A few months ago, I wrote an article detailing why the Cowboys should throw the ball more frequently in 2012. Many believe head coach Jason Garrett already calls for far too many passes, so the article came as a surprise to most.
The truth is that passing the ball is inherently more valuable than running in most situations on the field. First down, although still a running down in the NFL, is one of the best times to pass. The same goes for 2nd and short and other situations when defenses are typically expecting a run.
Of course, the opposite is also true; running the ball can be advantageous when defenses anticipate a pass. Third down, for example, is a tremendous time to run the football because defenses usually line up with nickel personnel, anticipating a pass.
Actually, over the last decade in the NFL, rushing the football has been more effective than passing from 3rd and 1 up until 3rd and 5. And believe it or not, offenses have converted around the same rate of plays on 3rd and 6 to 3rd and 10 whether they called a run or a pass. With NFL defenses transforming more and more to stop the pass, third down rushing figures to continue to be profitable for offenses.
The Cowboys have been no exception to the run-the-ball-on-third-down rule over the past few years. Since I began tracking offensive plays, the ‘Boys have been around 15 percent more likely to convert plays on 3rd and 1 to 3rd and 5 if they run the football instead of pass it. That goes for every down-and-distance in that sub-set, and that’s in spite of one of the league’s worst short-yardage rushing attacks over that timeframe.
If you’re worried about the Cowboys’ ability to really convert a 3rd and medium situation by calling for a run, don’t be. In that range, the types of runs that have typically called—tosses and draws, especially—are the ones on which the current personnel thrives. Tyron Smith, Doug Free, and Phil Costa all excel in space, and both DeMaro Murray and Felix Jones could be characterized as “finesse” runners.
To increase conversion rates on those crucial 3rd and short plays, Dallas might want to think outside of the box—as in literally get defenders out of the box with spread formations. Their interior line has been dominated during the preseason, so running the predictable strong side dive from a tight formation on 3rd and 2 probably won’t get it done this year. Besides, on their patented draw play, the Cowboys average over a full yard extra per rush when they do it from a spread formation as compared to a run-oriented tight formation.
So when you see the ‘Boys run the ball out of a four-receiver spread formation on a crucial 3rd and 4, know that they’re really maximizing their chances for a conversion.
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