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