Dallas Cowboys: Early down passing key to early season success

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - SEPTEMBER 22: Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TEXAS - SEPTEMBER 22: Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) /

Much of the Dallas Cowboys early season success can be attributed to the play-calling; specifically their desire to embrace analytics and call more passing plays on early downs

The Dallas Cowboys are a running team. We’ve heard this decree ever since they drafted Ezekiel Elliott with pick No. 4 in the 2016 NFL Draft. And for the most part it’s been true. In fact, it’s been true since the Cowboys 2014 season where DeMarco Murray helped Tony Romo deliver arguably his most successful campaign of his career.

But just because you’re a running team, doesn’t mean you need to run a dated script. For years the run-run-pass philosophy has ruled the hearts and minds of play-callers. Manageable third downs has been the goal and for running teams like the Dallas Cowboys running the ball on early downs was the best way to achieve “manageable” situations.

In recent years the term “manageable” has been challenged. It turns out teams are in a better situation in a 1st and 10 than they are in a 3rd and 3. From statistical perspective, the best way to find manageable is to avoid 3rd down altogether.

When the Dallas Cowboys sent Scott Linehan out to pasture and replaced him with the uber-green Kellen Moore, a change in philosophy was impossible to ignore. Dallas was still a running team, but the early down play-calling was noticeably different.

The success of early down passing has been apparent for some time now. Last season Dallas was eight times more successful (8x higher EPA) passing on early downs than they were rushing. Because even when factoring in the added risk of interceptions (which is still extremely low), and chance of a incomplete pass (although completion percentage is highest on early downs so not a very valid worry), and the risk of a sack (not an issue this season), passing has significantly more reward than risk.

2nd down’s the charm

The numbers don’t lie, the best down to pass is first down. While the Dallas Cowboys have increased the number of first down passes, running plays have greatly outnumbered them in every game (even when we disregard running-out-the-clock situations). But Dallas makes up for this folly on second down.

Dallas leads the NFL in second-and-long passing. At a time when so many teams that fail on first down, inexplicably call running plays (again, trying to find that “manageable” third down), Kellen Moore’s Dallas Cowboys throw the ball.

More than any other team

Clearly the strength of schedule, pre-snap motion, and increased play-action all play a significant role in the Dallas Cowboys offensive prowess, but we can’t overlook the all-important early down play-calling. It’s a philosophical break from the Dallas norm that is supported by overwhelming evidence.

Best yet, there’s still plenty of room to improve on first down.

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The Dallas Cowboys can be a run-heavy team but in order to find consistent success they need to be pass-heavy on early downs. Risk is low, reward is great, and the numbers support it.

  • Published on 09/29/2019 at 11:53 AM
  • Last updated at 09/29/2019 at 11:53 AM