Dallas Cowboys: Is it time to stop using the tight end position?

Geoff Swaim #87 Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Geoff Swaim #87 Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

Given the Dallas Cowboys lack of depth at tight end, and recent injury to starter, Geoff Swaim, is it time to move away from the TE position and towards receiver-heavy personnel packages?

The Dallas Cowboys have never been very deep at the tight end position. Before the season ever began they lost their TE1 (Jason Witten) and their TE2 (James Hanna) to sudden cases of retirement. With no outside solution available to remedy the situation, the Cowboys went internal and promoted their third tight end, Geoff Swaim, to the starting spot – basically hoping for the best.

Up until now, one could say they lucked out in that gamble. While Geoff Swaim may not be the asset Witten or even Hanna was, he has proven capable of providing the Cowboys an extremely well-rounded game.  Unfortunately the depth behind Swaim is nonexistent, and since Swaim is expected to be out for the foreseeable future as he recovers from hand surgery, now may be the time to rethink the offense’s personnel packages.

Spread ‘em out!

Many in Cowboys Nation are taking this as an opportunity to push an agenda: abandon the TE position and spread out the offense.

After laying witness to the offensive masterpiece that was the Los Angeles Rams versus the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football, even I was caught pointing at the television uttering, “That. I want that for my offense.”

Who wouldn’t? After all these are two of the most brilliant offenses we’ve seen in quite some time. They are loaded with talent, creativity, and execution. Collectively scoring over 100 points, it’s understandable many in Cowboys Nation wrinkled their noses when thinking of their own mild-mannered plodding offense back home.

Are tight ends an endangered species?

Unless you’re particularly loaded at the position, moving away from the tight end may do your offense some good. It’s not exactly ground breaking to say as much. We’re seeing teams move further in that direction by the day.

11 personnel (3WR, 1RB, and 1TE) is the most popular offensive package in the NFL and gets more popular by the day. Teams like the LA Rams run it 98 percent of the time! The 2-TE package that Jason Garrett has always seemed to love (12 personnel) has become a dinosaur in this league as teams opt for more explosive receivers instead.

Extra receivers (and less tight ends) aren’t just helping the passing game but it’s also helping the running game. Because as counter intuitive as it sounds, having less blockers is leading to a higher yards per carry average league wide.

As PFF pointed out earlier this month, employing that extra WR forces defenses to adapt and carry an extra DB (at the expense of a LB). By thinning out, and more importantly, spreading out, the defense, the running game has greater opportunity for success.

But not always.

PFF also pointed out Dallas is one of the few exceptions to this rule. At the time of the publication, Dallas had been considerably more successful with the extra blocker, averaging 5.4 yards per carry with two or fewer receivers on the field compared to 3.9 with three receivers. So in the case of our beloved Dallas Cowboys, it’s not the case –  and it’s not even close.

The reality of the Dallas Cowboys

As hard as it is to believe, the Dallas Cowboys actually use extra tight ends LESS than most other NFL teams. While the league average is 17% 12 personnel usage, the Dallas Cowboys are only at 16%. What’s even more surprising is even though they use the “12” less, they’re actually more successful than the rest of the league:

According to Sharp Football Stats, Dallas has a successful play rate of 53% in 12 personnel, compared to just 45% in 11 personnel, and 21% in 10 personnel. For the Dallas Cowboys, even 21 (2 RBs) and 13 (3TEs) are outperforming three and four receiver sets. These numbers indicate more WRs may not be the answer.

But before we get carried away and start calling for a 12 and 13 heavy offense, we need to dive in a bit deeper and look at down and distance. That’s because situations matter.

Between the 20s and in the Red Zone

Things are much different depending on the down and distance. Looking at Sharp Football’s situational stats from last season, we can see between the 20’s the Dallas Cowboys were more successful playing out of 11 personnel (51% success rate) than they were out of 12 or 21 personnel (39% and 45% respectively).

Inside the red zone, the numbers flip and Dallas finds considerably more success in 12, 21, 13, and 23 than they do in three or four receiver sets. So while all together the Cowboys are yielding a more successful rate from packages using extra TE/FB, it’s the red zone and short yardage stuff that’s skewing the data.


Opponents also matter. The last thing an offense like the Dallas Cowboys wants to do against the likes of the New Orleans Saints, Rams, or Chiefs is to spread out their own offense and get in a shootout with them. That’s a losing formula right there. Against high powered offenses the Cowboys want to slow things down, limit possessions (limit sample size), keep opposing passers out of rhythm and praying they can score more points than their opponent.

In the same regard a team that’s weak at DB and strong at LB should be spread out and exploited for mismatches. It’s a chess game and varying the personnel to take advantage of the opposition’s weakness is just as important as playing to your own strengths. That’s why making a blanket statement like: we need to spread out the offense and pick up the pace is just as wrong as saying we need to focus on what we do best and pound the ball behind our best blockers. Both are right AND wrong because it’s all situational.


We can get creative with packages and have the team operate like a multiple TE offense without forcing another tight end onto the field. Players like WR Noah Brown and FB Jamize Olawale can both block like tight ends. Inserting them into the offense would disguise the offenses intentions and keep options for audibles alive.

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Can Rico/Jarwin/Schultz get it done?

Here is the real question. Accepting that the Dallas Cowboys have been good at deploying their widely pedestrian TE corps so far, can they continue to find success without Geoff Swaim in the lineup?

I think the answer has to be “yes”.

The individual execution of Swaim is nothing to write home about (although, he’s been improving as a blocker each game and that shoestring catch on Sunday was an impressive sight to behold).

Swaim is rated by PFF (subscription required) as just the 49th TE in the NFL, so it’s fair to say most teams have TWO tight ends executing better than our top dog. He’s scoring below average in both receiving and blocking.

So why are the Dallas Cowboys so darn successful with their TEs on the field? Because it often works best for the entire offensive unit. As much as it pains me to admit – this is who we are. I’ve been clamoring for a spread out 10 personnel attack for years, but the reality is – that ain’t who we are.

Swaim, Gathers, Jarwin, and Schultz may not be winning individual battles in convincing fashion, but as a part of the entire offense, the job is getting done. Simply put – they are functional enough. It doesn’t look pretty but it’s getting the job done. Which is something four receiver sets have yet to do for Dallas.

Next. Why you should be optimistic about Dak Prescott. dark

Fun Fact: Rico Gathers actually has better PFF scores than Swaim in both receiving and run-blocking (they are nearly equally as atrocious in pass-protection). One would think the promising, yet maligned, Gathers could step in and fill his shoes at TE1. Plus, given his enormous size, he requires less execution to be that all-important “functional” TE we need him to be.

To summarize, it’s not so easy to definitively say the Dallas Cowboys are better as TE heavy team or better spread out with WRs because situations and opponents play such a large role.

  • Published on 11/21/2018 at 13:14 PM
  • Last updated at 11/21/2018 at 13:14 PM