As we spend days at camp pondering how the Dallas Cowboys can be a better football team, I wanted to make sure I tackle the bigger issues and take a deeper look. I think the team thinks this way, and certainly a proper coach thinks this way, so why shouldn’t we?
Now, we can debate how much each problem contributes to keeping a team out of the playoffs or the Super Bowl, but there are certain way to identify each season by what they couldn’t do very well. And in the case of the 2013 Dallas Cowboys, one of the more frustrating identifiers of that team from an offensive standpoint was that they had a heck of a time converting on 3rd Downs.
3rd Downs are the money down in the sport, and where games are won or lost. What is interesting is that the 3rd Down conversion game is similar to the Red Zone conversion game. In 2012, the Cowboys were much better on 3rd Downs, but much worse in converting Red Zone possessions into Touchdowns. In 2013, the script flipped and they drastically improved their Red Zone TD percentage, but the 3rd Downs fell back down the ladder.
3rd Down % and Rank
Red Zone TD % and Rank
93-212, 44%, 5th
25-49, 51%, 20th
63-180, 35%, 25th
35-51, 69%, 3rd
So, last training camp, we sat right here and talked about how the Cowboys should be a better Red Zone team and used their 3rd Down ability as a reason. If they can convert on 3rd Downs this well, shouldn’t they be able to get more done in the red zone?
And, throughout the season, the answer seemed to be a resounding yes. In 2013, with nearly the same exact number of red zone drives as they had in 2012, they punched it into the end zone 10 more times! That is an absurd jump in productivity. Only 2 teams had a better efficiency in the red zone (Denver and Cincinnati) and only 1 team had more touchdowns than the Cowboys from red zone drives (Denver).
But, what happened to the 3rd Downs?
On 3rd Downs, a spot where the Cowboys under Romo have been good over the years, had a horrendous time. They dropped down 30 conversions from 2012 and therefore their attempts dropped down to a league-low 180.
People will say the best way to deal with 3rd Downs is to "stay out of 3rd Downs" and I won’t disagree in general. It is rather clear a team like Denver can stay on the field all day long and still have the 29th most 3rd Down attempts in the NFL. In fact, Seattle had the 30th most 3rd Down attempts, so the 2 Super Bowl teams were actually ranked right above Dallas in this category, as the Cowboys ranked 32nd in 3rd Down opportunities. The difference comes in the conversions as Seattle was simply league average in moving the chains in these situations (nobody would ever argue that they are great at 3rd Downs) and Denver was 2nd in the NFL in conversions. Meanwhile, Dallas was dead last in conversions with only 63 (or fewer than 4 per game) ranked below the offensive machines in Tampa Bay and Jacksonville.
Jason Garrett was asked about this at his daily press conference the other day, and here were his thoughts:
"You always address situational football and we have to get better on 3rd Down. I tell the guys we are going to work these situations more than any team you have ever been on. It is a combination of things. Third Downs are interesting. If you make 1 more a game, or 16 more over the course in a season, then you go from being in the bottom third in the league into the top 10 or top 5. Those plays are critical and we can point to games where we have success and point to a 3rd Down conversion." Nothing terribly earth-shattering there from the coach in what he is dispensing about his feelings on this crucial portion of game theory. His math is a bit faulty, but you get the point.
Let’s look at the math to understand the 3rd Down game a bit better. The average NFL team in 2013 converted 83 3rd Downs at a 38.1% clip. The average playoff team had 87 conversions at 41% of their opportunities. To finish in the Top 5, you would need 95 conversions and a rate at least at 43%.
So, to review, the Cowboys converted a league low 63 3rd Downs at 35% (25th). They would need more than 1 more per game as the coach indicated, but I get his point.
As I said, if you go back the last several years, 2013 looks like an anomaly. They do have a system and personnel that have performed much better over the course of a season and have never been this poor as they were in 2013. The fact that season was counterbalanced with their best red zone year in ages is equally befuddling.
Here is another element for the stew: If you follow this blog, you know that I have long believed that the Cowboys have a different posture away from home. My belief is that we don’t see the same aggression in either play-calling or execution from the QB when they have left their friendly confines over the last season or so. Now, it isn’t always the same, exactly. But, on the whole, it seems that the Cowboys are quite risk-averse when they are away from home. I think they do not roll the dice or attack as much, and often enter the game with the setting of "a punt is better than a mistake" in their offensive game plan.
Well, have a look at the home/away splits on 3rd Down:
36-91, 39.6% – 15th
27-89, 30% – 31st
If 38% is league average, this seems to find the issue with a bit more clarity. I can take it a step further as well, but to do so, you will need to allow me to dabble in an issue that hasn’t exactly been admitted on the record.
There were plenty of us who cover this team that concluded that the play-calling mantle shifted last year after the New Orleans game. Remember, that was the 10th game of the season and easily the low-point of the 2013 season when the Cowboys played their worst game at the Super Dome and were steamrolled like few teams have been humiliated. They looked awful and the season appeared to be lost. That, it seemed, would cost Jason Garrett his position and maybe his career (at least as a Head Coach). Something had to happen, and although there were certainly no public proclamations, it is believed by many that Garrett started calling the plays again from there on out and basically took the card back from Bill Callahan.
In that Cowboys way of doing things, they had no interest in sharing the info with the public (and you can easily argue that there is no reason to do so), but there were several adjustments made to the offense in the final 6 games (starting with the game at New York after the bye week until the Philadelphia game). Regardless of what I can prove, the Cowboys magically figured out 3rd Downs during this stretch – at least to the point where they were almost in the "top third" of the league.
38-116, 32.8% – 30th
25-64, 39.1% – 12th
Also, look at the road splits during 2013:
14-58, 24% – 32nd
13-31, 42% – 7th
Now, there are a number of reasons for all of this. For instance, the biggest key to converting 3rd Downs is what you do on 1st and 2nd down to stay out of 3rd and long. If your average yards to go on 3rd Down are low, the Cowboys are fine. But, 3rd and long (6 yards or more), this team is down at 21% conversion. Now, understand that nobody is great on 3rd and long – NFL average is only 26% – but the issues are worse here.
So, in a few days when I examine the running game and the massive uptick in that department after the New Orleans game as well, we can connect the two and say that when the Cowboys run the ball better, then 3rd Down yards to go drop to "3rd and manageable". And, then this allows for more 3rd Down success.
Conversely, when exclusive passing is the order of the day, that means that an incompletion and a penalty puts you in 3rd and 13 and nobody converts those with any regularity.
Also, let’s not forget the alterations in Romo’s game. Whether it was his health or his sanity, he is not taking as many beatings because he is making more "business decisions" in the pocket. He has changed his aggressiveness and seems to get the ball out much quicker. That makes sense unless you need to buy time for your receivers to get past the sticks. If you can encourage him to unload quickly with blitzers and have to take an underneath route on 3rd and 8, then the defense has won even though they don’t get a sack out of the blitzing. And, in the NFL, if a team doesn’t like being blitzed, they face more blitzes.
We have seen the blitz rate rise on 3rd Down against the Cowboys, which led us to the Cowboys trying more "empty" personnel groups during 2013 to spread out the defense and thus make blitzing more difficult. It worked for a bit, but defenses adjusted.
Jason Garrett and Romo love Shotgun 11 personnel on 3rd Downs (and hurry up) and ran some variation of that grouping more than any other group (by miles). That means that Miles Austin will need a replacement as he was on the field in most 3rd Down situations. Cole Beasley seems to be the likely candidate to replace him in the slot, but he did play fewer than 250 snaps in 2013. To double or triple that total might require some faith. Devin Street is also in the mix, but his camp will tell us more on that front as to his readiness for big play downs in his rookie season.
Regardless, the Cowboys need to get back to 5 conversions a game. They were at 3.9 in 2013, and that 1 more per game will do wonders. They were the worst team in the NFL at sustaining drives, and there is no doubt that this is the culprit in conjunction with the early downs not putting you in better 3rd Down situations (RUN THE BALL).
If you can’t sustain drives, then your defense comes back on the field again. And if you have a horrible defense, then you are in big trouble (See 2013).
And that is a good place to lead into our study of the run game in our next edition.