Twenty-seven NFL quarterbacks have taken at least half of their team’s offensive snaps. Twenty-four of them have posted greater efficiency on play-action passes than straight dropbacks. On a league-wide basis, the play-action pass is perhaps the most underutilized weapon in offensive coordinators’ arsenals. Jason Garrett might finally be realizing it.
Although the Cowboys were hampered by game situations in much of the first half of the season, Garrett called play-action passes at a historically low rate. Actually, Tony Romo’s current play-action pass rate of 9.9 percent still ranks him last in the NFL. The difference between Romo and the next-lowest quarterback—Eli Manning—is greater than the difference between Manning and the next 10 quarterbacks.
And that’s after two games with an increased rate of play-action passes. Against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, Garrett called 18 total play-action passes, representing 21.2 percent of Romo’s attempts over that time—over twice the normal rate. Romo has responded by completing 68.8 percent of those play-action passes for 182 yards, two touchdowns, and no picks—good for a passer rating of 146.4.
The increased play-action usage is a great thing for Cowboys fans—a sign that Garrett has altered his play-calling for the better. Of course, it’s possible that DeMarco Murray’s presence in the lineup has aided the Cowboys’ recent play-action pass efforts. However, although it’s popular to talk about how the run sets up the pass, it’s not exactly true. There’s actually no correlation at all between rushing efficiency and play-action pass success; defenders play a run-fake a certain way based on down-and-distance and personnel, regardless of the offense’s past rushing success. That fact shows up in the play-action passing numbers for guys like Sam Bradford, Drew Brees, Carson Palmer, Aaron Rodgers, and Ben Roethlisberger, all of whom have been remarkably effective on play-action without much threat of a running game.
Along with the increased rate of play-action looks from Dallas, we also saw Garrett keep tight end Jason Witten in to block more often against the Steelers; the two probably go hand-in-hand. If you recall, I suggested that Witten be used in pass protection more often to help the struggling offensive line. On Sunday, the Cowboys’ pass protection was vastly improved over previous weeks, due in large part to Witten’s presence as a blocker. The tight end stayed in to block on nearly one-quarter of Romo’s dropbacks, compared to only seven total passing plays in the three previous games combined.
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.