Dallas Cowboys: How first down runs doomed the offense

Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /

The Dallas Cowboys fell to the extremely beatable New Orleans Saints Sunday night and first down running plays are largely to blame.

Just when we thought the Dallas Cowboys brain trust had it all figured out, they go and do something ridiculous like this. In what was an embarrassing display of offensive ineptitude, the Dallas Cowboys offense only mustered up 10 points in New Orleans on Sunday.

After topping 30 in the previous three contests (against much lesser talent), the Dallas Cowboys fell down to earth causing many to question how legitimate of a contender this team really is. While execution and uncreative play-calls can carry a certain amount of blame, it’s often a lazy excuse for a loss. I mean, isn’t execution and play-calling always to blame when the offense falls on its face?

But one specific thing stands out as a reason for such struggles on Sunday: first down running plays.

Yesterday I heaped praise upon Kellen Moore for his early down play selection. As the numbers overwhelmingly prove, passing on early downs is far more advantageous than running. Last season Dallas was eight times more successful passing on early down than they were running and this season was more of the same.

In fact, this is true for every NFL team. Passing on early downs produces higher EPA than rushing and that’s even factoring in the potential for interceptions, sacks, and incompletions. The reward greatly out weighs the risk.

So why then did Dallas suddenly run the ball so much on first down? For the life of me I can’t come up with an answer.

In what appeared to be “playing not to lose” the Dallas Cowboys abandoned their identify and suffered the consequences

I tracked first down play calls on Sunday night* (excluding the last drive since the play calls were transparent given the circumstance) and counted 11 first down runs and 8 first down passes. Of those 11 runs, only two were deemed successful.

A successful play is essentially a play that puts the offense in a better situation after the play than the team was before the play. That means 81 percent of the time the Dallas Cowboys hurt their scoring chances on first down runs (and one of the “successful” runs was only for a four yards so its success is pretty debatable itself).

Of the eight first down passes, only two were unsuccessful. They happen to be the two passes to Ezekiel Elliott and their failure shouldn’t be overly surprising since Zeke was basically the Dallas Cowboys most ineffective pass-catcher last season (even though he led the team in receptions last season he somehow had a negative EPA).

Related Story. How Dallas' top pass-catcher was also the most ineffective. light

Every time Dak Prescott targeted a tight end or receiver downfield on first down, the play succeeded. Again, this isn’t a departure from the norm across the league. Running plays only succeed roughly 50% of the time on early downs in the NFL. Passing plays are significantly more fruitful. Which all begs the question, why the heck did the Dallas Cowboys insist on calling failed running play after failed running play?

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Establishing the run to set up play-action has been debunked years ago, so that tired narrative is not a valid excuse. I’ll have to check the All-22 but the number of defenders in the box weren’t overwhelmingly attractive either. For some reason the Dallas Cowboys reverted to the stone-age Cowboys of old on Sunday night and it not-so-surprisingly bit them in the backside.

In what appeared to be “playing not to lose” the Dallas Cowboys abandoned their identify and suffered the consequences. Although, I should point out, even in weeks 1-3 Dallas ran more often on first down than they passed (which is already inexcusable). They just found slightly better success and made up for it on 2nd down passes. 

Will Kellen Moore and the Dallas Cowboys see the error of their ways and take corrective action next week? I feel fairly confident they will but it’s disheartening to see this performance (from both players and coaches) and worrisome as we look into the future.

Next. Early down success has been key for the Cowboys in 2019. dark

Note: Play tracking was done live by me, so a possible error could exist. But since the evidence of success and failure was so overwhelming, it’s clear these first down calls played a key role in killing the offense.

  • Published on 09/30/2019 at 11:01 AM
  • Last updated at 09/30/2019 at 11:27 AM