Dallas Cowboys: What makes a football play successful?

A successful football play is a play that puts the Dallas Cowboys in a better situation after the play than they were before.

Was the Dallas Cowboys last play successful? It seems odd that we must take the time to define what is successful and what is not, but the answer isn’t always as obvious as it may seem at face value. Just because a pass was completed or just because a run gained positive yards, does not mean the play was actually successful.

Using historical data and odds, we can determine what that completed pass must achieve and what those positive yards on the ground must do in order to put the offense in a better position than it was. Down, distance, and field position play a part in determining success and once we grasp what is “success”, then we can determine what types of plays are wise (and unwise).

Sharp Football Stats explains the importance of success rate like this:

“Using success rates to determine efficiency is superior to traditional yards per play (per pass or rush) because it adds a layer of context to the play: the down or distance to goal.”

As such a play on 3rd and 10 for 7 yards is deemed “unsuccessful” while a play on 3rd and 1 for 2 yards is deemed “successful”. The latter play helped the teams scoring chances by increasing expected points while the former play ended a drive and decreased the offense’s expected points.

So it didn’t matter that the unsuccessful play was for more yards and the successful play was for fewer yards. One helped the team and the other did not. Makes sense, right?

The grading Sharp Football Stats uses is pretty simple: a successful first down play needs to eat 40% of the yards to go, a successful second down play should eat 60% of the yards to go, and a successful third and/or fourth down play should eat, you guessed it, 100% of the yards to go.

This means a 3.5 yard run on first down is unsuccessful. That’s because the offense was better off before the play and the drive is now in a worse place on second down than they were on first down.

By this metric, the Dallas Cowboys had a first down success rate of 53% when running the ball on first down. By passing to a receiver on first down the Dallas Cowboys were even better: Targeting Randall Cobb they were successful 53%, Michael Gallup targets were 57% successful, and Amari Cooper targets were successful 63% of the time.

Again, that doesn’t mean they just caught the ball, but that they caught the ball far enough downfield to put the team in a statistically better situation.

This all important because many people out there try to say a 100 yard rushing day or a 100 yard receiving day is good outing. But the truth is yardage totals don’t mean much of anything unless they come with some context. I mean, what good is yardage if it doesn’t put the team in better situation, right?

Last week we looked at expected points and how we can value the worthiness of a play through EPA. EPA is a more nuanced look at play success since it doesn’t just apply a blanket pass/fail grade but adds real numerical value to each play based on historical data.

Next: 3 Dallas Cowboys who are expected to rebound in 2020

Later today we’ll look at which packages the Dallas Cowboys thrived in and which they failed in. This will help us gain an understanding of what they need to focus on before the new season.

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