One of the reasons we saw the Cowboys throw the ball 20 yards downfield on just over three occasions per game prior to Week 8 is that Jason Garrett didn’t trust his offensive line to provide Tony Romo with time to pass. Although the ‘Boys have given up a sack on just 4.2 percent of passes—the eighth-lowest mark in the NFL—there’s a general consensus that the offensive line isn’t capable of holding up for long against some of the league’s more formidable pass-rush units. Whether or not that’s accurate is debatable, but there’s no doubt that Garrett has called plays in an effort to mask the perceived deficiencies of his offensive line.
Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of Garrett’s play-calling this season, however, is the near-total absence of a play type that could slow down the pass rush and make up for struggles of the offensive line—screen passes. On the season, the Cowboys have run only 10 screens—four of which were quick screens to receivers. Thus, in seven games, we’ve seen six true running back screens from Dallas. Note that when Romo checks down to a running back on a swing pass, that’s not a screen; a screen necessitates linemen purposely releasing on their blocks early and getting downfield to block at the second level.
The Cowboys have never been a big screen team under Garrett—the most they’ve ever run in a season is just under four per game. Still, to attempt just over a single screen pass per game—and not even one screen per game to a running back—is mind-boggling. Sure, the Cowboys have managed only 33 total yards on those six screens to backs, but that’s a pretty limited sample size.
Plus, the 5.5 YPA the Cowboys have totaled on screens this year actually isn’t all that bad. Remember, since screen passes rarely fall incomplete, they can be seen as an extension of the running game. For example, DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones have combined to catch 136 of their 163 (83.4 percent) targets on all types of passes, not just screens, since 2010. The downside of an incompletion isn’t nearly as great on a screen pass as with other pass attempts.
Meanwhile, I’ve tracked only 78.3 percent of the Cowboys’ rushing plays over the same time as gaining positive yards, meaning the chances of a positive play have actually been greater on screen passes than on runs. With much greater upside inherent to the former play type and running backs who excel as pass-catchers, it’s pretty obvious the Cowboys could benefit from utilizing more screen passes in the future.