The last thing a play-caller wants is to be predictable. We can talk about execution all day and while the players obviously need to perform on the field, it’s the play-caller’s responsibility to put them in the best position to do that. Some plays have a higher success rate than others in specific situations, and the play-caller need to maximize that chances for success.
I’ve been breaking down the Cowboys’ formations in an attempt to determine how much predictability exists in their play-calling. Not all predictability is bad—it can be harnessed to secure big plays—but in general, we want the play-calls to be as unpredictable as possible.
Yesterday, I showed that the Cowboys rarely run the ball from Shotgun. We’d never expect a really high Shotgun run rate since the alignment is used mostly in passing situations, but I explained that the ‘Boys don’t use Shotgun solely on third down or in the fourth quarter. Further, they’re tipping their play-calls via the specific Shotgun formation; when Jason Witten is split out wide, the offense almost always passes the ball, regardless of the situation.
Below, I broke down the Cowboys’ 2012 Shotgun plays based on the down.
The distribution is pretty incredible with nearly the exact same number of plays across the three downs (if we count third and fourth down together). So while Dallas uses Shotgun on the majority of their third down plays, it’s not like they never run it on first or second down.
I also broke down the Shotgun plays via quarter. The first number below is the percentage of total Shotgun plays that occurred in each quarter. The second number is the percentage of those plays that were on third down. So in the first quarter, the Cowboys ran 15.1 percent of their total Shotgun plays, but 54.9 percent of those first quarter plays were on third down.
I think these numbers are telling because it shows that Jason Garrett doesn’t necessarily put a lot of Shotgun plays into the game plan. In the first quarter of games, the Cowboys don’t line up in Shotgun that often, doing so primarily on third down when they need to pass. By the second quarter, the Shotgun rate jumps substantially, suggesting the Cowboys have either scrapped their game plan by the second quarter or else just wait that long to call optimal plays. This trend to start the game with Tony Romo under center could be one reason the Cowboys start games so slowly.
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.