few consequences for the offense and defense:

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  • The play clock tends to drop to just one second (or the offense gets a delay of game) because the long play calls and extra pre-snap mental work required by the offense take time.
  • The offensive players may not be fully mentally prepared to run the second play.  Often times, Romo gives his “Kill” call and then snaps the ball almost immediately due to a dwindling play clock.  I have doubts the players can fully prepare themselves for their blocking assignments, routes, etc. with such little time. Full comprehension of a defense’s intentions (as it relates to the new second play) may not come until a step or two into the play, and by that time, it is too late.
  • Perhaps most importantly, the defense can jump the snap.  Whether it is a defensive lineman or blitzing linebacker, it is a rather large advantage to “know” when a snap is coming.

Many of you know I track all kinds of information from each play of Cowboys games, from the distance of passes to motions to who stayed in to block and more. I have never taken data on the play clock, however, and it might be a good idea to do so in the future.

If snapping the ball at the last possible second is truly detrimental to Dallas, we would expect it to be represented in the statistics—whether it comes in the form of yards per play, sack numbers or whatever.

Of course, allowing the play clock to drain may not even be necessary if the team’s “Kill” calls are not effective. That is, if the advantage the offense gains from calling two plays in the huddle does not exceed the advantage the defense garners from the low play clock, there is really no reason for the Cowboys to call two plays in the huddle.

Luckily, I have two years of data pertaining to the team’s audibles.

In my 2010 Quarterback Grades, I noted that both Romo and Jon Kitna called audibles that, in terms of statistical significance, were not superior to non-checks. 71 of these 72 checks were “Kill” calls. We saw a similar thing in the team’s 2009 Audibles , although Romo was slightly better with his checks, gaining 0.39 yards per play more on his audibles as compared to regular plays. 75 of the 79 audibles that year were “Kill” calls, meaning we can be fairly certain the statistics of all audibles (150) are representative of the success of “Kill” calls (145 of them).

2010 (72 checks)

  • Romo expected yards: 152
  • Romo actual yards: 143
  • Kitna expected yards: 223
  • Kitna actual yards: 234
  • Overall expected yards: 375
  • Overall actual yards: 377

2009 (79 checks)

  • Expected yards: 459
  • Actual yards: 490

2009-2010 (151 checks)

  • Expected yards: 834
  • Actual Yards: 867
  • Total advantage from 2009-2010 (33 yards on 151 checks–0.22 yards-per-play)

You can see that, as a whole, the Cowboys have “gained” 0.22 yards per play on checks over the past two years. With 150 audibles, this result is significant enough to show us the offense does not acquire a significant advantage from “Kill” calls. 

On top of this, the advantage the defense receives from the snaps on which the play clock runs down to one is likely more valuable than that “extra” 0.22 yards per play. Remember, this defensive advantage comes not just on audibles, but on any snap on which the clock has run down due to two plays being called in the huddle.

Most times, the second play is never run, yet the clock still dips to one second.

Of course, the delay of game penalties over the last couple of years probably “make up" for the 0.22 yards per play offensive advantage on their own.

When combined with the ability of the defense to jump the snap, I think it is pretty obvious the Cowboys’ “Kill” calls are, at best, a waste of time...and at worst, detrimental to the offense.

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