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Cowboys' Play-Calling Analysis: Running From Shotgun

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Cowboys Rarely Run From Shotgun

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Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys hands the ball off to DeMarco Murray #29 of the Dallas Cowboys against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Cowboys Stadium on December 16, 2012 in Arlington, Texas.

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While it’s debatable that the Cowboys need to run the ball more often, no one would disagree with the fact that the team must find a way to do it more efficiently. If the ‘Boys average 3.6 YPC on the ground in 2013, they’ll probably be watching the playoffs from home yet again.

Last week, I mentioned that the offense has traditionally run best from three-receiver packages and spread formations. They rarely do it, but running from spread opens up the field and decreases the number of blocks needed for a play to be successful. Of course, one potential problem is that the Cowboys often use a shotgun alignment when they use receiver-heavy personnel. If they don’t want to be predictable, they need to run the ball from shotgun. That’s something that Jason Garrett hasn’t liked to do.

In 2012, the Cowboys used shotgun on over 50 percent of their offensive snaps (548). Many of those were on third down or late in games when defenses knew they’d pass, but many were also in normal game situations. I tracked the run/pass balance from each formation.

Gun 3 Wide Pro: 18 passes, 0 runs
Gun 5 Wide: 39 passes, 0 runs
Gun Spread: 96 passes, 3 runs
Gun Tight End Spread: 140 passes, 13 runs
Gun Tight End Trips: 85 passes, 22 runs
Gun Trips: 129 passes, 2 runs

So the Cowboys had 548 plays from a shotgun formation, but ran the ball from gun just 40 times (7.3 percent). That wouldn’t be a problem if the team used shotgun solely in pass-only situations, but Garrett called for shotgun quite often in the first half, in close games, on first and second down, and so on. That’s an advantage to the defense, even if they don’t know where the ball will be thrown, because the defensive line can pin their ears back and come right after Tony Romo. The Cowboys could theoretically hit them with a screen pass to stop the rush, but they don’t; they ran all of eight screen passes to running backs in 2012.

On top of that, when the Cowboys do run from shotgun, it’s almost always from “Gun Tight End Spread” or “Gun Tight End Trips”—the formations where Jason Witten lines up in-line. From the other four Shotgun formations the Cowboys utilized in 2012, they ran the ball five times combined, despite using the looks plenty in situations when they could have run the ball.

I don’t mean to give the Cowboys away (or do I?), but it’s pretty simple for opposing defensive coordinators; if the Cowboys are in shotgun and Witten is split out wide as a receiver, the offense is going to pass the ball, regardless of the situation.

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.

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