It’s popular to break down how offenses perform inside the red zone—the hypothetical area inside the opponent’s 20-yard line—but the “real” red zone is inside the opponent’s 10-yard line. That’s where the ability of an offense to move the football as usual breaks down, anyway. While passing is generally suitable to running in most areas of the field, a strong running game is a necessity to thrive near the goal line. When the field shrinks and defenders don’t need to worry about receivers beating them deep, the benefits of passing over running diminish.
That’s particularly true on first down. On a league-wide basis, coaches called for a first-down run 52.2 percent of the time in 2012. As a whole, most teams could increase offensive efficiency by passing a whole lot more on first down in most areas. Jason Garrett’s first-down play-calling has generally been pretty good—he called for a pass on 58.7 percent of the Cowboys’ first downs this year—but he actually passes too often in the “real” red zone.
Remember, offenses have historically scored more often when passing on first down anywhere outside of the opponent’s 10-yard line, but running on first down inside of it. It’s not like coaches can call a pass or run on every play in a particular area, but they can and should lean certain ways in specific areas.
Between the opponent’s 10 and 19-yard lines, Garrett called 20 passes and 12 runs on first down in 2012. That 62.5 percent pass rate is among the highest in the league, and that’s a good thing. While the Cowboys hardly dominated on those passes with 5.50 YPA, that number is significantly higher than the 2.75 YPC Dallas running backs averaged in that area.
Inside the opponent’s 10-yard line, though, Garrett maintained his pass-heavy approach, doing so on 56.2 percent of first downs. The Cowboys were absolutely horrific inside the opponent’s 10-yard line this year, passing nine times for six yards and running seven times for zero yards. You read that correctly; the Cowboys ran only 16 plays on first down inside the opponent’s 10-yard line this season, gaining six total yards.
If those numbers seem outrageous, it’s because, well, they are. In comparison, the typical NFL team ran 27 first-down plays inside the opponent’s 10-yard line, gaining an average of 57 yards—51 more than Dallas. The league-wide first-down pass rate in the “real” red zone was only 37.4 percent, and that’s probably near optimal.
Moving forward, the Cowboys should certainly alter their first-down play-calling inside the opponent’s red zone. The easiest way to improve their red zone production in 2013, however, is simply to get there more often.
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.