Dallas Cowboys have a problem on 2nd-and-10 play-calling

(Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
(Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) /

On one hand, you take what the defense gives you. On the other hand, they’re giving it to you for a reason. On 2nd-and-10 this season, the Dallas Cowboys have playing right into the hands of their opponents.

They say “early downs, are passing downs” and that’s true even for run-heavy teams in today’s NFL. Passing plays on early downs yield the most output and the highest success rate. Whether it’s used often or sparingly, early down passes are what makes the biggest impact and are ultimately the most indicative of success.

The Dallas Cowboys have been running the ball far too often on 2nd-and-10 this season and it’s killing the offense.

For the most part this season, the Dallas Cowboys have been a running team. Even though they have called 269 passing plays compared to 229 running plays, it’s far more run-heavy than the average NFL team and certainly outside of the norm in the Dak Prescott-Ezekiel Elliott era in Dallas.

This commitment to the run is largely attributed to three things:

  1. Dak Prescott was out for five games
  2. The Dallas WR corps has been lacking
  3. The Dallas O-line is far better in run blocking than pass protection

It’s easy to see why dropping back in obvious passing situations is a recipe for disaster. It’s also understandable the Dallas Cowboys are aggressively avoiding any and all 3rd-and-10 situations. Thus, their propensity to call so many 2nd-and-10 running plays.

A team that runs on 2nd-and-10 is more likely to see the drive stall than a team that passes on 2nd-and-10.

By the numbers, a run on 2nd-and-10 is one of the worst calls a coordinator can make. It almost assures the team will face a 3rd down and chances are that 3rd down will be a 3rd-and-long regardless. A team that runs on 2nd-and-10 is more likely to see the drive stall than a team that passes on 2nd-and-10.

There are only two teams in the NFL that are successful over 50% of the time on 2nd-and-10 runs and the Dallas Cowboys, my friends, are not one of them. “Success” is when the team has produced a positive EPA (expected points added) on they play. In other words, increased their probability of scoring on the drive.

Example: Three yards on a 2nd-and-10 would be unsuccessful because it would decrease their probability of scoring on that drive. Nine yards would be successful because it would increase the odds of scoring on the drive.

The Dallas Cowboys are currently successful on only 30 percent of their runs on 2nd-and-10. This is far below their average success rate for both passing plays (45.3%) and running plays (44.7%), and sets up an especially difficult 3rd down.

Passing on 2nd-and-10 offers a higher success rate and a higher yield in expected points. It even runs a real chance of avoiding 3rd down all together which is something everyone wants to avoid (3rd-and-2 or less is the only kind of 3rd down that should be deemed manageable).

Does this mean the Dallas Cowboys should always pass the ball in these situations? Certainly not, because deception and misdirection is an offense’s best weapon, and if you become predictable, you’re swimming upstream. But right now the Cowboys are calling runs in these situations the eighth most frequently, so they’re a long way from worrying about that.

2nd-and-10 runs are categorically bad calls across the NFL and the reasons defenses vacate the box and tempt offenses to run is exactly because of that reality. With Dak Prescott back under center and the WR corps getting better (sure could use a certain free agent though…), let’s hope the Cowboys stop squandering their drives by calling low percentage runs here.

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It’s ok to call two passes in a row. The Dallas Cowboys can still be a running team. It’s about moving the chains and that means calling the smartest plays possible