How Two Key Losses Could Alter the Philosophy of the Dallas Cowboys

With one key injury and one key personnel move, the 2015 Cowboys formula for success may be very different from the 2014 version which saw them move from 3 straight 8-8 seasons to 12-4 in the blink of an eye.   The loss of Orlando Scandrick to a reported torn ACL, along with DeMarco Murray’s flight to the Philadelphia Eagles really could change the 2015 Cowboys in a big way.

The 2013 Cowboys defense ranked 30th in efficiency.  They allowed the 2nd most yds/drive and the 3rd most points/drive.  They needed to do something to improve in 2014.  What they did was hardly original, but highly effective.  They altered their offense to help their defense.

The 2014 Cowboys offense used up over 3 minutes/drive, 2nd best time of possession/drive in the NFL (improving by almost 30 seconds over 2013).  They gained almost 36 yds/drive, 4th best in the NFL (improving by 5 yds/drive over 2013).  And hugely key (and pulled from my analytics-based 2015 NFL Preview):

  • In 2013, in one score games, the Cowboys called 66% pass (2nd largest pass % in the NFL).  As compared to:
  • In 2014, in one score games, the Cowboys called 50% runs (4th largest run % in the NFL).

Clearly, that 16% shift from pass to run in one score games was the largest in the NFL, and was a philosophical shift for Dallas to become a physical, running, ball possession team which uses the offense to help the defense.

run pass varianceBy getting a lot of help from the offense, the Cowboys defense could play looser and more effectively.  They had an average lead of 5.5 pts/drive (4th best), as compared to 3 pts/drive in 2013.  Teams needed to be more aggressive vs the Cowboys defense, so Dallas could anticipate that desperation.  A key result was more turnovers.

The 2014 Cowboys defense stole 0.17 turnovers/drive, the most of any team in the NFL.  As we also know from my 2015 NFL Preview, the team who wins the turnover battle wins 79% of games, Dallas ruled the NFL and the NFC East in that department. than And guess who tied for 2nd on the team in interceptions+forced fumbles?  Orlando Scandrick, who only played in 14 games.

Additionally, Scandrick played 885 snaps at CB last year, and when thrown at, opposing QBs had an 83 rating.  Now, they are likely to start Brandon Carr and Mo Claiborne at CB.  Offenses had 117 and 123 ratings when targeting each of them in 2014.  Carr’s 117 rating was 9th worst out of 108 qualifying QBs, while Claiborne’s 123 rating was on only 10 targets, so it did not qualify to be ranked by Pro Football Focus.

It remains to be seen if the losses of DeMarco Murray in free agency and Orlando Scandrick in training camp will hurt the Cowboys to the point their record returns to the 8-8 level from the prior few seasons.

The Cowboys were the 3rd most efficient run offense in 2014, and leaned on it to maintain time of possession (#1 in NFL)  to keep the defense fresh.  They threw the 7th fewest interceptions/drive, a combination of Tony Romo playing incredible football and the fact that the offense didn’t need to force desperate throws late, as they played with a lead.

If the loss of Murray renders the Cowboys run game merely average, it will be a big problem.  Because now they are without their #1 player in the secondary, and the entire game theory for the Cowboys shifts.  Less time of possession means more for their opponent vs a weakened secondary, which could mean more success for said opponent.  Which means the Cowboys, behind a less successful running game, would need to pass more often, which could mean more turnovers, which would mean more losses.

There is a LOT of speculation in that prior paragraph.  One could argue the offensive line was responsible and the Cowboys run game will be equally as dominant as the 2014 version.  Which, in turn, would obviously minimize to an extent the key loss of Orlando Scandrick.  But one thing is clear:  a weaker run game WILL make the loss of Scandrick more glaring, and could really make the 2015 Dallas Cowboys, out of necessity, play less like the (highly successful) 2014 Dallas Cowboys than their fans would want to see.

Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears a Crown: King of Garbage Time, Kelvin Benjamin, must Pass Torch

The world of real and fantasy football witnessed a rare occurrence in 2014.  In just one season, three rookie receivers exceeded 1000 yards:  Odell Beckham Jr, Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin.  Its the first time that happened in NFL history.  To put it into perspective, in NFL history, only 17 rookie WRs had exceeded 1,000 yards before these three did it last year.  Prior to 2014, the only rookie receivers to exceed 1,000 yards since 2007 were Keenan Allen in 2013 and AJ Green in 2011.

But one of these WRs got the job done in a slightly abnormal way: by dominating garbage time.  If it was garbage time, Kelvin Benjamin was at his best.  By garbage time, I’m defining it as 4th quarter and down by more than 10 points.  Obviously different definitions would lead to different results, but that is the definition this analysis is based on.

Below you will find all players who recorded 40+ receptions in the first 3 quarters of their games in 2014.  There are 72 qualifying players.  Of these, two did not have any receptions in garbage time (by our definition) and 6 others had 2 or fewer targets in garbage time, so I did not include them in the variance calculations.

King Kelvin

As is evident, Kelvin Benjamin stands atop the NFL in his production.  In garbage time (trailing by 11+ points in the 4th quarter), Benjamin saw:

  • 56% (5) of his total touchdowns (9), largest % in the NFL
  • 29% of his total fantasy points (std scoring), largest % in NFL
  • 18% of his total catches, 2nd largest % in the NFL
  • 19% of his total yardage, 4th largest % in the NFL

Here are the top 15 receivers whose season long statistics benefited most from garbage time scoring, along with the 3rd rookie to surpass 1,000 total yards, Mike Evans:

WR Garbage Time 1(click to enlarge, full standings of every pass receiver at the bottom)

Compare those numbers for Kelvin Benjamin to Odell Beckham Jr or Mike Evans, and you’ll see that their total production (TDs, yardage and catches) saw far more contribution outside of garbage time than inside garbage time.  Benjamin saw 29% of his production come in garbage time, over double what Odell Beckham Jr saw, and almost 5 times what Mike Evans saw.

FIVE Garbage Time Touchdowns!

Five touchdowns in garbage time is pretty remarkable, and pretty rare.  How rare?  I only tracked the last 15 years, back to 2000, but over that span:

Since at least 2000, no other receiver had more than 4 garbage time TDs in any single season.  Kelvin Benjamin had 5 in 2014!

Even 4 garbage time TDs in a single season was rare:  only 6 receivers in those 15 years had 4 garbage time TDs.  That’s 6 players out of thousands who caught passes in 15 years since 2000.

Additionally, from 2011-2014 combined (4 years of stats) only 4 receivers had 5 total garbage time TDs.  That means in just 1 year (2014), Kelvin Benjamin did what it took the other 4 leading garbage time receivers FOUR YEARS to do.

29% of 2014 Production in Just 1.3 Games

Consider this other mind blowing stat:  The Panthers were 4th in the NFL in 2014 in time of possession.  Every game is 60 minutes, and per game, Carolina averaged 32 minutes and 18 seconds.  That means over 16 games, they had a total of 516 minutes and 48 seconds of possession.  Of that total time, 43:27 was garbage time (4th quarter, down by 11+ points).

  • Thus, only 8.4% of the Panthers total possession in 2014 was “garbage time”.
  • Yet Kelvin Benjamin racked up 29% of his total production in that 8% of possession time.

Considering the Panthers controlled 32:18 per game, in the equivalent of just 1.3 games, Benjamin recorded 29% of his 16-game production!

From Worst to….

Part of what made Benjamin’s performance so effective in garbage time was obviously the coverage.  Whether partially due to Cam Newton or partially due to Benjamin himself, his catch percentage when the defense was likely playing “prevent defense” was significantly better than during the first 3 quarters of play.  As the chart demonstrates, Benjamin’s 45% catch rate during the first 3 quarters was the worst rate in the NFL.

Surely, some of those targets were likely “uncatchable” and thus not Benjamin’s fault, but the bottom line was he was very inefficient when targeted during the majority of the game.  However, in garbage time, he improved his catch rate 24%, the 3rd largest improvement of any receiver.  In addition, his yards/attempt improved by 4.3 ypa, the 6th largest jump for any receiver.

Here are the catch rates for all Panthers receivers in the first 3 quarters, and you’ll see Benjamin’s rate was certainly the worst.  The players who received the 2nd and 3rd most targets (Olsen, Cotchery) had catch rates at least 20% better.  We can’t read too much into these numbers, as routes run were different, so whether its a Newton or Benjamin problem isn’t 100% clear.  But a key takeaway is the Newton to Benjamin combination was no where near efficient enough for the vast majority of the game, and needs to see significant improvement moving forward.

WR Garbage Time 2Naturally, you should expect to see better efficiency when the defense isn’t playing as tightly, allows more opportunity for catches underneath, and is playing primarily to slow the offense without getting burned quickly (using the clock as an ally), rather than stopping the offense in its tracks. But oddly, that isn’t what ends up happening.  Looking at catch rates, in quarters 1-3 across the entire NFL, the catch rate was 65% of targets.  In garbage time, that rate decreased to 61%.  The explanation likely comes because the pass attempts are more aggressive and risky, thus, more difficult for the quarterback to accurately hit, and more difficult for the receiver to snag.

But clearly the way the Panthers designed their offense in garbage time, receptions were far easier.  Not just for Benjamin, but across the board.  From Olsen to Cotchery to Avant to Benjamin, their catch percentage was better in garbage time than in the first 3 quarters.  When Kelvin comes back, he will need to work on excelling against a fully motivated defense in the first half and 3rd quarter, rather than a fat-and-happy prevent defense in the 4th quarter playing with a big lead.

Looking Ahead

Looking at 2015, we won’t see Kelvin Benjamin.  His ACL injury will keep him sidelined until 2016.  The Carolina Panthers will have to try to replace his production, but that’s easier said than done.  Benjamin is a huge target, and his catch radius is immense.  The Panthers need to work on their overall passing efficiency the first 3 quarters, and it starts with Cam Newton.  In 2014, Newton recorded passer ratings in the first 3 quarters of 79, 72 and 73, before recording a 110 rating in the 4th quarter.  His accuracy improved marginally, but his yds/att and TDs improved substantially.  As we saw above, much of that improvement was likely in garbage time.  Newton needs to work with whoever steps into Benjamin’s role, and the passing offense as a whole needs to be much more efficient and productive over the course of the entire game, rather then primarily in garbage time.

As for players to target in fantasy, its never a bad thing to get a receiver who performs in all 4 quarters, and faces those garbage time situations on occasion, because their number will be called and the defense will be easier to beat.  Players from 2014 who fit that mold included receivers like Benjamin, Alshon Jeffery, and Julio Jones, and tight ends like Jimmy Graham and Antonio Gates.  James Jones clearly saw a ridiculous amount of garbage time production, but his overall value was not high from a fantasy perspective.  Antonio Brown, the NFL’s top scoring WR from 2014, saw 11% of his total production come in garbage time.  But overall, the best scoring receivers don’t typically rely on garbage time production (see the WRs at the bottom of the table below), and it could be a red flag if a receiver has significant percentage of his total production in garbage time, particularly if they don’t have a lot of total production overall (such as James Jones).  But its certainly something to factor and consider when building your roster.

WR Garbage Time 3(click to enlarge)

 

 

Rookie Quarterbacks and Big, Bad NFL Defenses

Note: Updated stats at the bottom, comparing rookie QBs to veterans.

Earlier today, Joe Bussell (aka @NFLosophy) asked if I had any numbers on where rookie QBs throw their interceptions, as in, what defensive position is getting the majority of them: LB/CB/S?  It was an intriguing question, brought on by a story where Ron Jaworski was quoted as saying that the linebackers could give Jameis Winston the most trouble.

“I think the biggest difference is the linebackers.  In college, you don’t have linebackers that can actually defend the pass. These guys out here, you know, they’re jumping seam routes.”

So I dug into the numbers.  I pulled every single interception from rookie quarterbacks the last 3 years:  2012-2014.  This allowed us to look at the 2012 class including Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, the 2013 class including EJ Manuel and Geno Smith, and the 2014 class including Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr and Johnny Manziel.  I stopped in 2012, but the reality is you really wouldn’t want to go that much further with the data.  The NFL has changed so much the last few years, and rookie QBs are asked to start earlier and provide more offense.  The 2010 hit rule changes protected the QB in the pocket more, and gave receivers more freedom across the middle of the field.  The few years immediately after 2010, teams started to shift to take advantage of these rules.  And the last several years, passing efficiency contributed over 4 times more than rushing efficiency toward winning games.

I took a look at the numbers, and broke it out a bit deeper, to see where rookie QBs tend to have the most trouble:

Rookie Ints by Def PosWe can clearly see that the secondary is where quarterbacks find the most trouble.  Of all interceptions which come beyond the first line of defense, only 19% are made by LBs and 81% are made by players in the secondary.  This might not be too surprising, considering that, in general (rookie QB or not) most passes are intended for receivers covered by a secondary player, and safeties often can step in as well to pick off the ball.

adHere are the players who have given the most headaches to rookie quarterbacks the last few years:

Rookie Ints by Defender NameInterestingly, from the LB position, it is Winston’s Tampa Bay teammate, Lavonte David, who has recorded the most interceptions as a LB on rookie QBs the last 3 years.  In fact, only 1 player in the entire NFL (Jarius Byrd with 4) has more interceptions on rookie QBs than does David.  So going up against David in every practice surely will give Winston trouble, but hopefully it will better prepare him for the regular season and Luke Kuechly’s interception prowess.

Some other interesting tidbits I uncovered in my research:

Rookie Ints VarietyAs we can see, most of the interceptions came on “short” passes, defined as those traveling fewer than 15 yds in the air downfield.  This is to be expected, as most passes a rookie QB throws will not travel 15+ yds downfield.  The most personally interesting tidbit I found related to the 74 interceptions which were thrown with 10 yds “to go”.  That distance dwarfs all of the other interception distances.  But interestingly, its not 3rd and 10 or even 2nd and 10 when these interceptions are thrown:

49 of the 74 interceptions which were thrown with 10 yards “to go” came on 1st and 10 passes.

This is entirely about read/recognition and understanding situations.  Rookie QBs must understand when to throw the ball away on 1st and 10, rather than throw an interception.  Turnovers margin decides 79% of NFL games, so its inexcusable to throw interceptions on 1st and 10.  If a scramble isn’t there, and the QB refuses to throw the ball away quickly enough, though sacks are negative plays, they are far more acceptable than interceptions, particularly on first down.

So the question becomes, how will Jameis Winston far vs the 2nd level linebackers in the regular season, which he is struggling with in the preseason according to Jaws.  Time will tell.  But a prior analysis I did, which is included in my 342-page advanced metrics-based 2015 NFL preview magazine (available at Amazon.com or my website) showed that younger, inexperienced QBs are not asked to throw the ball in the middle of the field, potentially due to the complications involved with reading that area of the field:

As the below graphics indicate, while this looks only at 1st down passing, many of the younger QBs are not asked to throw these routes while the more veteran QBs are:

Rookie Ints pass across middle(click to enlarge)

The more veteran QBs along the top row passed 17%-20% of all 1st down passes to the short middle of the field.  The younger QBs passed 12%-13%.  Should Winston continue to struggle at the LB level, I have no doubt his coaches will design play calls to his strengths and avoid certain areas of the field more than others.  Soon, however, Winston will need to master throwing to the short middle of the field, because with the rule changes, that area is more open and has the ability to produce very efficient throws:

On 1st and 10 passes that are thrown within 15 yds of the line of scrimmage, QBs like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo see their highest passer rating come on those which are thrown to the middle of the field.

It will be interesting to see if Jameis Winston does throw most of his interceptions this fall to cornerbacks and safeties, or if he struggles with linebackers as he is doing now.  And I’ll eagerly await his twice-a-year matchup with Luke Kuechly of the Panthers.

UPDATE:

Having looked at rookie QBs, and seeing that 78% of their interceptions are by DBs and 18% are by LBs, I next looked at veteran QBs over the same time span.  I found that 78% of their interceptions are by DBs (same as rookies) and 16% are by LBs (2% less than rookie QBs).  These numbers likely are not statistically significant to say that veteran QBs don’t struggle with LBs as much as rookie QBs do.  But I decided to take it the next step, and look at the percentage of interceptions on passes that make it past the first line of defense, for some key veteran QBs the last 3 years:

  • Rodgers: 89% to DB / 11% to LB
  • Roethlisberger: 82% DB / 18% LB
  • Luck: 70% DB / 30% LB
  • Newton: 78% DB / 22% LB
  • Brees: 78% DB / 22% LB
  • Cutler: 90% DB / 10% LB
  • E. Manning: 79% DB / 21% LB
  • Ryan: 81% DB / 19% LB
  • Stafford: 86% DB / 14% LB
  • P. Manning: 88% DB / 13% LB
  • Rivers: 84% DB / 16% LB
  • Wilson: 81% DB / 19% LB
  • Brady: 91% DB / 9% LB
  • Romo: 82% DB / 18% LB

As you can see, some of these QBs are intercepted significantly less often by LBs (Rodgers, Brady, Cutler) while others are intercepted significantly more often by LBs (Luck, Newton, Brees, Eli Manning).  Thus, I don’t think you can conclude that rookie QBs struggle with LBs more or less often than veteran QBs, as Jaws seemed to state.