We hear all the time about how poor the Cowboys’ offensive line has performed in pass protection. While I’d hardly consider them an elite unit, especially on the right side, they’re not quite as poor as most make them out to be, for a few reasons. First, Tony Romo spends quite a lot of time in the pocket. That’s usually a good thing because he’s athletic enough to make plays, but it also makes it more difficult for the offensive linemen to block for him. Romo can dodge free rushers, but he also forces his linemen to pass protect longer. There’s really not much the Cowboys can or should do about that; you take the good with the bad.
Second, and more important, opposing rushers can pin their ears back and come straight after Romo in most situations. That’s what happens on third-and-long or when you’re down late in the game. Some use that as a reason to run the football more often to keep defenders back, although I’m not sure that’s the answer, primarily because the Cowboys’ passing game is more efficient than the run even if defenders know what’s coming.
However, there are different ways to keep defenders on their heels without running a dive play straight into the heart of the defense. The most useful play type that the Cowboys have almost never utilized under Jason Garrett is the screen pass. I track all plays each year, and the ‘Boys ran only 24 screens in all of 2012—1.5 per game. On top of that, only eight of those screens were to running backs. Eight! That’s one running back screen every two games. The rest were to wide receivers or Jason Witten.
So if the Cowboys want to keep rushers back or utilize their momentum against them, they should probably be running way more screen passes. All of their running backs are above-average receivers out of the backfield, and the passes could really work as an extension of the running game. There’s a very low chance for an incompletion on a screen, but it has more upside and a longer average gain than a rushing play. It’s really a rushing play with a higher ceiling.
With Bill Callahan calling the plays in 2013, it’s likely you’ll see the Cowboys’ screen rate increase substantially. They’ve reportedly been working on them in practice and, if used appropriately, screen passes could really aid this offense. Don’t be surprised to see the number of screen increase to 50 or even 75—two to three times what we saw in 2012.
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.