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Cowboys' Playaction Passes Should Change in 2012

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Cowboys' Playaction Passes Should Change

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With DeMarco Murray’s early dominance this preseason, it’s only natural to wonder what sort of potential production we might see from the second-year standout this season.

While his running prowess is certainly of use to Dallas, I think Murray’s ability to affect the passing game could be his most valuable contribution to the offense in 2012. By altering defensive calls and sucking defenders toward the line, efficienct running from Murray can be parlayed into passing success, particularly via the playaction pass.

Playaction passes could be the Cowboys’ best friend in 2012, but I’ve been pretty critical of head coach Jason Garrett’s use of them in the past. Since 2009, the ‘Boys have called for a playaction pass on 9.7 percent of snaps. Just 10.9 percent of those passes have been thrown 20-plus yards downfield. That means that over the few thousand offensive plays run by Dallas in the past three seasons, just 1.1 percent of them have been deep playaction passes.
 
Further, Garrett rarely calls for a playaction pass in short-yardage situations. Actually, of plays with 1-4 yards to go for a first down since 2009, the Cowboys have called a playaction pass on only 3.8 percent of them! That’s about 1-in-25. In comparison, the Cowboys have actually run more passes with 20 or more yards to go for a first down than with between one and four.
 
And how about this: fewer than one-quarter of the Cowboys playaction passes have come with fewer than 10 yards to go for a first down.
 
The good news for Cowboys fans is that Garrett has evolved pretty magnificently as a head coach and play-caller. A lot of the problems that plagued him in his initial seasons have already been ironed out, and I expect him to correct this aberration as well.
 
But how exactly can Garrett maximize playaction efficiency? For starters, I’d begin calling for the look on 2nd and short. In those situations, the opportunity for a big play is tremendous, and the downside of an incompletion is small. If you misfire, you still have potentially two more plays on which to convert the short-yardage distance.
 
Garrett will need to call for way more downfield throws in order to maximize the chances for big plays. Of course, his willingness to do so in past years was likely tempered by shaky offensive line play. That problem doesn’t appear to be resolved in 2012, so it’s unclear if we’ll really see more deep looks.
 
With Tony Romo’s success on deep passes—he was second in the NFL in both completion percentage and passer rating on throws of 20 or more yards last year—I think the offense could really benefit from more deep passes. By throwing those deep balls off of playaction looks, the Cowboys should be able to significantly increase the upside of their passing game without dramatically increasing risk. 

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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