Issues in Oxnard: The 3rd Down Problem Must Be Solved
JUL 29, 2014 11:49a ET
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.
|Season||3rd Down % and Rank||Red Zone TD % and Rank|
|2012||93-212, 44%, 5th||25-49, 51%, 20th|
|2013||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|
|Weeks 1-10||Weeks 11-16|
|38-116, 32.8% - 30th||25-64, 39.1% - 12th|
|Weeks 1-10||Weeks 11-16|
|14-58, 24% - 32nd||13-31, 42% - 7th|
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).