Dr. Jeckyll or Mr. Martz? A Chat with ESPN’s K.C. Joyner

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Cowboys Nation begins a week-long chat with ESPN Insider and Scientific Football publisher K.C. Joyner.  K.C. brings his fresh 2012 metrics to the discussion of all matters related to the Cowboys offense and the team’s passing defense.  Today, he suggests the team’s game planning was out of sync with its personnel in 2012.

Cowboys Nation:   We can start this going in ten different directions with the Cowboys.  There was a lot of flux last year on the offense. Every name player went up, went down, had injury issues. Every player has question marks entering the 2013 season.

Let’s begin with the lightning rod, Tony Romo. I imagine his bad decision metrics skewed the wrong way in 2012, especially after he was coming off a career year in 2011.

K.C. Joyner:  I’m looking at him now.  Romo tied for 24th in bad decision percentage, [with a 2.3% number].  He tied with Colin Kaepernick.  I don’t know if that’s good or bad to be tied with a first-year starter who was thrown in halfway.

To put him in perspective, Phillip Rivers had a 2.4% bad decision metric and he was seen as having a bad year.  Ben Roethlisberger had a 2.4, and it was hardly his best year.  From that perspective, Romo’s 2.3 looks bad, but I’m of two minds with Tony Romo.

Upside, 2.3% if you’re a risk taker of the caliber of Tony Romo, where he likes to take a lot of chances, make a lot of risky passes down the field, that’s not a bad rate for a guy like him.

I think the Cowboys don’t really have a very cohesive sense of where they want to go as a team.  By that I mean they have Tony Romo on offense, you’ve got a gunslinger, a guy who can take a lot of chances.  What I think is they’ve decided they want to center this offense around Tony Romo, but they don’t want him to be a bad decision maker.  So they’re throwing more safe passes.  We’re going to give him a lot more safe reads. This is speaking in general of the 2012 season.  Things changed as the season progressed, but in general they had him try safer things.

But you look at the Cowboys offense and think, you’re trying to run a safer offense, and I’m not sure that’s where you want to go.  You have Romo, you have Miles Austin, you have Dez Bryant.  You’ve got some guys who can really stretch the field, guys who can really threaten defenses.  If you have that kind of talent and you’re not attacking vertically, because these are two guys who can torture a defense at will if they’re playing as well as they can…

I have a theory as to why that is, so overall, when you’re looking at Tony Romo, his 2.3 bad decision percentage would not be bad if he was playing in a higher-risk offense, but when they’re dinking and dunking, it’s not as good a rate as it might appear.

CN:  From a metrics perspective, compare what he did with what he did the year before.  How much of a metric decline did he have from the first season to the last?

KC:  Let’s put it this way.  From a volume rate versus a percentage rate, Tony Romo had fifteen bad decisions in 2012 and he had ten in 2011. From a volume rate, ten to fifteen is a lot, but from a percentage rate, he only rose one half of one percent.  Now, that’s significant in BDR. One percent jump is huge, and half is significant.

But Romo threw 126 more passes last year than the year before [a 19% increase in attempts].  So one half of one percent of that is not that many bad decisions.  Let’s put it this way, it goes from ten to fifteen, but he also threw 126 more passes.  If you throw that many more passes, and his bad decisions stayed at the 2011 rate, you would still expect two or three more just because of the increased volume.  If you factor in the value you have two more.  It’s not much different than it was in 2011.

The Cowboys had an analytics person who was helping them determine, what’s the sweet spot in your run pass mix?  Should you run the ball six out of ten times?  Pass the ball six out of ten times?  What I understand, the sweet spot was pretty high.  The Cowboys as a team averaged 3.6 yards per rush and Romo’s yards per attempt passing was 7.6.

Now, there are some factors which lower the rushing total.  When you’re rushing and you’re near the goal line and you need two yards or one yard to score, the rushing attempt will only go for those yards.  Or, if it’s 3rd-and-1, you might get a yard or two and you have to factor kneel downs into the equation.  There are situations which will keep the rushing numbers low.

The idea is you should throw the ball as much as you can because the productivity gains are so much more. And the Cowboys spiked their passing numbers last year.

Here’s the thing though.  The Cowboys have built their team, on offense and defense, kind of like the Raiders of the ’70s in a way, where Al Davis had the idea that we want to collect as many big, fast, strong guys as we can.  We want to play what I call bully football.

The Cowboys have been very good at getting big, fast, strong guys.  You can say whatever you want about the personnel side of the Cowboys game, but one thing you can’t say is they don’t get big, fast strong guys. They get guys to play bully football.  But you can’t play bully football when you’re throwing the ball 650 times a year.  That’s a faster-paced, more space-based game.  You’re not going to wear the other team down that way.

What you should do is throw deep, get a lead, and then just grinding on the other team and in the 4th quarter you finish them off.  Last year, the Cowboys played more of a space game and to me, the Cowboys seem to be saying, we want to throw the ball more and their personnel says run a different type of football.  Until they decide we’re going to change our personnel to match our philosophy or change the philosophy to better match the personnel, they’re always going to under-perform.

Next:  Was the 2013 draft part of a philosophical break, and what do the metrics suggest about Jason Witten’s future?

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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
  • AustonianAggie

    Dallas was behind so often last year. We could not bully ball because Dallas never had a lead. Often Dallas had two TD deficits

    • Ridgelake

      I was going to add that bad decision percentage is likely also correlated to score. The further behind, the more chances have to be taken. Trailed a lot last year, early and often. No way can that help decsion metrics.

  • Kevin Black

    The other reason we played dink and dunk was due to the time Romo had in the pocket. The line wasn’t giving him the time to do the routes that required more time to develop.

    Hopefully that will change this year. At the end of the year, as the line gelled just a tad more, they started to run the longer developing routes.

  • Cowboys4Life

    I’m not a fan of all of these analytics being used as guides for finding our “sweet spot.” A good coach should know to have a balanced attack and he should have his finger on the rhythm of the game to know when to pass and when to run.

    • Michael

      I am not a fan of football metrics either. But he makes a great point in the final paragraphs about the Cowboys having a collection of big, fast guys, but not a coherent team with a consistent strategy or identity.

      • Lee1936

        The Cowboys for the past 17 years have been the polar opposite of the Steelers. The Steelers have maintained, for quite some time, a template (philosophy, strategy) they follow in acquiring talent that keeps them smart, tough, intense, and very competitive.

        GM Jerry, by contrast, buys into the 3-4 defense, but never commits to getting a legitimate 3-4 monster NG. Then, following the very year he has possibly the NFL’s finest set of 3-4 LBs, he abruptly jerks back to the 4-3! Nobody seems to think that was done by the HC, but by Jerry.

        • Zeus

          Lee, how is it that you know JJ made the 4-3 decision unilaterally? Do you have any evidence here or is this just another case of you expressing your disdain for JJ and writing a narrative that supports said disdain.

          I do know, for a fact, that JG played for the Bucs when Kiffin (and Marinelli) were coaching there. Is it possible that seeing that defense every day in practice may have made a positive impression on Garrett? Garrett gave specific anecdotes regarding both men and their time in Tampa in a press conference back in February. It sure seems like he has a lot of faith in and respect for both of these guys. In the same press conference (as I recall) Garett talked about wanting to explore a switch to the 4-3 after last season ended. Was he lying?

          I agree with your assessment of our linebackers in the 3-4 but you conveniently fail to mention how those same players are projected to translate to Kiffin’s 4-3. Granted we won’t know for sure until the cowboys start playing games that count but to me, and many others, Carter looks like a great fit at will, Sean Lee at mike, and Ware and Spencer are the kinds of explosive athletic (and undersized) defensive ends that, historically, have done very well in this scheme.

          • Lee1936

            For the past 18 years, GM Jerry has tried to duplicate the success of JimmyJ’s team. Don’t you agree, that’s a long record of futility? Since the mid-1990s, Jerry’s been a perennial failure.

            What? You haven’t noticed? Or it doesn’t matter?

          • Zeus

            I’m not defending Jerry’s overall record as GM. I’ve written here before that Jerry should have fired himself a long time ago. This does not mean, however, that everything Jerry does and every decision he makes is wrong or bad for the team or without support from the head coach and others in the organization.

            It looks to me like Garrett and Jerry were on the same page as far as switching to a 4-3 (contrary to what you stated in your last post).

          • Lee1936

            Zeus, you conclude: “It looks to me like Garrett and Jerry were on the same page as far as switching to a 4-3….” That may be so. I read nothing to the effect that Garrett wanted the 4-3 and persuaded Jerry. Both may have grown tired of Ryan. We don’t know, do we? What I wrote was, “Nobody seems to think that was done by the HC, but by Jerry.”

            Regardless of who initiated the change to 4-3, the logic of the change seems suspect to me. I’m 77. No way would I consider hiring a DCoord my age, especially one who’s been out of the NFL a few years!

            Also, Kiffen’s system requires two key players: a 3-tech DT and an impact S. Jerry passed over Shariff Floyd at 18, and John Cyprien at 31! And drafted no DLs, but took a S described by our DB coach as “lightyears away” from starting.

            Where’s the logic?

          • Zeus

            “Zeus, you conclude: “It looks to
            me like Garrett and Jerry were on the same page as far as switching to a
            4-3….” That may be so. I read nothing to the effect that Garrett
            wanted the 4-3 and persuaded Jerry. Both may have grown tired of Ryan.
            We don’t know, do we? What I wrote was, “Nobody seems to think that was
            done by the HC, but by Jerry.”

            I believe (based on what both men have said publicly) that both JJ and JG wanted to switch to a 4-3 and I’ve seen fan comments on other forums that indicate I’m not the only who believes this to be the case. Therefore, When you wrote: “Nobody seems to think that was done by the HC, but by Jerry.”…you were wrong.

            “Regardless of who initiated the change to 4-3, the logic of the
            change seems suspect to me. I’m 77. No way would I consider hiring a
            DCoord my age, especially one who’s been out of the NFL a few years! ”

            I like the Kiffin hire but I respect your opinion.

            “Also, Kiffen’s system requires two key players: a 3-tech DT and an
            impact S. Jerry passed over Shariff Floyd at 18, and John Cyprien at
            31! And drafted no DLs, but took a S described by our DB coach as
            “lightyears away” from starting.”

            I’m not going to get too in depth on why I like Kiffin and his system in this thread because I’ve already done it a couple of time on this forum. If you’re interested you can check out a nice back and forth between myself and Michael:

            http://www.cowboysnation.com/2013/05/cowboys-nation-talks-pass-d-with.html

            I will throw this out there. In 2007 Kiffin was the only remaining big name defensive coach for the Bucs. That year they were ranked 3rd best in ppg and 2nd in ypg. Their starting DT’s were Chris Hovan and Jovan Haye. Starting Safeties were Jermaine Phillips and Tanard Jackson. No big names, no pro bowlers, basically just a group of guys at DT and S and yet the Bucs obviously had a top defense. I think the cowboys defense will be just fine.

          • Michael

            Lee’s point was that the Cowboys had one (if not the) best 3-4 LB corps in the league. This is fact. Switching to a 4-3 throws us into the world of speculation and hope. Can Ware hold up? Maybe. Can Ratliff play the 3T all season. Maybe. Can the new SOLB cover TEs and RBs? Maybe.

            Staying with a 3-4 and finding a NT would have been a much easier and cheaper way to effect change. They could have had Ray Horton or Romeo Crennel install a more straightforward 3-4 with zone concepts if that was what they wanted.

            Maybe Garrett did have something to say about the switch, but Jerry has never been shy about his reliance on “outside advisers” Lacewel and Switzer. Don’t you remember their quotes after the Kiffin hire? Think Garrett has much of a connection to them?

            Lee is right in the larger sense as well. This entire offseason stinks of Jerry’s meddling and desperation. From the firing of Ryan to the bungling of the 1st round pick to the “Romo is Peyton Manning” theory.

            After a brief flirtation with sanity at the Ranch; insane is back!

          • Zeus

            “Lee’s point was that the Cowboys had one (if not the) best 3-4 LB
            corps in the league. This is fact.”

            True. I agreed with Lee on this point in my previous post. Did you even read my entire post.?

            Switching to a 4-3 throws us into the
            world of speculation and hope. Can Ware hold up? Maybe. Can Ratliff
            play the 3T all season. Maybe. Can the new SOLB cover TEs and RBs?
            Maybe.

            I would answer probably to your questions above but, again, I pointed out in my previous post that we won’t know for sure until meaningful games are played.

            “Staying with a 3-4 and finding a NT would have been a much easier and
            cheaper way to effect change. They could have had Ray Horton or Romeo
            Crennel install a more straightforward 3-4 with zone concepts if that
            was what they wanted.”

            I don’t believe finding a quality NT is easy at all. Horton wasn’t available until after the Cowboys hired Kiffin. Romeo is still unemployed so either he didn’t want another job or no one wanted him. In any case, although they both run 3-4 schemes, they are different flavors of 3-4 than what Rob ran. There would still be a learning curve for the players. Is expense really an issue here? They signed Durant and Hargrove for their 4-3 skill sets at near veteran minimum salaries. However, they saved money by cutting Spears and Coleman. Allen replaced Sensebaugh and I think Sims and McCray would have been signed with or without a defensive change.

            “Maybe Garrett did have something to say about the switch, but Jerry
            has never been shy about his reliance on “outside advisers” Lacewel and
            Switzer. Don’t you remember their quotes after the Kiffin hire? Think
            Garrett has much of a connection to them?”

            You’re right about Lacewell but that has nothing to do with the issue at hand….Lee’s assertion that the 4-3 change was all Jerry. It sure appears to me that Garrett was on board.

            “Lee is right in the larger sense as well. This entire offseason
            stinks of Jerry’s meddling and desperation. From the firing of Ryan to
            the bungling of the 1st round pick to the “Romo is Peyton Manning”
            theory.”

            I highly doubt Rob’s firing was done unilaterally by Jerry. My guess is Garrett wanted him out as well. Ryan reportedly stopped attending defensive meetings for the final month of the season. Between that, the bulletin board material he regularly threw out there, and the unsportsmanlike penalty called on Ryan in the Bengals game….I think Garrett had had enough. Not to mention the D’s inability to force turnovers even before the injuries hit.

            Jerry and Stephen certainly appear to have overruled the scouts and Garrett as far as the trade down goes and certainly you’d like more continuity there but I love the pick of Frederick as well as the extra 3rd which resulted in the Williams pick.

  • William F. Cody

    This is great to see and reflect on, especially after a weekend where the Nation commemorated those warriors who paid the ultimate sacrifice. The always insightful KC Joyner brings back memories of a brighter time…

  • hardwater

    A team has to hang their hat on something. The Cowboys have hung their hat on Tony Romo. So let him play. Although I’d still like the OLine to be able to bully the defense out of the way when we need to run it.

  • truecowboyfan

    I don’t think you can play bully football with a weak OL. However, that being said, I think Joyner brings up some good points. This is my assessment of the problem, in summary:

    1. The system that JG runs relies on a solid running game and enough pass protection to enable the intermediate/deep routes to develop.

    2. The OL is not good enough to consistently achieve #1, above.

    3. Therefore, JG must alter his strategy to a more dink and dunk style, which he is not effective at, primarily because he doesn’t appear skilled at designing quick developing routes that put his players in position to gain yards after the catch. He also doesn’t seem to go for the kill shot down the field often enough to force defenses to back off.

    4. The team must therefore rely on the improvisational skills of Tony Romo to get big plays. This will result in some big plays, but will also result in some big mistakes. It will not, however, result in a consistent offense.

    The Cowboys will never get to the next level without a consistent offense.