ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 04: Jason Witten #82 of the Dallas Cowboys is tackled by Robert McClain #27 and Stephen Nicholas #54 of the Atlanta Falcons at Georgia Dome on November 4, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
While the Cowboys used three or more receivers on an incredible 56.3 percent of their offensive snaps in 2012, it was really only out of necessity. Down late in so many games, Dallas was forced to use pass-oriented personnel packages and Shotgun formations. Actually, they lined up in Shotgun on a ridiculous 544 snaps—52.1 percent of all plays.
There are times when using a three-receiver, Shotgun formation is beneficial. The Cowboys and most NFL teams actually have more success running from spread formations than tight ones, for example, especially on third down. Such personnel groupings aren’t ideal for Jason Garrett, however, whose scheme is really based around two-tight end packages.
Due to unfavorable game situations, the ‘Boys couldn’t use two tight ends as often as they would have liked this season. Still, Dallas ran nearly one-quarter of their offensive plays—24.0 percent—with exactly two tight ends on the field, the majority of them with “12” personnel (one running back, two tight ends, and two receivers).
From his base “12” package, Garrett actually called a pass 64.2 percent of the time. Many people (and defenses, it seems) anticipate a run from two-tight end formations, but Garrett has historically passed often with his “12” package on the field. It’s a smart tactic, too. While it’s probably inherently valuable to have more receivers on the field to pass, in practice, it’s advantageous to do so with “heavy” packages and formations because it forced sub-optimal defenders onto the field and it possesses the element of surprise.
We saw this a bit in 2012. With “12” personnel, the Cowboys gained 4.03 YPC when running the ball. That’s superior to the offense’s overall mark, but not as good as their rushing efficiency from three-receiver sets and still not even a league-average mark. In comparison, Tony Romo totaled 7.69 YPA with “12” personnel—higher than his overall mark of 7.57 YPA. In past years, the differences were ever greater.
Looking forward to 2013, the Cowboys actually want as much “12” personnel as possible. Not only do they pass the ball well with heavy packages, but a lot of “12” and “21” personnel would be a sign that they’re winning football games. Remember, Garrett was forced into using pass-heavy groupings due to disadvantageous game situations; over 60 percent of the Cowboys’ plays with “11” personnel came after the first half. If Dallas can come out of the gates hotter in 2013, it will allow Garrett to call for more “12” personnel, potentially giving Dallas the ability to pass more efficiently to start games.
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.