Dallas Cowboys: First downs are becoming a problem

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports /

The Dallas Cowboys are widely regarded as one of the best, if not THE best, offense in the NFL. They are among the NFL elite in all major offensive categories and have been doing so with a handful of their pieces consistently missing from the line-up.

Last week’s horrible showing notwithstanding, Dallas seems to have things figured out on offense. Their “pick your poison attack” is happy to take advantage of what the defense gives them. Pack the box –  they air it out. Spread out – they run it down your throat. Play shell – they’ll work you underneath.

Or so we thought…

The Dallas Cowboys have quietly been one of the worst 1st down teams in the NFL over the past six weeks

Ask any analytics guru and they’ll tell you, drives are won on first downs. What a team decides to call on early downs has an enormous impact on the outcome of the game. Using historical data and probabilities, we know what types of plays set an offense up for success and what types of pays dig a hole.

Since the goal is to score points, we can use expected points and success rate to grade the value of a given play. Success rate tells us whether a play statistically helped or hurt a team’s scoring probability. Expected points added (or EPA) tells us to what extent that play helped or hurt.

Note: just because a play gained positive yards does not mean it increased a drive’s scoring probability. 3-yards and a cloud of dust hurts a team more than helps and the offense was better off on 1st-and-10 than they are on 2-and-7.

Teams that win first down typically win the series. And that usually leads to points. Manageable third downs are a fantasy and the most manageable third down is one that’s avoided altogether. Again, that’s why first downs are so critical.

So how do the Dallas Cowboys stack up on first downs? Not great, Bob:

The Dallas Cowboys reside near the bottom of the league in most first down categories over these past six weeks. Nestled snuggly in between Houston, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Miami, and Detroit, it’s safe to say the Cowboys are not in good company.

What’s the biggest issue?

71.3% of first down runs put Dallas in worse shape than they started

Looking at the chart above, it becomes immediately apparent the Dallas Cowboys aren’t running the ball well on first down. On first down runs the Cowboys are enjoying a success rate of just 28.7%. That means 71.3% of first down runs put Dallas in worse shape on second down than they were before the play happened.

First down run EPA is -0.148 (that number is negative, my friends). Now compare that to first down passes and you can see where the issue is…

First down passes have a success rate of 46.5%. While that’s not great, it’s considerably better than the 28.7% the running game is producing. First down passes are producing a 0.106 EPA. Again, not great but it’s a heckuvalot better than the -0.148 hole the running game is digging.

There are two core issues here:

  1. The offensive line
  2. Play-calling (both from sideline and from the line or scrimmage)

If an elite tackle is the difference between 32 points per game and 9 points per game, perhaps offensive tackle is more important than we’re given the position credit for.

As Tyron Smith goes so goes the Dallas Cowboys offense. It’s a reality we’ve come to accept over the years. Tyron plays an absolutely critical role on this Dallas Cowboys offense and every time he goes down, Dallas suffers. It’s why so many lobbied for Rashawn Slater last April in the draft. If an elite tackle is the difference between 32 points per game and 9 points per game, perhaps offensive tackle is more important than we’re given the position credit for.

But alas Dallas picked Micah Parsons. And all Micah has done is show signs of a being a perennial defensive player of the year. So let’s not waste time arguing about the Draft. The point is, OT has become critical to the execution and success of this Cowboys offense and when Dallas can’t pass-protect, the play-calling inevitably suffers. Kellen Moore changes his attack. Dak Prescott changes his approach at the line.

In KC we saw Dallas repeatedly opt for a running play when they should have been passing. And when they did pass, they were dinking and dunking into KC’s strength since the Chiefs were crowding the line on most downs.

One way or another the issue must be fixed. First downs are too critical to lose every series and calling a running play into a packed box because you’re afraid of pass-protection is a recipe for disaster and has long-term effects on the psyche.

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When the Dallas Cowboys fix first downs, everything will fall into place.

  • Published on 11/23/2021 at 17:01 PM
  • Last updated at 11/23/2021 at 18:17 PM