During the Cowboys blown opportunity against the Washington Football Team on Thanksgiving Day, there were some decisions made by Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy that have critics barking. There are legitimate complaints to be aired about some of what transpired on those four fourth-down plays the Cowboys attempted, as the team only converted one of them. Those are bad odds and not the kind you want to repeat.
But as with everything in life, there is nuance and context, and a poor showing on Thursday should not deter the Cowboys from being aggressive the rest of the year or beyond. McCarthy is right, for the most part, in being aggressive on fourth down. Analytics have proven that out and it’s a lesson many NFL coaches have yet to learn. Bravo to him for doing it. The issue though, is context for being aggressive, and then the play-calls when going for it.
Let’s walk through all four fourth-down situations on Thursday to see what we can learn, and what McCarthy has hopefully learned.
Third-and-1/fourth-and-1 at the Dallas 34-yard line with roughly six minutes left in the first half
The first Cowboys fourth-down decision was actually a combo of third and fourth down. They initially faced a third-and-one and they ran a jet sweep to CeeDee Lamb. They did the same thing in their last game against Minnesota in a similar down and distance and it easily picked up the first down. This week, Lamb was stuffed and maybe gained a half yard at most.
The idea to run a play in a similar situation they ran last week and it being a horizontal play instead of vertical is questionable. But they play worked the last time in this situation, and the expectation that Lamb could get one yard isn’t unreasonable. This play-call might not have been to everyone’s liking, but it’s certainly defensible. What happened next is not.
Deciding to go for it on fourth and what looked to be roughly half a yard is certainly aggressive when looking at the field position, but you can definitely find analytics to back it up. This is the kind of decision many of us point to when asking NFL coaches to finally dump the old ways of thinking and move into a modern era. I won’t speak for everyone, but this decision was the right one in context.
The play-call was absolutely the wrong one. The Cowboys chose to throw it, an option where so many things can go wrong. A sack, pressure on the QB, the receiver slips, the throw is off target, the receiver drops the pass, or, in this case, the defense gets away with pass interference.
Ah, but don’t many proponents of modern football say throw the ball more? Yes, but it all comes down to context. And in this down-and-distance situation, there is only one call to make. And it’s the same call the Cowboys should have made on third down.
The QB sneak.
This is absolutely the most underutilized play in football. The Cowboys rarely use it and it’s a mystery. It should be just about an automatic call in this situation. This is not just opinion, the numbers back it up. It is, statistically, the most successful play in football when used for one yard or less. Check it out.
Every study of quarterback sneaks that’s been conducted has proved they are significantly more successful than other short-yardage plays. ESPN research from 2017 showed that every NFL team had a higher conversion rate on quarterback sneaks than on other short-yardage plays. Pro Football Focus research from February showed that quarterback sneaks are 13 percent more successful than other types of runs from the opposing 1-yard line, and 20 percent more successful than other third-and-1 or fourth-and-1 plays. Football Outsiders research from 2016 showed that quarterback sneaks are more successful than every other type of play on third down and fourth down. Advanced Football Analytics research from 2011 showed that a QB sneak on third-and-2 is more likely to be successful than a running back carry on third-and-1. The Wall Street Journal reported in October that every quarterback in the league with at least 10 career sneak attempts has a success rate of 75 percent or better. A 2015 Yale research paper stated that QB sneak attempts are worth nearly twice as much as non-sneaks by a metric called estimated points added.
Universally, these studies give QB sneaks a success rate between 70 and 90 percent. Nothing else in football has a 70 to 90 percent success rate!
Facts. Yet the Cowboys decided to go with a high-risk passing play. Not even an Ezekiel Elliott dive play, let alone an Andy Dalton sneak, but a passing play. It just made no sense. The aggressive decision was correct, the play-call, which should have been unbelievably simple, was totally botched.
Fourth-and-1 at the 50-yard line with 1:10 left in the first half
Later in the first half, as the Cowboys were driving to put points on the board before time expired, they were in a similar situation as discussed above. A fourth-and-1. Given the position on the field and the down and distance, this was a pretty basic call on the aggressiveness scale, but it was aggressive nonetheless. Not every coach goes for it there because there is the danger of giving the opponent the ball at midfield with one minute left to put points on the board. Still, the correct call.
And what did the Cowboys do? They ran a QB sneak. Hallelujah. They did the right thing and were rewarded as Dalton picked up two yards for a first down. In a perfect world, this is some kind of “a-ha” moment for McCarthy and Kellen Moore. The QB sneak is a devastating play this is so hard to stop in that down and distance. All the numbers say so, trust the numbers.
Fourth-and-10 at the Dallas 24-yard line with 12:54 to go in the fourth quarter
This is the big one that everyone is talking about, and it’s really hard to defend. First of all, it’s fourth-and-10, that is a long distance to decide to go for on fourth down. You generally only see that in desperation late-game situations, but here the Cowboys were only trailing by four points (20-16) and there was almost the whole fourth quarter to go. Next, you are deep in your own territory. Even the most aggressive analytics don’t recommend going for it here. Finally, the Cowboys tried to go for it out of a fake punt formation, a real boom-or-bust type of play. There is just nothing to recommend doing it at that point of the game. Being aggressive is one thing, but foolish is another.
Then there was the play-call, a slow developing reverse that forced Cedrick Wilson another 10 yards deeper and a blocking scheme that fell apart. Punter Hunter Niswander runs right past the guy who makes the play for Washington, and looks back at Wilson almost like he’s expecting a pass. Except Wilson never even looks at him and seems determined to run the ball. Were they on the same page? The Cowboys also look like they sent a couple of other guys into a pattern and their blocking scheme was indicative of a pass play. Nobody blocking goes past the line of scrimmage; at one point L.P. LaDouceur even pulls himself back from crossing the line of scrimmage. Did Wilson just botch it? Hard to say, but the context of the field position, score, time of game, and down and distance all say don’t do this.
Fourth-and-4 at the Dallas 41-yard line with 2:14 left in the the game
Not many people remember this one because most Cowboys fans had tuned out by this time. When the score is 41-16 with just over two minutes left, there is no hope. Still, the Cowboys went for it on a fourth down just because punting seemed ridiculous. So there is no issue with the decision, but the play-call, or rather the play-execution, is an issue. The choice to throw a pass with four yards to go for a first down that is the right call. The issue is they threw a three-yard pass, they threw it to CeeDee Lamb and he was tackled immediately short of the sticks. Does this ring any bells for anyone?
In the Cowboys first game of the season, McCarthy was aggressive when he passed up a sure field goal from the 11-yard line to go for it on a fourth-and-three. The Cowboys threw a short pass to CeeDee Lamb over the middle that went for two yards where he was immediately tackled short of the sticks. Everything was good about the play-calls in both situations except they have to get Lamb to understand he has to run his pattern past the sticks. There is some coaching up to do there.
The conclusion from all four of these decisions on fourth down is that context and play-calls mean everything when being aggressive. We should want the Cowboys and McCarthy to be aggressive. NFL coaches are too conservative in general and the ones that adapt to what the numbers show are the right decisions will do better in the long run.
To make that work, though, they have to be smart about when they are aggressive, and they have to be better about their paly-calls.