The ultimate goal for every NFL offense is to score points. It’s not to have balance for the sake of balance. It’s not to set the tempo or control the clock. It’s not for the SportsCenter highlights and dazzling plays downfield. Nope. The primary goal is to score points.
Now, sometimes those items listed above can be the blueprint to scoring points, but even then they are just a the way to achieve a goal and not the goal itself. Offenses score points and calling plays that best position a team to score points is Job One.
If scoring points is the top objective, should the Dallas Cowboys be a run-first team or a pass-first team?
For years we’ve chased false goals like balance, physicality, time of possession and the like, when we really should be focused on how to score points.
Time of possession is nice but it doesn’t mean much in the end. We try to give it more credit than it deserves when we cite win/loss stats and how they relate to TOP. When in reality, teams that are already leading tend to start controlling the clock. Controlling the clock doesn’t inherently lead to winning. That’s not semantics but rather an important distinction to make.
Physicality is another item that gets a little more credit than it deserves. Playing a smash-mouth brand of football is fun and it definitely impacts the spirit of the opposition, but by how much exactly? We saw opposing offenses stuff it down Dallas’ throats last year. Teams rushed for roughly 5.0 y/c on the Dallas Cowboys in 2020 and that clearly had a physiological effect on the team (and us fans, if I’m being honest).
But it wasn’t as damaging as one might have thought. When running the numbers, the Dallas Cowboys run defense won more often than they lost. Only 44.5 percent of running plays were successful (in non-blowout scenarios) compared to 51.7 percent of passing plays against Dallas. Fans all want to point to the porous run defense as the weakest link in 2020 but it really was the coverage that was the weakest link. And it wasn’t even close.
So if the Dallas Cowboys aren’t getting the same results by running the ball than they are passing the ball, what’s the point of running the ball? To physiologically break your opponent even though it doesn’t offer a tangible benefit? That wouldn’t make much sense.
Obviously something like a balanced run/pass game is nice, as long as it works efficiently. You don’t want to call a terrible play that rarely works just for the sake of balance, now do you? Especially since those “keeping ‘em honest” plays aren’t proven to offer much, if any, help in actually keeping defenses honest.
We’ve seen the numbers bear out, play-action does not need an honest running game in order to be effective. Defenders defend the run whether you have a balanced approach or not. You need some threat of a running game to work (which is why defenders don’t bite on 3rd-and-long play-action as often as early down play-action) but you don’t need to run it often or even with much success for it to work. Establishing the run is a myth.
It’s all about points.
This isn’t controversial to say, yet some people hate to hear it – it’s all about scoring points on offense. Each down should be called with the expressed unapologetic intention of getting the team closer to score points.
Expected points added (EPA) tracks the effectiveness of each play and lets us know what works and what doesn’t. As we can see in the chart linked below, passing on early downs is the best way to go by a significant margin. Throughout the Dak Prescott/Ezekiel Elliott partnership, Dallas has consistently posted 4x the EPA throwing than they have running.
Virtually every team produces better results passing on early downs than running. While Baltimore may be the occasional exception, Dallas is certainly the rule. Pass first. Pass early. Pass often.
It’s true, passing on first and second downs runs the risk of running into an ugly 3rd-and-10 situation. But the benefits far outweigh the costs when all the numbers bear out. Even factoring in interceptions and sacks, passing on early downs is 4x better for the Dallas Cowboys than rushing. Those are factual numbers based on play-charting every single play.
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Does that mean the Dallas Cowboys should never run on early downs again? Of course not, but it means the Dallas Cowboys should unapologetically be a pass-first team. Does that mean a 70/30 split or an 80/20 split or even a 90/10 split? It’s hard to say for sure until they try it. But it’s clear a balanced approach for the sake of a balanced approach should not be a goal.
The goal for the Dallas Cowboys offense needs to stay on target. Scoring points is the goal and however the numbers say to achieve that, is the route Dallas should take. It just so happens the numbers are clear, and as such, the route is clear.
Dallas is and should remain a pass-first offense.
The only question is, how much more pass-first should they be in 2021.