The Dallas Cowboys offense has to fix first downs in 2020

Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore need to fix the way the Dallas Cowboys call first downs

Depending on your preferred measurement, the Dallas Cowboys offense finished somewhere between first and third in the NFL last season. Yards put Dallas as the top offensive team in the NFL, DVOA put them at 2nd, and EPA (expected points added) put them at 3rd.

Whatever the metric you prefer (hopefully the latter two), it’s clear the Cowboys were good offensively. But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows on offense. To borrow a phrase from the recently incarcerated Joe Randle, the Cowboys “left a lot of meat on the bone.”

The Dallas Cowboys repeatedly shot themselves in the foot by calling first down runs time after time last season. Despite all evidence (literal data) saying passing on first down is more beneficial than running the ball, the Cowboys opted to run the ball 204 times compared to just 159 passing attempts.

Per Sharp Stats, runs only offered them a 53% success rate on first down while passes had a staggering 57% success rate (that’s a pretty significant margin especially since the Dak Prescott averaged 8.2 yards per attempt while Ezekiel Elliott averaged just 4.5 per rush). In other words, Dallas successfully improved their scoring chances more often passing AND gained nearly twice as much yards per attempt too boot.

Passing on first down was so much more beneficial than rushing, it would be tough to justify handing the ball off even a quarter of the time, let alone handing it off over half the time. Yet the Dallas Cowboys did, and they forced Dak Prescott into countless 3rd down situations that could otherwise have been avoided. That’s not a sustainable model.

The previous coaching staff was committed to the “manageable third down fallacy”. Numbers show, the only manageable third down is one that’s less than two yards away from the sticks.  3rd-and-3 situations do not put the odds in an offense’s favor.

As a whole, the Dallas Cowboys produced 4x the expected points by throwing the ball than they did running the ball. And that’s down from 2018 when passing was 8x more fruitful!

Despite being the 3rd ranked team in the NFL in EPA/play last season, Dallas was 20th in first down EPA. Their average first down EPA (win probably between 25-75%) was actually negative (-0.016), meaning first downs were more likely to hurt their scoring chances more than help. This was a direct result of rushing the ball too often.

That’s not unique to this season either. If we look at Dak and Zeke’s entire pro career together, Zeke’s EPA on first down is negative and Dak’s is positive.

According to RBSDM.com, first down runs averaged a -0.122 EPA while passing averaged 0.111 per attempt. This obviously includes incompletions and interceptions too. That’s extremely significant and falls in line with the rest of the NFL (so it shouldn’t be all that surprising). The only surprising part is why Dallas insisted on running the ball over and over again.

For those that have been paying attention to the NFL, this holds true across the league so the Dallas Cowboys are far from unique. Basically, 29 NFL teams achieved more expected points on passing attempts than they did running. That’s using every single play from last season so it’s safe to say it’s a pretty definitive conclusion.

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If the Dallas Cowboys want to improve their offense without adding a single play, they easily can if they just change the way they call first downs.

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