One-armed Knife Sharpener
- Apr 7, 2013
By Bob Sturm 16m ago
Welcome to the 2020 NFL regular season.
Between no preseason, pretty much no access and all the empty seats, this might be the craziest NFL season start we have ever witnessed (or ever will). The year 2020 has, well, put a pretty big lead up on sports.
Never fear, though: The games are happening. In fact, in two days we will have actual NFL football in Kansas City.
And in five days’ time, the real bullets begin to fly for Cowboys football, triggering opinions, conclusions and knee-jerking Mondays.
We love it, and yet it doesn’t always help us understand what just occurred in its proper context.
That is why I started offering Tuesday morning analysis a long time ago. In fact, if you work your way through my personal blog archives, you can see that the first record of this is from September of 2008, when I tried to start tracking information about the Cowboys’ offensive strategies. We tackled their personnel groupings, tendencies and philosophies — all in the name of learning about their intentions and how close they were to converting dreams into reality.
We have come a long way since then. 13 seasons later, I like the evolution of this system better, but just know that every Tuesday this fall we will be running the numbers in our latest season of “Decoding Kellen Moore.” Not to spoil tomorrow’s preview piece, but Wednesdays are when you can find a similar analysis of the defense in what will be known, somewhat creatively, as “The (Mike) Nolan Report.”
Allow me to start this season as I do just about all of them: With a brief (ha, ha) explanation of this whole operation.
WHAT IS DECODING ALL ABOUT?
We are trying to figure out the main objectives of the Dallas Cowboys offense. We aim to identify its characteristics, strengths and weaknesses by tracking each snap in a number of different ways. The great thing about this sport is that due to the complexities and infinite combinations between personnel and play calls, there is no end to how many different ways an offense can attack its opponent. Many game plans are just for a certain week and that opponent. Others are seen every week against every opponent.
Tracking tendencies begins with identifying who is on the field. Of course, you must have 11 players, but which 11? Well, we know that six players never change: the quarterback and the five offensive linemen (left tackle, left guard, center, right guard, right tackle). From there, we just have to note the other five players. The NFL has featured a numeric system for years; a two-number label for each personnel grouping of those other five players.
The first number indicates the total number of running backs. The second number is the total number of tight ends. There is no third number because it is just the difference between the first two numbers and the total of five.
“11 Personnel” – 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR
“12 Personnel” – 1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR
“13 Personnel” – 1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR
“22 Personnel” – 2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR
Why do we care? Because the defense is reacting to the offense’s personnel with their own substitutes. If you put another tight end out there, they are going to try to match up with a different player to defend big Blake Jarwin than they would smallish Tony Pollard. The same defender likely can’t hang with both. The defense knows how you like to do certain things, and it reacts accordingly. The offense then counterpunches, attempting to find more favorable situations.
For instance, some teams — Arizona, in particular — employ “10” personnel (1 RB, 0 TE, 4 WR), because they know you will put a bunch of defensive backs (sometimes six) out there. That leaves only five defensive linemen or linebackers. With the defense spread out, those teams can then hand the ball off to their running back because they have five offensive linemen facing five big defenders, and that should give the running back lots of room to run away from defensive backs up the middle.
Conversely, you go big with “22″ personnel — like Baltimore loves to do — which includes eight “bigs.” If the defense doesn’t respond with bigs, you run it. If they go big, you often have that last wide receiver matched up one-on-one for a play-action shot. And you also have more bigs trying to catch Lamar Jackson. Good luck there.
You make the defense choose, then punish them for choosing wrong. This is the essence of offense.
Below, we see how the Cowboys have chosen to do their business year by year. Of course, you will need to note that the league has shifted as well. Nobody would accuse Scott Linehan and Jason Garrett of being on the cutting edge of innovation.
Cowboys Offensive Personnel - '15-19
If you add all of the 11 personnel snaps (1 RB, 1 TE), you will see the Cowboys were in some version of 11 personnel on almost 70 percent of their plays. We expect that number will continue to grow in 2020 after drafting CeeDee Lamb. By the way, the 2018 NFC Champion Los Angeles Rams still hold the record by running 11 personnel about 93 percent of the time. NFL teams as a whole want to force defenses into nickel, spread the ball out and then attack with spacing.
But last year, for the first time since we conducted this study, 11 personnel usage actually went down across the league. In 2018 the NFL peaked at 20,005 snaps in 11 personnel; in 2019, it dropped down to 18,717. This was a drop of almost seven percent, as some teams have moved back to a fullback and bigger personnel. San Francisco and Minnesota have led this charge, but now we see Green Bay, Cleveland and several other teams wanting to employ some version of Kyle Shanahan’s play-action offenses with less speed and more run/pass neutral looks.
Once you see what offensive strategy they are running, we want to then figure out what they are running well.
That is seen below in their 2019 production by snap. You obviously need to adjust for volume, but you can see that in a league where 5.48 is the average yards per play, the 2019 Cowboys led the NFL in yards per snap at 6.46. It was incredible.
2019 Cowboys Yards Per Snap - By Group
|OFF PERS||OFF PLAYS||TOT NET YDS/PLAY||PASS %||RUSH %|
You can also see it in terms of “most used” personnel groupings to cut out the extra noise. Let’s see where the Cowboys were sitting in their most-used groupings relative to league average and such:
The columns might be self-explanatory, but just in case: “Overall” is how many of the total snaps are in this personnel. First down is the exact same stat, but only on first downs. Run % is what you would think it is — a matter of frequency on all snaps — while yards per play reflects the proceeds of each snap, judged against the league’s average. So we know Dallas was great at 11 personnel but wanted to “build around a power running game” and load up with more 12 and 21 personnel to accommodate their multiple tight ends and their fanciful views of early 1990s football.
I expect this will continue to evolve with Mike McCarthy in the house and Mr. Garrett and Mr. Witten elsewhere.
Yards/Play are where we want to really focus our energy. Are you running what makes sense and gets the most production as an offense? Finally, in the first year of Kellen Moore, we can say: YES.
And that is what makes this year’s edition somewhat interesting to look at. The Cowboys offense this year has fewer departments of “needing improvement” versus what seems more like fine-tuning.
To demonstrate, please look at 2019 versus 2018. The first year of Kellen Moore running this offense and the last year of Scott Linehan.
Here are the league rankings in 10 very important offensive categories. Green is good, red is bad. As you can see, a ton of poor rankings have converted to very good in one year without substantial personnel changes (aside from the obvious 2018 trade midseason for Amari Cooper). Take a look:
I keep these 10 numbers for every team. You will see them in my game previews for the upcoming opponent on Fridays. They are not be-all, end-all stats, as many of you analysts are certainly bothered about how these are all mass-quantity stats over the proper measures of efficiency. But they do tell us how teams get their production. From there, we dig down into third downs and red-zone efficiency. Explosives are plays of 20 or more yards.
The Cowboys managed to improve their offense in every category, but as the comments section will certainly tell us, they still didn’t win enough games.
How do we reconcile this?
Football is about three phases: Offense, defense and special teams. This was a year where the offense passed most tests, but there were two issues that are important. The first is that red zone TD% got better, but not good enough. I wrote an entire piece dedicated to it last week, and I would invite you to dive into that.
The other issue was the slide of the offense down the stretch. In particular, once we moved to November, the post-bye week losses to Minnesota, New England and Buffalo were all devastating. Then they allowed Chicago to slow them down so badly on both sides of the ball before a depleted Philadelphia team held them to nine points.
Was it on the offense as much as people like to say? Probably not. But you cannot lose those five games without ever breaking 24 points, and the team scored 15 points or less on three occasions (New England, Buffalo, and Philadelphia). So nobody is going to care about your yards per play or even your points per game if you go down the stretch against playoff teams and do not get even to 17 points.
I know I have thrown plenty at you this morning, so let’s work gradually this year rather than overwhelm in the first episode so we leave no fan behind. This week, we’ll conclude with a basic discussion of the biggest questions that face the offense in 2020.
Here is how our friends at ourlads.com see the Cowboys offense in Week 1:
As you can see, there is no Travis Frederick, Randall Cobb, Jason Witten, Xavier Sua-Filo, Jamize Olawale or Cam Fleming. Instead, the Cowboys plug in CeeDee Lamb, Tyler Biadasz, Andy Dalton and Cam Erving, who looks like he joins Joe Looney as replacements on the offensive line that could certainly be an issue.
With that being said, let’s establish the questions Kellen Moore and Mike McCarthy must answer in 2020:
- Red-zone production was a massive difference against playoff opponents. Run, run, incomplete, FG will not cut it. How is that best cured?
- How do they manage around losing Frederick and La’el Collins (who starts on IR for Weeks 1-3)?
- How do they implement Lamb right into the offense to mitigate the loss of Randall Cobb?
- How do they best deal with the gravitational pull to “Feed Zeke” when the passing game is far more efficient at moving the ball in general terms?
- When the pressure ratchets up late in the season, can the offense still function? Why did things seem so easy until teams got a sense of the plans and defenses adjusted to slow it down so easily?
- Why did play-action seem to disappear more and more when it should never disappear from an offense that has this offensive line, this RB and this QB?
- How can Dak Prescott continue to rise in the ranks of starting QBs to find his best version?
But, the mystery of what Sunday will begin to tell us is still a bit of a blind guess. As it unravels, we will look to discuss it in this space.
One last small item: The NFL has enforced some restrictions over the last 12 months on how we teach this course, and I also have been guilty of perhaps too much quantity. Therefore, I want to try to be more efficient on a weekly basis and instead of throwing a mountain of evidence at everyone, I will promise to set aside 30 minutes or so to be plenty active in the comments. No, I will not discuss the same topics as Skip or Stephen A, but if you want to ask questions or discuss things that will help you understand football better, help me see something a bit differently or just talk Xs and Os, I want to replace a deluge of numbers and broad concepts with a more interactive approach this season in the comments section below.
With that in mind, let’s have some football!!!