When teams game plan for one another heading into a game, one of their primary tasks is searching for tendencies. If the Cowboys know that an opponent runs the ball on nearly every play on 2nd and 1, for example, that information can be parlayed into an improved game plan.
When I first began studying Jason Garrett’s play-calling in 2009, perhaps his most blatant tendency was allowing previous play-calls to dictate his current ones. That was particularly true on second down, when Garrett would often run if he had passed on first down and pass if he had run. The thinking, in all likelihood, was to “mix it up” in order to keep the defense guessing. In attempting to randomize his play-calling, however, Garrett was quite ironically becoming extremely predictable. You can consult my previous studies of Garrett’s second-down calls to see just how predictable he had become.
To Garrett’s credit (or perhaps more so to the credit of the analytics team the Cowboys brought in after that season), the coach’s second-down play-calling improved dramatically in 2010. It’s been above-average ever since.
Below, I’ve pasted the majority of Garrett’s second-down play-calls, broken down by the distance needed for a first down and the previous call. The only plays not included are those on 2nd and Goal and those that followed a penalty.
2nd and 1 to 2nd and 3: 33 runs, 25 passes (43.1 percent pass rate)
- 20.0 percent pass rate after first-down runs, 51.2 percent pass rate after first-down passes
2nd and 4 to 2nd and 7: 39 runs, 66 passes (62.9 percent pass rate)
- 63.9 percent pass rate after first-down runs, 61.4 percent pass rate after first-down passes
2nd and 8 to 2nd and 10: 21 runs, 62 passes (74.7 percent pass rate)
- 92.3 percent pass rate after first-down runs, 71.4 percent pass rate after first-down passes
2nd and 11 or greater: 3 runs, 36 passes (92.3 percent pass rate)
- 89.5 percent pass rate after first-down runs, 95.0 percent pass rate after first-down passes
In this particular article, I’m not concerned with Garrett’s overall pass rates; it doesn’t matter if he wants to pass the ball 90 percent of the time on 2nd and short or 10 percent of the time. What’s important is that whatever pass rate he chooses remains relatively stable whether he threw the football on first down or ran it. He can’t let previous decisions alter his philosophy on the current call to the extent that it creates an exploitable advantage for the defense.
For example, if Garrett’s overall pass rate on 2nd and 5 were exactly 50 percent, we’d want to see it around 50 percent on second-down plays that followed both passes and runs on first down. If the percentage of passes is dramatically different in a particular situation based on whether the Cowboys ran the ball or passed it on first down, it shows a tendency in Garrett’s play-calling. Not all tendencies are bad, but we certainly wouldn’t want the defense to have a very strong idea of whether or not Dallas is passing the ball on second down based on what Garrett called on first down.
Looking at the numbers above, you can see that Garrett passed the ball a lot more often on 2nd and short (between one and three yards to go for a first down) after he had already thrown the ball on first down. That’s probably evidence of a conscious shift in Garrett’s decision-making; whereas a few years ago he called a whole lot more passes after first-down runs, now he’s doing just the opposite on 2nd and short. In effect, he’s overcompensating for past mistakes.
Overall, though, Garrett’s second-down play-calling is much-improved. You can see that on 2nd and 4 to 2nd and 7, the coach’s pass rate after a run was nearly identical to that after a pass. It’s comparable on second-down plays with even more yards to go, too. That’s smart play-calling—tangible evidence that Garrett has improved as a coordinator.
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.