Decoding Callahan - The Troubling Evolution Of The Road Game Plan

BY foxsports • October 1, 2013

From an offensive point of view, Sunday was an odd game to evaluate. On one hand, they protected the ball relatively well (until the fumble into the end zone), protected the QB reasonably well, and ran the ball impressively.

On the other hand, they only accumulated 317 yards of total offense, converted very poorly on 3rd Downs (3-9), and barely spent 25 minutes on the field.  None of those generally lead to good things for an offense trying to win a road game.

Since 2007, the Cowboys are 6-16 on the road when they don't get over the 350 yard barrier of total offense.  400 yards is generally the bar in pro football for having a "successful", productive day of offensive yardage, and 317 doesn't normally get the job done.  Oddly, the Cowboys won 3 of those 6 games in 2012 on the road with very low offensive production.  The wins were at Carolina, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati. The games against the Panthers and the Bengals were both won with 20 points or less and the Eagles game had 2 defensive touchdowns and 1 special teams touchdown.

In other words, you generally need yards to score, and points to win.  And when the Cowboys go on the road, they seem to not ever expect to get to 24 points.  That seems partly because they never expect to get to 400 yards.  The game plan gets much more dialed back and careful.  It seems that protecting the ball and the QB are emphasized more than attacking the defense and trying to push the ball down the field.  Take the check-down, call the draw play, and get the punter out there.

There are a number of possible explanations and reasons for this logic, but the staggering way in which the Cowboys offensive production has fallen off over the last 3 seasons is remarkable.  I always like to dissect this current era of the Cowboys as the Romo/Garrett era which is 2007-present.  But, let's cut it again and go from 2007-2009 (the 3 years before Romo's significant injury and Garrett being named head coach) and 2010-present (ever since both of those things happened).

Let's look at the numbers from those periods with regards to 400 yard games on the road:


Years Number Of 400-yard Games On the Road
2007-2009 9 out of 24 (37%), Record of 8-1
2010-2013 4 out of 26 (15%), Record of 3-1

I find this interesting, but it validates the eye-ball test.  If my premise has been that Tony Romo has had the gunslinger taken out of his game - which I think is a bad thing, as that was the characteristic that made him special - then the game plan is safer and more conservative.  That, of course, leads to frustration from all parties, puts more pressure on the defense, and keeps teams in the game no matter who you play.

Now, let's change that search and look at games in which they did not get to 325 yards on the road, which we will call "Stinkers", for that is what they are:

Years Number of Less Than 325-yard Games On the Road
2007-2009 8 out of 24 (33%), Record of 2-6
2010-2013 12 out of 26 (46%), Record of 4-8

So, while we don't know why it has happened - although it appears that either Romo has become more conservative (he is older, he has been injured several times), Garrett has become more conservative (he is now head coach and trying to handle the entire team), or both - the fact is that the Cowboys ratio of games where they had successful days to stinkers on the road used to be about even (From 2007-2009, they had 9 great days and 8 stinkers) and now the stinkers outweigh the successes by a 12-4 margin.

In fact, let's just go from 2012-2013, and we see 7 stinkers and 2 successes in 10 road games.  All of this during a time where the Cowboys have a weapon in Bryant who is as dominant as Terrell Owens was in Dallas.

Now, before we automatically assume it is merely their disposition, we should argue the idea that the Cowboys offense in 2007-2009 was just better than 2011-2013.  And while Bryant for Owens is a fantastic discussion, Witten for Witten and Romo for Romo are tough to compare because the numbers seem there overall.  The running game seems significantly worse (if we concede that running correlates to winning) and the pass protection seems slightly worse (Cowboys QBs were sacked once every 19 passes in 2007-2009, but in 2010-present, they are sacked once every 18 passes), but it is tough to prove that the personnel is the cause for this.  Or, put another way, they might get fewer yards now than they used to, not because Garrett and Romo are more conservative, but because they have less to work with.

Personally, I feel in watching Romo, I see a more careful QB who is protecting his body and his reputation.  One of my favorite Romo performances was a Sunday Night game in Chicago in September of 2007.  I haven't watched it in years, but I remember he made a few throws that were just crazy.  But, they beat up a fantastic defense because their QB had belief that he wouldn't be stopped.

That guy doesn't exist in 2013, I am afraid.

He doesn't take as much punishment as he used to, and I assume that is because he realizes that he cannot stay on the field if he is going to take big hits.  I don't think he trusts his running game or his offensive line anymore, and who can blame him.  But, this does change the type of QB he is.  The same goes for saving his reputation.  If that Jets finish or Lions game in 2011 caused him to receive league-wide ridicule, and that bothered him, did he alter his game from then on?  Was he less likely to take chances?

On some level, that should make you happy as a Cowboys' fan - that the offense is aware that turnovers are bad.  But, on another level, we have seen that offenses that are too conservative limit any chance at big pay-offs that are available to only the teams who "trust the arm" of the QB.  If the object of the game is to never throw interceptions, Brad Johnson would be a great QB.  But, the object of the game is to score points.  To do that, you need yards.  And to do that, you often need a dynamic QB who trusts his system, his team-mates, and his arm.

Do the Cowboys still have that guy?

It has been 8 road games - an entire season's worth! - since the Cowboys offense had a 400 yard day on the road.  It has been 6 road games since they have even broken 330!  Against Kansas City, they had 318 yards and 16 points.  Against San Diego, it was 317 and 14 offensive points.  And at Washington last year to finish the season?  296 yards and 18 points.

They can't get close to 24 points.  They can't get close to 400 yards.

I can't tell you if it is Tony Romo, Jason Garrett, or both.  But, the mindset is predictable and repetitious, and really needs to change.

They weren't comparatively bad on Sunday.  They were normal.  And this normal doesn't maintain an aggressive posture through a 4 Quarter road game anymore.


3rd Down Conversions

As we saw on Sunday, the Cowboys had a chance at a big day on offense, but it was predicated on Dwayne Harris, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten all making catches on 3rd Downs where the ball hit their hands or chest.  They didn't, the punt team came on, and the team lost.

They were 3 for 9 on Sunday (33%) and now sit 23rd in the NFL this season at 34.8%.  The NFL average is 37.7% and 40% is where you need to be to be a good offense.

Meanwhile, they are even worse on 3rd and long (more than 6).  This puts them 24th in the league at a lousy 5 for 26 this season (19.2%).  The league average is 27.3% and do you know who is #1?

Denver is.  Of course.  They are 12 of 23 for 52%.  And they come to town on Sunday.

Data from Week 4 at the San Diego Chargers:

Run-Pass 15-41
Starting Field Position D23
1st Down Run-Pass 12-17
2nd Down Avg Distance to Go 7.88
2nd Down Run-Pass 2-16
3rd Down Avg Distance to Go 7.11
3rd/4th Down Run-Pass 1-8
3rd Down Conversions 3-9, 33%


Here are the passing charts to see what was being accomplished on Sunday.  Intern Tim is back with us this year and he has made some pleasing to the eye charts for us to see.

Blue is a completion. Red is incomplete. Yellow is a touchdown, and Black is an interception. The passes are lines from where Romo released the pass to where the pass was caught. This shows you his release point and where he likes to throw when he slides in the pocket.

1ST HALF PASSING CHART -  (Red incomplete, Blue Completion, Yellow TD, Black INT)

2ND HALF PASSING CHART -  (Red incomplete, Blue Completion, Yellow TD, Black INT)

Dez Bryant Passing Chart -  (Red incomplete, Blue Completion, Yellow TD, Black INT)

Drive Starters - The 1st play of each drive can often reveal the intent of a coach to establish his game plan. How committed is he to the run or pass when the team comes off the sideline? We track it each week here -
Wk 1 - New York Giants: 5 Run/7 Pass - 42% Run
Wk 2 - Kansas City Chiefs: 3 Run/9 Pass - 25% Run
Wk 3 - St. Louis Rams: 8 Run/2 Pass - 80% Run
Wk 4 - San Diego Chargers: 6 Run/4 Pass - 60% Run

2013 Totals: 44 Drives - 22 Run/22 Pass - 50% Run
* This statistic doesn't count the 1-play kneel down drives.

2011 Total: 181 Drives - 79 Run/102 Pass - 44% Run
2012 Total: 173 Drives - 76 Run/97 Pass - 44% Run


Shotgun snaps are fine on 3rd Down and in the 2 minute drill. But, we track this stat from week to week to make sure the Cowboys aren't getting too lazy in using it. They are not efficient enough to run it as their base, and with a 15%/85% run/pass split across the league, there is no way the defense respects your running game. When shotgun totals are high, the Cowboys are generally behind, scared of their offensive line, or frustrated.

Sunday was higher than you want, but not horrendous.

Wk 1 - NYG: 44 Shotgun/71 Total Plays - 61.9%
Wk 2 - at KC: 46 Shotgun/60 Total Plays - 76.6%
Wk 3 - STL: 28 Shotgun/59 Total Plays - 47.4%
Wk 4 - at SD: 33 Shotgun/56 Total Plays - 58.9%

Season Total - 151/246 Total Plays - 61.4%

2011 Total - 445/1012 43.9%
2012 Total - 565/1038 54%

Here is the breakdown by groupings:

And now, a look at the efficiency of each personnel grouping.

Before you study the data below, I would recommend that if the numbers for the groupings are unfamiliar, that you spend some time reading a more expanded definition of the Personnel Groupings here.

Totals by Personnel Groups:

Lots more 11 personnel under center - which I think is another good sign.  They ran the ball very well from under center for the 2nd week in a row, this time for 13 attempts and 65 yards.  Just need more of that, but honestly, I think this is a byproduct of the drops on 3rd Down and the time of possession issue rather than a play-calling issue.  They ran the ball quite a bit in sensible situations, so to just scream that they need to run it more might be losing your grasp on context.

Maybe they need some more 2nd Down runs, but other than that, I was fine with Sunday - provided the receivers don't drop the balls.  And I don't want to be too ridiculous in my expectation level for a 2nd round draft pick that they had to have, but 2 snaps for Gavin Escobar?  I didn't understand the point in April and I am not understanding it better now.

Package Plays Run Yards Run Pass
11 11 64 9-53 2-11
12 10 35 4-12 6-23
13 2 49 0-0 2-49
21 0 0 0-0 0-0
22 0 0 0-0 0-0
23 0 0 0-0 0-0
S01 1 0 0-0 1-0
S02 0 0 0-0 0-0
S11 31 175 2-18 29-157
S12 1 10 0-0 1-10
S13 0 0 0-0 0-0
Other 0 0 0-0 0-0
Totals 56 333 15-83 41-250

* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.

Totals by Personnel Groups on 3rd/4th Down:

As you can see, hardly any production in this category - 9 plays for 22 yards on 3rd Down will not cut it in any situation.

Package Plays Yards Run Pass FD/TD
11 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
12 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
13 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
21 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
22 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
23 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
S01 1 0 0-0 1-0 0/0
S02 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
S11 8 22 0-0 8-22 3/0
S12 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
Other 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
Totals 9 22 0-0 9-22 3/0

Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 41 pass rush/blitz situations:

St Louis did bring pressure with several corner blitzes, but for the most part, the Cowboys were ready and able.

Wk 1: NY blitzed 13/49: 26%
Wk 2: KC blitzed 19/46: 41%
Wk 3: STL blitzed 10/25: 40%
Wk 4: SD Blitzed 8/41: 19%

Season Blitz rate vs Dallas 50/161: 31%

Pass Rushers 3 Rush 4 Rush 5 Rush 6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go) 0 1 0 0
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go) 3 10 1 0
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go) 0 1 0 0
Totals 3 12 1 0

Pass Rushers 3 Rush 4 Rush 5 Rush 6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go) 1 4 2 0
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go) 0 2 2 0
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go) 0 2 2 1
Totals 1 8 6 1

Pass Rushers 3 Rush 4 Rush 5 Rush 6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go) 0 3 0 0
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go) 0 4 0 0
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go) 0 2 0 0
Totals 0 9 0 0


Pass Rushers 3 Rush 4 Rush 5 Rush 6 Rush Total
1st Down 6 - 9% 40 - 64% 12 - 19% 3 - 4% 62 - 38%
2nd Down 2 - 3% 38 - 64% 16 - 27% 3 - 5% 59 - 36%
3rd Down 4 - 9% 21 - 51% 14 - 34% 2 - 4% 41 - 25%
4th Down 0 0 0 0 0
Totals 12 - 7% 99 - 61% 42 - 26% 8 - 4%

Thanks to John Daigle and Tim Krajewski for their work on the charts and graphs.


SUMMARY:  Like I said, it is a tough game to fully evaluate because they did some things that weren't bad.  But, the overall posture of the Cowboys road game plan remains the same.  Get the ball out quick.  Check down passes quite a bit.  Lose sight of pushing the ball down the field in an attack mode, but rather a careful disposition that seems to be averse to risk most of the time.

They are doing some things well, but those underneath passes require precision to move the chains and build a long drive.  They simply must find more big plays and it can't all be to Dez Bryant.  Opposing defenses know that the only big plays are to Bryant, and therefore game-plan to keep that from happening.  To unclog the issues, they have to prove dynamic.  And repeated 6 yard hooks to Witten will not change that.

Now, they play an opponent next week that is in Dallas and is expected to require 31 points to win.  Therefore, let's examine the posture of the Cowboys offense.  I imagine, they will be in attack mode, which is the only way they can logically try to win.  If only attack mode would come with them on the road at some point.  

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