Yesterday, I posted an analysis of the Cowboys’ running game broken down by formation. While collecting data for that article, I noticed the play-calling from a particular formation—Gun Trips—was odd. Specifically, the Cowboys have lined up in Gun Trips Left/Right 52 times this year, and they’ve dropped back to pass the ball from the formation 52 times—as in every play.
Looking back on previous analysis, this has been a trend of Jason Garrett’s for years. Actually, the Cowboys have run 232 plays from Gun Trips since 2009, and 231 of them (99.6 percent) have been passes. The run came on a 3rd and 18 in 2009.
I’ve talked about how important it is for play-callers to utilize deception; pass when the defense anticipates a run, and vice versa. There are times when some predictability is okay, though. On 3rd and 10, lining up in Gun Trips offers the defense no real advantage because they know a pass is on the way, for example. Similarly, if Gun Trips were used solely in hurry-up, pass-oriented situations, there would be no real loss of competitive advantage.
However, the Cowboys don’t run Gun Trips solely in passing situations. Defining a situation in which the Cowboys could run the ball as 1st or 2nd and 10 or fewer and 3rd and 5 or fewer, Garrett has dialed up Gun Trips in running situations 61.5 percent of the time in 2012. The sample of 52 plays form Gun Trips includes 12 plays on 1st and 10 and even two plays on 3rd and 1. On top of that, the Cowboys don’t always run Gun Trips in late, pass-only situations. Actually, only 34.6 percent of the plays have come in the fourth quarter.
On the season, the Cowboys have given up a sack on 5.8 percent of their dropbacks from Gun Trips. That’s higher than the overall rate of 4.6 percent, but with a relatively small sample, it’s difficult to determine if defenses have really been playing in a manner that suggests they know the Cowboys will be passing on every play from the formation.
One might argue that the defense still doesn’t know the play-call or where the ball will be thrown when the Cowboys use Gun Trips; it could be a screen to the right, a deep pass to the left, and so on. Still, there’s certainly some advantage for a defender to know that the offense won’t run the ball on 1st and 10 or a crucial 3rd and 1. Linebackers can immediately sink into their drops and, more importantly, defensive linemen can pin their ears back and head straight for the passer. Further, they can do so with conviction—this isn’t a “90 percent of the time” thing, it’s an “always” thing.