Early-down play-calling is killing the Dallas Cowboys offense

(Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)
(Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images) /

The Dallas Cowboys offense is in disarray. What once appeared to be an unstoppable force earlier in the year, has fast become nothing more than league average. Ranking 14th in EPA since Week 9, the Dallas offense is plagued with multiple layers of concern. From throwing the ball to running the ball, from blocking to play-calling calling, top to bottom, every aspect of the Dallas Cowboys offense seems to be a shell of its former self.

The important thing to know and accept is the issues involve everyone. We can’t just blame Dak, or just blame Kellen, or just blame Zeke. They all carry a portion of the blame. Heck, even Zack Martin has struggled uncharacteristically.

So you can imagine the way to fix this whole mess on offense isn’t a simple adjustment or scheme change. It’s going to take multiple adjustments to get this train back on it’s tracks. The issue I want to discuss today is just part of the solution but it’s also one of the easiest to fix.

The Dallas Cowboys early down offense is sick with a case of ‘the runs’.

Regardless of what you think regarding the importance of a good running game, the running game just isn’t working. Using Expected Points, we can measure the value of each play and therefore determine whether a play was successful or not.

Note: A positive yardage play doesn’t necessarily mean your odds of scoring on the drive increase. To put it another way, you’re more likely to score on 1st-and-10 from your own 20 than you are on 3rd-and-5 from your own 25. Even though the latter is 5-yards downfield, it’s statistically a worse situation to be in. 

Using these numbers we can see what plays are working, to what extent, and at what rate of success.

As you can see in the chart above, the Dallas Cowboys are better passers on first and second down than they are rushers. The passing game’s success rate is over 13% higher than the running game’s success rate. And since the running game currently has a negative EPA on early downs, the passing game’s somewhat pedestrian .117 is still exponentially greater.

even with all of these issues, the passing game has been head-and-shoulders more efficient than the early down running game.

Keep in mind, these numbers are adjusted to exclude “garbage time.” When the game is in the balance, the passing game has been out performing the running game every step of the way. It’s more likely to put the offense in a positive situation (yes, this even accounts for incomplete passes) AND it delivers bigger plays.

The idea of the passing game out performing the running game on early downs is nothing new. For years this has been a league-wide trend with only a handful of teams doing better on the ground than through the air (usually teams with bottom-5 QBs).

Despite this, Kellen Moore‘s Cowboys have repeatedly called early down runs to the detriment of the offense.

With that said, the passing game isn’t anywhere close to where it used to be. Dak Prescott is clearly struggling again, the WRs are playing their worst ball we’ve seen, and the O-line is curiously impotent in both phases of the game as well.

But even with all of these issues, the passing games has been head-and-shoulders more efficient than the early down running game.

Whether you love Dak or despise him, the answer is the same – throw the dang ball. If you think Dak is bad you should want to put him in the easiest situations possible. That’s what you do for a poor QB. That means avoiding 3rd down passing situations (which are statistically the hardest) and air it out on early downs instead.

Cutting out the known bad plays is a great way to increase the overall output of the offense.

If you love Dak you should want the same. Big plays are more likely to happen on early downs so giving the ball to the offense’s best player is a tried and true way to maximize big plays on early downs.

Will a drastic reduction in early down runs hurt the Dallas Cowboys play-action? Possibly, but we know you only need a creditable threat of run success to make play-action work – you don’t need to “establish” anything like some people still seem to believe. And while we’re on that, does anyone consider the Cowboys running attack a “creditable threat” anyway?

Just last weekend Zeke had a -5.5 EPA when he touched the ball. That alone makes up for the margin of defeat. Cutting out the known bad plays is a great way to increase the overall output of the offense. Even if the individual players don’t improve, it can make all the difference between winning and losing. It would have last week.

Must Read. How Kellen Moore went from hero to villain overnight. light

Next. Now is the perfect time to re-sign Michael Gallup. dark

Teams are backing off the line these days and packing the secondary with coverage players. They already have been daring the Dallas Cowboys to beat them on the ground and Dallas has been unable to do so. It’s time for the pass to set up the run again in Dallas.