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A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys take down Bills with rushing attack. . .or did they?

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Jonathan Bales

After calling a running play on 34 of 61 plays yesterday, head coach and offensive coordinator is being praised for finally sticking with the running game.  The Cowboys (DeMarco Murray, primarily) ran all over the Bills and clearly won the game because of it, right?  Well, maybe.

I’ve written in the past about why the relationship between rushing attempts/rushing yards and wins is primarily a correlation, not due to a strongly-linked causal relationship.  Winning teams run the football, not necessarily the other way around.  Here are my thoughts:

The debate between running the ball versus running effectively continues. You all know I find myself in the latter group, and the numbers seem to support the idea that rushing the football just isn’t as important as it once was. According to Advanced NFL Stats, passing yards-per-attempt is the most important statistic as it relates to winning–or at least the one most correlated to winning–with a strength of correlation of 0.61. Rushing attempts comes in at second with a 0.58 strength of correlation. So rushing the ball frequently leads to wins, right?

Not quite. Remember, these numbers represent the correlation between a specific statistic and winning football games, not necessarily causation. Teams do not win football games because they run the football, but rather run the football because they are already winning. The high strength of correlation between rushing attempts and winning seems to be limited to being just a correlation, not representative of causation. This idea is supported by the negative correlation (-0.17) between passing attempts and winning–losing teams throw the football.

On the other hand, a team’s passing efficiency probably will not increase too much if they are losing. Sure, a defense might play a little softer near the end of games so as to not yield big plays, but the net yards-per-attempt is highly unlikely to be affected as much as the rushing attempts from the team which is winning.

The strength of correlation between rushing yards-per-attempt and winning is 0.18–over three times less than that of passing efficiency. So why run the football at all? The reason I still think rushing efficiency is important is because the majority of the positive effects of a strong rushing game (in terms of efficiency, not total yards) are actually represented in a team’s passing efficiency. We’ve all heard the truism that “you need to run the ball to set up the pass.” While this is far from a necessity, rushing the ball well certainly aids an offense’s ability to throw the football effectively.

So with your permission, I’d like to alter “you need to run the ball to set up the pass” to “you may run the ball, if you would like to do so, and if you can do it with relative success, it should help you perform what really wins football games–throwing the football efficiently.” I don’t think that one’s going to get adopted, but whatever.

So when you hear me say things like “Rushing the ball is only important insofar as it helps to garner big plays via the passing game,” these numbers are the reason why.

On Sunday, the Cowboys’ strong rushing attack was certainly a major reason for their success, but a lot of the advantages they gained because of it came in the passing game.  Despite rushing the ball 55.7% of the time Sunday, the Cowboys did so on just 38.6% of plays prior to the fourth quarter (those numbers do not include two late-second quarter runs and a kneel which were used to drain the clock).  On top of that, Dallas’ first three touchdowns came via the air, including two long plays of 34 and 58 yards.

The running game was important on Sunday, but make no mistake about it. . .Dallas won primarily because they were able to capitalize off of their rushing success in the passing game.

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5 Responses to Dallas Cowboys take down Bills with rushing attack. . .or did they?

  1. Brandon Butcher says:

    I disagree with your final assessment of why Dallas won on Sunday. Dallas was able to get an early lead via big plays in the passing game and then sustained the lead and closed out the game via running the ball and playing defense. Look at the Detroit game. Dallas got an early lead but could not and would not run the ball or play defense and made 3 key mistakes in the second half in the passing game. I think a more accurate adage is, “You throw the ball to score points and run the ball and play defense to win games.”

  2. Vince_Grey says:

    JB, while I do believe that you can “run the ball to set up the pass”, I also believe you “pass the ball to set up the run.” Both statements can be and are true. I absolutely believe Sunday that those long passes, including the necessary time needed for those receivers to get open deep, came due to Murray’s threat as a runner.

    The new rules definitely make it much easier to win with no running game to speak of, but that certainly doesn’t mean every team, including those with ultra-elite QB’s like Manning, Brady, Brees, and Rodgers aren’t far more effective when they have a productive running game.

    I guarantee you it’s non coincidence that Romo and the offense are better and far less turnover prone with Murray as a running threat. (Though Murray needs to hold the ball better. He’s a little a loose with the way he carries it. Hasn’t hurt him yet, but it will.)

    I for one am NOT looking forward to Felix Jones getting healthy because when he does his contract will demand they give him the ball. More carries for Jones means the running game suffers. I would just as soon prefer him to stay hurt and let the rookies have the carries.

    (

  3. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    I think discussing the run vs. pass and the ratio and use of each is simply discussing factors a larger issue: the design or scheme of each gameplan.

    For years, the Steelers were thought of as a run first type of team that emphasized wearing the opponent out by ground and pound offense and physical defense. That isn’t the case anymore; even though they still possess the capabilities (i.e. the personnel and mentality) to do so. They are now a pass first team that uses the run to complement. This is identifiable by the specific playcalling (not necessarily the ratio of run to pass) and the TIMES that the plays are called. The Steelers look to advance the ball by both run and pass, of course, but their mentality is to sling the ball around the field and run it every so often. Run first teams didn’t always call run plays on 1st and 10 but they often called run plays at some point during the drive. Power running is just as much a mentality as the West Coast offense. Same as the run and shoot or vertical passing. All systems have at least a few run plays but the objective of each scheme is different in terms of gaining yardage and scoring. Is Miami a running offense? How about the Texans? Baltimore? San Diego? The true question we’re all discussing is what is each teams’ offensive identity. That identity, whatever it is, is depicted in the playcalling of the coach.

    Good coaches have good schemes. Great coaches can find the players to fit their scheme. Elite coaches are able to “tweak” their scheme to fit the players they have…

    So, as far as FJ coming back to full-up status, I think it will be for the best – in the long run. The challenge for JG to devise a scheme that utilizes both DM and FJ the most effectively will take time. The Saints, right now, have an excellent utilization plan for Ingram, Thomas and Sproles. Ingram has 93 rush attempts and 9 receptions to date (he has missed 2 games due to injury). Thomas has 72 rush attempts and 32 receptions. Sproles has 51 rush attempts and 60 receptions (aside from his return duties). It might surprise some that Sproles actually has the most touches (and TDs) in that system while being listed as the 2nd string RB. The fact of the matter is, there really is no 1st string or FEATURE back for them. The back that plays the most is the one who the play is designed for.

    It somehat pains me to think that Dallas had the exact same “mix” of talents w/ FJ, MBIII and Choice.

  4. moses says:

    Run vs Pass – It also depends on the makeup of the team.

    For example, the Tim Tebow Broncos vs the Kyle Orton Broncos are vastly different. Orton was a passer and Tebow is a runner.

    At least for the moment, the Broncos are making the most of their running attack. Most defenses are built to pressure the passer and cover the receivers. They are no longer built to primarily stop the run. The Broncos have taken advantage of that for the moment where they actually do use the run to set up the pass.

    Against the Chiefs, Tebow only had 6 incompletions the whole game. Of course he only threw it 8 times. It was good enough. 2 completions the entire game and they won. they look like a 1940′s era team.

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