The Dallas Cowboys issues on 3rd-down are easily fixable

(Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /

The Dallas Cowboys offense is suddenly struggling. After leading the NFL in nearly all major categories the first two months of the season, the Cowboys now find themselves floundering around the middle of the pack.

The primary culprit in their offensive decline? At first glance it appears to be those pesky third downs.

Over the last three games, the Dallas Cowboys are second worst in the NFL in third down conversion rate. Less than 25% of their third downs are being converted. Both Detroit and the New York Giants have been better than Dallas. Let that sink in for a second.

Fixing the Dallas Cowboys on third downs isn’t as complicated as it sounds…

Besides converting less than a quarter of their attempts, the Dallas Cowboys have gone three-and-out 46.2% of the time. That’s nearly half of their opportunities. And their yardage and time of possession have dropped accordingly as well. It’s really no wonder why we’re seeing the scoring output decline.

The good news is this issue is relatively fixable. If the Dallas Cowboys adjust their strategy ever so slightly, there’s absolutely zero reason to think this can’t be corrected immediately.

The No. 1 way to fix third downs?

Avoid them altogether.

Step No. 1: Don’t play for manageable third downs

An annual offseason column of mine focuses on third downs and how playing for “manageable situations” is a losing strategy. As long as you have a strong short yardage unit, the only manageable third down is one that’s less than 3rd-and-2. Otherwise, the odds are NOT in your favor.

If running head-first into a brick wall isn’t working. Stop it. Unsuccessful runs don’t hold hidden value.

Since the goal is to score points on offense, teams should NOT let manageable third downs guide their play-calling. That’s why letting expected points added (EPA) define whether or not a play was successful, is so universally recommended. It keeps offenses focused on the real goal: Scoring at some point on the drive.

A 3.5 yard run on first down doesn’t help set up a manageable situation – rather it hurts the overall scoring chances of the drive. That may sound odd to those trying to set up a manageable third down, but to those following probabilities, it’s nothing new. That 3.5 yard play was an unsuccessful play because the chances of scoring, let alone converting a third down, have decreased. You were statistically better off on 1st-and-10.

Setting your aim at “manageable” distorts your whole reality and keeps play-callers focused on all the wrong things.

Step No. 2: Know what’s working

If a certain play type is working, use it more. If a certain type of play isn’t working, use it less. Much like Step No. 1 (play to increase scoring probability – not get “manageable” 3rd downs), Step No. 2 is pretty intuitive. Don’t overthink the issue.

Fans, writers, and analysts have been saying for weeks, the Cowboys need to run the ball outside more often. Last Sunday the Cowboys complied when Tony Pollard took a pitch 58-yards to the house.

Kellen Moore acknowledged as much and said this about outside runs:

"“It’s been a tremendous tool for us so we do got to continue to find ways to get to the edges because we’ve got perimeter guys, skill guys who can utilize space really well… we should continue to find ways to utilize it”"

If running head-first into a brick wall isn’t working. Stop it. Unsuccessful runs don’t hold hidden value. They don’t even help play-action work so if they aren’t working, move on.

Step No. 3: Play-calling efficiency

Something Kellen Moore spoke of when discussing the Dallas Cowboys struggles on 3rd-downs was play-calling efficiency on 1st-down and 2nd-down. Sadly he followed that up by saying better runs on 1st and 2nd-down will set up more manageable situations on third downs

For as much as we praise Kellen for his aggressiveness and creativity, he’s far from being above reproach. The number of 2nd-and-10 running plays and the overall lack of motion at the line are almost inexcusable knowing what we know these days. Why Moore ignores these issues is hard to understand.

But using Step 2 (knowing what works) we can do a better job at Step 3 (play-calling efficiency). I mean, how are you going to call an efficient game if you don’t know what’s working, after all.

So what’s working?

As the tweet above shows, the Dallas Cowboys are one of the worst teams in the entire NFL in rushing success rate. Only 29.5% of their runs have been successful, paving the way to an EPA of -.183. That means 70.5% of all runs have actually hurt the offense.

the Dallas Cowboys don’t have a third down problem. They have an early down problem.

Compare that to passing which has a 42.1% success rate and an EPA of -.007 and you can see the passing game is struggling as well, but it’s still working far better than the running the game.

Early downs specifically show us what’s working and what is not. Rushing the ball on 1st and 2nd down is yielding a SR or 28.6% with an EPA of -.044 (that’s a negative number). Passing the ball on 1st and 2nd down offers a 47.6% SR and an EPA of .119.

Obviously the last thing you want to do is call more of what’s not working here and only the delusion of playing for “manageable third downs” could possibly lead a play-caller astray.

What’s working are early down passes. It takes away the pressure of those high-leverage third down situations and moves the ball more consistently.

So to summarize, the Dallas Cowboys issues on third downs are quite solvable:

  1. Stop playing for “manageable 3rd-downs”. They are a fallacy and lead you into inexcusable play-calling like running the ball on 2nd-and-10. Play each play focused on converting and scoring points instead of just trying to get a 3rd-and-manageable. The more 3rd downs you face the worse the odds you have in scoring.
  2. Do what works and avoid what doesn’t work. There’s no hidden value in running the ball up the middle if it’s not working.
  3. Pass the ball on early downs. It’s almost a universal truth that passing on early downs offers a higher EPA and a higher success rate than running. And that holds true for the Dallas Cowboys before and during this ugly stretch of offense.

Also working in Dallas’ favor these next few weeks are a fully healthy WR corps, the return of Blake Jarwin, stability and continuity on the O-line (we hope for some final decisions). The Cowboys are going to break out of this slump one way or another but if they really want to put their third down issues to bed, the blueprint is there. They just have to follow it.

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In a nutshell, the Dallas Cowboys don’t have a third down problem. They have an early down problem. Once they fix the early downs and stop focusing on third, things will fix themselves.

  • Published on 12/09/2021 at 12:01 PM
  • Last updated at 12/09/2021 at 13:26 PM