I’ve been a big proponent of play-action passes for a long time. As a whole, NFL teams underutilize play-action passes; the looks have relatively little downside, but they dramatically increase an offense’s ability to secure big plays. Of the 27 quarterbacks to take at least half of their team’s snaps last season, 18 had a higher passer rating on play-action than on straight dropbacks. That’s true for Tony Romo, who registered a remarkable 109.1 passer rating on play-action passes, compared to just 88.3 otherwise.
However, no team in the NFL uses play-action less frequently than Dallas. And it isn’t even close. Romo showed play-action on just 10.0 percent of his 2012 dropbacks. The difference between Romo and the next-lowest quarterback—Eli Manning—is greater than the difference between Manning and the next 11 passers. It’s really shocking that the Cowboys show play-action as little as they do, despite the fact that they’ve had a lot of success with it over the years.
You might argue that the Cowboys don’t use play-action because they don’t have an effective running game, but that doesn’t really matter. Believe it or not, there’s almost no correlation between rushing efficiency and play-action passing success, meaning teams should be faking handoffs whether they average 5.5 YPC on the ground or only 3.5 YPC.
Looking at the Cowboys’ 2012 play-action passes, I noticed a pretty cool trend. If you recall from yesterday’s post, the Cowboys typically leave Jason Witten in to block too often on passing plays; he’s not really a great blocker anymore and Romo needs the extra receiving target in a route. Well, there might be a time when it’s smart to leave Witten in to block—play-action passes.
A lot of defenses key Witten to determine whether or not the Cowboys are running or passing. When he goes into a route, linebackers drop with him, regardless of the backfield action. But when Witten stays in to block and defenders also see Romo turning to hand off the ball, they fly up to support the run. That makes the Cowboys especially dangerous on play-action looks with Witten used as a blocker; his whereabouts are important to the defense and open up things for the other receivers.
Witten stayed in to block on 25 of the Cowboys’ play-action passes in 2012. Romo completed 19 of those passes for 345 yards. That’s a remarkable 13.8 YPA. Witten shouldn’t be used as a blocker too often, but keeping him in on play-action passes has obvious benefits.
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.