In 2011, Tony Romo threw deep (20 or more yards) on just 6.6 percent of his pass attempts—about one time every 15 passes. If that doesn’t seem like a lot to you, your instincts are spot on—the league average over the past three seasons has been right around 13 percent.
The Cowboys possess one of the premiere deep ball threats in the NFL in Dez Bryant. Bryant’s skill set is tailored toward the deep pass, yet he hasn’t ranked better than 51st in the NFL in deep target percentage in his first two seasons. Simply put, the Cowboys haven’t thrown the ball downfield to Bryant or anyone else as much as they should.
Now there are reasons offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has been hesitant to air it out, the most obvious of which is a sub-par offensive line. Throwing deep clearly leads to big plays, but it can also be risky; the chances of a sack, fumble, or interception increase.
Nonetheless, the numbers favor an increase in deep passes so strongly that it’s hard to justify the lack of attempts. Last season, Romo posted a 55.2 percent completion rate and remarkable 125.4 passer rating on throws that traveled 20 or more yards in the air. He ranked second in the NFL in both categories. With so much past success and an arsenal of receivers that all possess big-play ability, it seems obvious that the deep ball percentage should see a jump.
And that it did in the Cowboys’ Week 1 win over the Giants. In an admittedly small sample size, Romo completed four of his five deep passes for 132 yards, two touchdowns, and a perfect 158.3 passer rating. Five passes might not seem substantial, but it represented over 17 percent of Romo’s attempts. Both the 40-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Ogletree and the 34-yard strike to Miles Austin to seal the game came on deep passes.
Plus, don’t forget who the Cowboys were playing. This was a Giants team that many believe possesses the best four-man pass rush in the entire NFL. Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, and of course Jason Pierre-Paul allow the Giants to generate pressure without sending excessive blitzes. With a questionable and banged-up offensive line, the ‘Boys still aired it out against the G-Men.
So is it a sign of things to come? We’ll know more about the nature of the Cowboys’ offense by October and November, but at this point, it appears Garrett plans on (astutely) dialing up more deep looks.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times.
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