Dez Bryant

X-ed Out: The Split End Killed the Cowboys’ 2017 Deep Passing Attack

K.C. Joyner has been a friend of my sites going back to the mid-2000s before he made his move to ESPN. This week, KC joined me for an interview to promote Scientific Football 2018, the 15th edition of his groundbreaking books, which inspired competitors like Pro Football Focus.

In this edition, we take a deep dive into his 2017 pass-game metrics to learn where it went wrong for the Cowboys maligned receiving corps. I learned much of the decline depended on Dez Bryant’s decline. The Cowboys X saw a metric collapse this past season, which no doubt was seen by the front office.

Sports Talk Line: This is the fifteenth version of your book. You’ve developed a lot of new metrics over the years. You were the first with color-ratings, with the green, yellow and red ratings for cornerbacks and receivers. You added run blocking metrics a few years later. Are there any new features in this year’s book?

KC: This year the new feature is what I call the fortune-points system. It’s a way to try and place values on how much a player benefited or was hurt by good or bad luck. If a player drops a pass, the QB overthrows him and he’s wide open and it’s clear the receiver was wide open that would have likely resulted in a completion, this falls under the bad luck category and I have a way of calculating how that impacted a player’s value from a fantasy perspective.

With good luck, your defender slips on a play, the safety doesn’t come over and you’re turned loose on a route. Some sort of defensive error resulted, and this is in the passing game mind you. I haven’t quantified this for the run game yet.

I net the two out and get the fortune points value for each player. The idea is that if you’re on the wide end of each spectrum if you’re an outlier for good luck or bad luck, you’re due to have a rebound towards the middle.

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I also added some new pass blocking metrics where I try to quantify how much pass blocking affected a quarterback’s performance either positively or negatively and I have some new metrics on running backs receiving, to tell how many passes a back caught. Were they screen passes, non-screen passes. I want to give people an idea of how a back can be used in the passing game.

STL: Let’s go to the offensive units on the Cowboys and let’s start with receivers. The team turned over the receiver room. There is a new position coach for 2018 and Cole Beasley and Terence Williams aside, moved everybody else out.

There was a lot of debate during the season about the team’s poor passing game. Some fans put a lot of blame on the quarterback, some looked at the offensive line, which struggled at various times and some spread the blame around. The team clearly pointed the finger at the receivers. What did your analyses show?

KC: Looking at Dak Prescott, he averaged 9.8 vertical yards per attempt in 2017. That’s not a good number for vertical passes. That ranked 25th last year. Those only accounted for 27% of his total passes. That’s also a very low number. That’s 30th. He just didn’t air it out very often. That’s a lower percentage of deep attempts than guys like Alex Smith, or Kirk Cousins. That’s even fewer than Blake Bortles.

Part of it is that Dez Bryant had abysmal metrics last year. He had atrocious metrics, so much so that I think he alone crippled the vertical passing game. He ranked next to last out of 86 qualifying wide receivers in vertical yards per attempt, this is passes more than eleven yards downfield. Only Zay Jones, who had one of the worst seasons I’ve ever seen a starting receiver with heavy targets have since I’ve been doing this was worse, and Dez Bryant was only a half step ahead of him.

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Bryant ranked 70th in stretch yards per attempt at 7.8 on passes, those thrown 20 or more yards down the field. We talked about the fortune points metric. With offensive fortune points, which is how often you lost points to bad luck on your part – you dropped a pass, he lost 39.5 points in PPR fantasy leagues which is an incredibly high number.

I’m looking up the specifics on his fortune points. If we’re talking vertical passes, and that’s why you pay Dez Bryant the money, for vertical production. You don’t hire the guy to catch short passes. He had 26 plays in 2017 where there was some sort of bad luck or error, for the whole season. Thirteen of those were short passes, under ten yards downfield. That’s not good but if you’re dropping short passes the team can deal with that.

Here he is on vertical attempts on throws eleven or more yards downfield. Of those thirteen plays, eight were straight up drops on his part. And the ninth was an inaccurate pass that he dropped. You can put that one on the QB. The other four were inaccurate passes. And one of those that I graded as inaccurate because the rush affected the throw. The other three were misses by Dak.

And the thing is, of those thirteen passes, eleven of them were in the medium range, eleven to nineteen yards downfield. Only two were deep, 20 to 29 yards. None were over 30-yard attempts, that I call bomb pass attempts.

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What does that say to me if I’m looking at it? Why didn’t he have more misses in the deeper ranges? It’s because he wasn’t getting open.

I think this may be a reason he’s still looking for a job. If he’s not getting open deep, that’s his value. And if you’re not getting open deep and you’re dropping the intermediate passes? Put that combination together and he was one of the worst receivers in the league last year.

Next: Can the new wideout corps surpass the 2017 group’s production? Can this Cowboys offense compensate on the ground?

You can purchase the latest edition of Scientific Football here. You can also enter to win a copy by tweeting #SF2018 to my Twitter account: @cowboysnation1. I will draw a winner Thursday at noon, central time.

Rafael Vela

Rafael Vela

Senior Analyst SportsTalkLine at Sports Talk Line
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
Rafael Vela