In any NFL game, a head coach is faced with numerous decisions that can greatly affect the outcome. Nearly all aspects of a coach’s game management—things like fourth-down decisions, timeouts, and onside kicks—have a significant impact on his team’s success. On Sunday, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett made two decisions that many are criticizing today—one to run the ball only 10 times and another to kick an extra point near the end of regulation. Despite the disapproval, Garrett made good decisions on both fronts.
It may have once been true that teams needed to run to set up the pass, but the elite teams in today’s NFL pass the ball early and often. Although rushing the ball frequently is strongly correlated with winning, that’s only because teams that are already winning run the ball late. The Cowboys and most NFL teams actually win more when they pass to start games; the ‘Boys have historically won nearly 50 percent more often when they pass the ball on at least 57 percent of snaps in the first three quarters.
On Sunday, the Cowboys passed on 81.8 percent of their offensive snaps. That had led to some criticism of Garrett’s clock management; there are firm believers out there that you need to “control the clock” to win in the NFL. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Like rushing attempts, time-of-possession is strongly correlated with team wins, but again, that’s simply a result of winning teams running the ball late in games. In reality, there’s no causal relationship between possessing the ball and winning after accounting for game situations, i.e. you don’t win games simply by holding onto the ball.
Further, good teams should actually avoid “controlling the clock.” It’s of course advantageous to have the ball, but running simply for the sake of winning time-of-possession is self-defeating. Since running is generally sub-optimal to passing, trying to control the clock early in games via the ground often results in fewer plays and, ironically, less time with the ball.
In the end, it’s important to understand that leading time-of-possession is simply something that accompanies winning, not a cause of it. On Sunday, Garrett was absolutely right to pass as many times as he did. Sure, Drew Brees and the Saints were able to run more offensive plays, but so was Dallas. In any game in which a team considers themselves to be the favorite, increasing the sample size of plays also improves the probability of victory.
There’s been some talk that the Cowboys should have gone for two once Romo hit Miles Austin in the end zone just before the end of regulation. Down 31-30, a successful two-point conversion would have all but won the game for Dallas. With so little time left on the clock, it’s relatively easy to determine the “right” call in such a situation; if the odds of converting for a two-point conversion exceeded the chances of Dallas taking down the Saints in overtime, then forgoing the extra point would have been the right call.
Even with the Saints’ high-powered offense, the Cowboys were probably slight favorites going into overtime; they had just scored two quick touchdowns and appeared to be a good bet to score in overtime.
However, teams have historically converted two-point conversions on just under half of their tries; since 2009, the conversion rate is 48.5 percent. Even taking into consideration that the Cowboys are an above-average offense, you probably wouldn’t expect their anticipated conversion rate to exceed 55 percent. Thus, unless Garrett had a particular play in mind that he figured had a very high probability of converting, I think he made the right call to send the game to overtime.
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.