After the Cowboys’ first preseason game, I wrote an article detailing why we’re seeing a shift in the philosophy of the team’s running game. Specifically, Bill Callahan has been calling way more runs to the perimeter of the defense. I have a feeling that we’re going to see lots of different wrinkles from the running game this year, most of which will be dependent on the opponents’ actions. It appears that instead of doing what works best in a vacuum, Callahan is calling plays in a way that can more appropriately attack defensive weaknesses as opposed to solely doing what the offense does best.
In that way, Callahan is implementing game theory—a branch of decision theory that takes others’ thoughts and actions into account. Football is a game of competing minds, and decision-makers need to be one step ahead of their opponents. The goal shouldn’t always be to do what your team does best, because then you’ll become predictable. Sometimes, it’s best to do what’s otherwise sub-optimal because, when combined with the opponent’s intentions, the net effect is the most positive.
An example of a play-call that’s not “optimal” but can lead to the best results is a perimeter run to the weak side of the formation. The Cowboys were a much better team when running outside and to the weak side in 2012, yet they almost always ran inside to the strong side of the formation. That’s where they had the most blockers, but it’s also where the defense had the most defenders (and their best ones).
In addition to more outside and weak side runs, we’ll probably see a lot of other “unexpected” play-calls from Callahan this year: counters, tosses, screens, draws, play-action passes, and so on. All of those play-types are meant to take advantage of a defensive weakness in some way (even more so than playing to an offensive strength). You might run a counter or screen against an over-aggressive defense, for example, even though it’s not inherently optimal to delay getting up the field like that.
Since the Cowboys have typically stuck to basic calls—dive plays, straight dropbacks, and so on—they’ve been outstanding when running “the unexpected.” The offense averaged over 7.0 YPC on counters from 2009 to 2011, for example, yet ran just five of them in all of 2012. If you’re seeing more atypical calls in 2013, which it looks like we will, it’s a good sign that Callahan is calling plays in a manner that will maximize overall success.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.