Earlier this week, I noted that when the Cowboys split Jason Witten out wide in a Shotgun formation, they pass almost all of the time. There are obvious benefits to using Witten as a receiver, but the team appears to be giving away their play-calls, at least in terms of whether they’re going to run or pass, based on Witten’s alignment.
One of the benefits of using Witten in-line is that he can stay in to block, even on passing plays. That’s something the Cowboys didn’t do as much in 2012 as other years. I tracked Witten as blocking on just 85 passes all season. So are the Cowboys a better passing offense when Witten is used to provide Tony Romo with extra time to throw the ball?
Probably not. On the 78 passes Romo got off with Witten as a blocker, the quarterback completed 47 of them (60.3 percent) for 604 yards (7.74 YPA), six touchdowns, and four interceptions. That’s good for a passer rating of 88.8—below Romo’s overall mark. Historically, the Cowboys have been better with Witten out in routes, and the trend continued in 2012.
Although Witten is still an above-average receiver, his blocking has deteriorated in recent years. No one really wants to admit it, but Witten isn’t dominant as either a run blocker or in pass protection. He’s not a liability by any means, but keeping him in to block on passing plays doesn’t afford Romo any extra time to find his targets. All it does is give him one less receiver, and an important one at that.
Actually, the Cowboys have given up a higher sack rate with Witten in to block as compared to when he’s in a route. In 2012, defenses sacked Romo on 5.2 percent of his dropbacks. That rate jumped to 7.1 percent when Witten was used in pass protection.
Witten is Romo’s security blanket, and the quarterback looks to his tight end when he’s in trouble. When the pass-rush gets in earlier than expected, Romo can usually find Witten quickly to keep the chains moving. When that outlet is gone, it’s more difficult for Romo to beat the blitz. In effect, Witten’s most effective way of “protecting” Romo is really being a reliable receiver.
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.