The most successful offensive coordinators in the NFL tend to be the most unpredictable; they pass when the defense expects a run, and vice versa. Creative offensive minds utilize deception not only in their play-calls, but also in the design of the play itself. Counters, screens, draws, and playaction passes are all examples of plays with built-in uncertainty; they make the defense believe one thing is coming when it’s really something much different.
It is my belief that Jason Garrett’s play-calling is inherently predictable, not only in his decision to run or throw, but also in the design of his plays. Today, I’ll examine the Cowboys’ playaction pass usage thus far in 2012. I wrote about the Cowboys’ playaction passes in the preseason:
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.
I suggested that, if the Cowboys’ playaction passing game evolved, they could use it a whole lot more to exploit defenses downfield. So how is Garrett doing so far in 2012?
Through Week 4, Garrett has called only 13 playaction passes, meaning the team is on pace to total around 50 percent of the playaction passes they’ve averaged over the past three years. Not a great start. Of the 13 passes, 11 have come on 1st and 10. None have come with 1-4 yards to go for a first down, suggesting that Garrett is dialing up the playaction looks in the same old situations.
The only bright spot is that the Cowboys are looking to get the ball downfield a bit off of their playaction looks. Two of the 13 passes have traveled 20-plus yards in the air, and all but three have traveled at least 13 yards. I think the fact that Garrett has altered his playaction passes to allow Tony Romo to get the ball down the field is a major reason we’re seeing the Cowboys succeed on the passes. The ‘Boys have completed 11 of their 13 playaction passes for 180 yards and a touchdown—good for a passer rating of 144.4. Out of tight formations (when the defense anticipates a run), Romo is 8-for-9 for 154 yards and a touchdown on playaction passes, compared to 1-for-2 for zero yards on playaction passes out of spread formations.
With so much success on playaction passes, it’s really a wonder Garrett isn’t calling more of them. Just over three per game isn’t going to cut it moving forward, especially when the Cowboys’ rushing efficiency picks up.
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.