A Certain Tendency in the Cowboys Offense

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He’s still got “it.”

The latest segment of Cowboys Nation’s chat with ESPN Insider K.C. Joyner starts with Jason Witten’s game, and moves to an important stylistic change in last year’s Cowboys offense.

Cowboys Nation:  I want to shift the Gronkowski/Graham breakdowns to talk about Jason Witten.  At the beginning of 2011, I was charting the receiver production week-to-week.  And Witten got a fast start.  About 5-6 weeks in, he was on pace to challenge Kellen Winslow’s single-season tight end yardage record.  Of course, Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham both surpassed Winslow’s mark.

Witten tapered off a bit.  He stopped getting as many balls in the middle of the season as he did the first third of the year.  I started to wonder if this was a slight change in the Cowboys approach?  Did opponents double-team Witten more because Dez Bryant and Miles Austin were hurt so much, or might we be seeing the early stages of decline?  He’s going to be 30 this year and has nine years of NFL wear and tear on his wheels.

It’s interesting that you bring up the stretch vertical, because Jason Garrett runs a very similar passing attack to the one he used as a quarterback, to the one Norv Turner, Ernie Zampese and Mike Martz run, and one of the key tight end routes is that option-8, a post route where the tight end reads coverage and makes either an inside or outside break, but takes it way upfield.  What were Witten’s verticals in 2011?

K.C. Joyner:  When Witten flexed out as a wide receiver, he had 31 passes thrown his way in 2011. He gained 335 yards on those plays.  That’s almost 11.0 yards per attempt.  He either had a reception or drew a defensive penalty on 22 of those plays.  He’s 22 of 31 for 335 yards, when he’s in the slot or lined up wide as a receiver.

That’s really good.  He ranked 3rd in vertical yards per attempt by a tight end.  But he only had 32 vertical passes.  That total ranked 12th among tight ends.  So you’ve got a guy who’s incredibly productive as a flex tight end.  You’ve got a guy who’s incredibly productive as a vertical threat.

But Tony Romo also threw just 157 vertical routes last year.  Let’s look at this by team rather than just by quarterback…

Dallas a a team last year ranked just 25th in the league in vertical pass attempts.

CN:  That’s not Garrett’s style.  In ’07 through ’10 he showed that he likes to get the ball down the field.

K.C.:  They threw fewer vertical attempts in 2011 than Tennessee, who had Jake Locker playing half the year and no Kenny Britt in that time, because he tore his ACL.

You want to blow your readers minds — the Cowboys threw fewer vertical passes last year than Denver, with Tim Tebow running their offense three quarters of the year.  Mind you, Tebow did throw the ball down field some, but.

CN:  That’s not the Jason Garrett offense.  If you want to see the effect of Romo’s injury early in the year, of Austin’s and Bryant’s injuries early in the year, of the banged up interior offensive line and no off-season, there it is in black and white.

I think that’s something we can expect to change this year.  If Dallas has Witten, Austin and Bryant healthy and feels good about where Bill Callahan has moved the line, I think we’ll see the Cowboys go back to bombing down field, because that’s the type of team they had been under Garrett, prior to 2011.

K.C.:  Granted, the Cowboys did some things very well.  They did things you would expect from a Jason Garrett offense.  They ranked 4th best in bad-decision percentage.  They got the most out of what they had, but within reason.  There could have been some upside to throwing more to Witten, but that would have just moved them to the middle of the pack.  Losing so many games to the receivers had a definite effect.

CN:  There’s a concern that Laurent Robinson’s departure will take a big chunk of the offense away, and that Dallas might struggle to replace it.  But if you look at the decline of Miles Austin from his 16-game campaigns, and look at Dez Bryant, who was good for 20 minutes per game until mid-season, I would think getting those guys for 60 minutes per week would overcome the loss of Laurent Robinson.

K.C.:  If you’ve got those three healthy, you can call over 200 vertical attempts.  Mind you that vertical and stretch-vertical character changes everything about your offense.  It helps the running game because it drops the safeties out of the box.  I do also think Dallas was trying the early experiment of seeing if Felix Jones could be a bell-cow runner.  That didn’t work out, but it’s hard to have a scary offense when you’re throwing 150-160 vertical passes per year.  It’s only 10 per game, about 2-3 per quarter.

Put it this way, if you’re getting two drives per quarter, you’re taking one pass down-field per drive.  It’s isn’t just bomb routes, it’s a seam route, it’s a deep in, a vertical is anything more than 11 yards past the line of scrimmage.  You’re getting downfield some, but if you’re only doing that once a drive, you’re not really threatening a defense.  You need to make the secondary feel you can go deep at any time.

Next:  Tony Romo, the reformed gunslinger.  A good or a bad thing?

Rafael Vela

Rafael Vela

Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ TheBoys.com in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for SportsTalkLine.com
  • nightspook

    Interesting metrics.  I concur with your conclusions.  Bell Cow Back or just not enough time to throw, a common demoninator is the interior O Line (or lack threof).  I am a great believer in the process and the competition they have enacted on the O Line.  Ultimately it has to show on the field. 

  • Miguel

    How much of the decline in Jason production was caused because he had to stay in the line to help blocking? I don´t know if that is measurable, but I suspect it has a lot to do.

  • Emmitt>Barry

    Ugh. This makes me sick to read. LOVED the potent down-the-field offense Garrett ran the last few years before 2011. I am hoping that this 2011 down-the-field paucity was an aberration caused by WR injuries and our interior OL’s inability to hold up long enough to allow longer routes to develop. Can’t be a consistently good offense in today’s NFL without having downfield big play capability.

  • Gabby222

    This article really doesn’t make sence. If they cut down on verticle passes, how did Tony throw for 4100 yards?

    • http://www.cowboysnation.com Rafael Vela

      Let’s look at the last two years Romo was healthy

      2009 — 550 att., 4483 yds.  2011 — 522 att., 4184 yds.

      178 vertical att. in ’09.  Not a huge dropoff to ’11, but he ranked 6th that year in vert. att., and he took every one of Dallas’ snaps, so the Cowboys ranked 6th in vert. att.  

      Last year, the Cowboys were 25th, with Romo taking about 95% of the snaps.  Teams threw like crazy last year.  Look at Brees’ total, for example — 5347 yards. Romo’s 4184 looks anemic compared to that.

      • Bluefin

         This topic confirms what I was usually complaining about while watching games last season.

        “We need to take more shots!”

        K.C Joyner was talking about anything 10 yards or deeper, but I hated how the OL situation prevented the offense from going for the quick 6.

        There’s just something about taking those home run shots that effects the opposing defense, IMO.

        It really just comes down to how the OL protects Tony Romo.

        I love DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones in the backfield, some fans seem to have forgotten what Felix brings to the table, IMO.

        And opposing defenses will have no answer for Miles Austin, Jason Witten and Dez Bryant. The only way to cover all three is for an injury to take one of them out of the mix.

        Otherwise, it’s pick your poison.

    • Workingtonian

      YAC?

  • AustonianAggie

    Was that around when Bill Nagy got hurt and Demarco Murray emerged?

  • DannyWhite

    I think Raf hit it on the head – it was a perfect storm of Romo’s rib injury making RHG hesitant to call for any drops longer than 3-5 steps, the injuries to Dez and Austin, and the shaky interior line that all combined to drop the number of vertical pass attempts so dramatically.

    When you factor all that in, what Romo and RHG were able to do with the offense last year makes both of them look even more impressive.

    • Emmitt>Barry

      I’m a bit confused now. This article by KC…
      http://insider.espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/7927725/nfl-why-tony-romo-top-5-nfl-quarterback 

      …lists Romo as having excellent deep ball metrics. I guess the conclusion is that he was excellent WHEN we threw deep, but we didn’t throw deep very much? The article on Insider is largely Per Pass Attempt stats, whereas the article Raf wrote above is mainly accumulation stats?

      Either way: Throw more downfield in 2012! And interior OL (and Doug Free), let Tony do it without getting murdered out there!

      • http://www.cowboysnation.com Rafael Vela


         I guess the conclusion is that he was excellent WHEN we threw deep, but we didn’t throw deep very much? ”

        Bingo.  Same as Witten.  Still deadly when they work down the field, but didn’t do it very much in 2011.

        BTW, tomorrow’s cut off the Joyner interview will go into this very topic. 

  • Bluefin

    To piggyback on the Jason Witten part, the Volunteer was the most effective deep pass target at TE using Pro Football Focus’ signature stats.

    But like K.C. Joyner mentioned, Witten didn’t get a lot of opportunities. His 12 targets were the fewest in the grouping, Jimmy Graham led the pack with 21 targets (no one else had more than 15). Graham was the only TE to have more receptions and yardage than Witten on those deep targets.