We recently studied the Cowboys’ success in 2009 running draw plays. We discovered that, although Dallas is a superb draw-running team, the frequency with which the team ran the play caused their draw efficiency to decline as the season progressed.
In fact, the Cowboys actually averaged over a full yard less per carry on draws than on all other runs. To regain the effectiveness of the draw, we concluded that the Cowboys must run less of them in 2010. In doing so, defenses will be less prepared to defend them and the Cowboys can then reach the Nash equilibrium (the point where the average yards-per-carry will be maximized).
We decided to conduct a similar study on counter plays, with the results shown above. Counter runs utilize misdirection–a running back either hesitates or starts one way before changing direction and receiving the hand-off. Offenses will sometimes even pull linemen to the backside of the play to really confuse a defense.
Notice the incredible success the Cowboys had on counters last season, particularly Felix Jones. Since counters are finesse type runs, it is logical that Jones received the most carries on counter plays and also gained the most yards. His 10.0 yards-per-carry is absolutely ridiculous, particularly with a sample size as large as 22 runs.
Barber also performed fairly well on counters, perhaps because defenses were less inclined to expect a misdirection play with him in the game as opposed to Jones. Thus, Barber’s counter average was higher than his yards-per-carry on other runs.
Tashard Choice’s low average means nothing because the sample size of just three runs is much too small to draw meaningful conclusions.
When comparing the overall counter stats with the numbers from the other types of runs (shown to the right), you can see just how effective the Cowboys were running counters in 2009. They averaged 2.9 yards-per-carry more on counters than other runs, particularly because the opportunity for a big play is so much greater.
Notice the Cowboys had a significantly higher percentage of big plays on counters as well. In fact, when running counters Dallas was 1.5 times as likely to run for 10+ yards, 3.5 times as likely to run for 20+ yards, and an incredible 6.9 times as likely to run for 40+ yards as compared to all non-counter runs.
It is worth noting that the percentage of negative plays on counters was higher than on non-counters, but this is to be expected from a finesse, misdirection sort of play. Counters are generally run in situations when an offense is less likely to be debilitated from a negative play (such as 2nd and 5 as compared to, say, 3rd and 2).
Still, the Cowboys were only 1.5 times as likely to lose yardage on a counter as compared to a non-counter, so the risk was well worth the reward.
Ultimately, Dallas would be well-suited to significantly increase the number of counters they run in 2010, especially with Jones. It may also be smart to replace some of the draw plays with counters, particularly because the two types of run plays are generally called in similar situations.