Running the Numbers: Why the Running Game Is Still Important
My article on the “Top Five Reasons the Running Game Is Still Important” was posted at DallasCowboys.com on Friday. Here’s reason No. 5:
5. Rushing efficiency helps close out games.
Make no mistake about it, the Cowboys win football games by passing the ball effectively. In my article on why the team should throw more, I wrote:
“It’s obvious that teams drastically alter their play-calling late in games as their probable fate becomes clearer, creating an imbalance in the overall ratio. By ignoring fourth quarter plays, we can get a better sense of what really wins football games.
“Despite a winning percentage of only .276 since 2008 when throwing on over 57 percent of all plays, the Cowboys have a much gaudier winning percentage of .636 when throwing on more than 57 percent of plays in the first three quarters. That is, the ‘Boys get the lead by throwing the ball often, then keep it by milking the clock with the run. Over that same timeframe, the Cowboys have managed just a .419 winning percentage when they’ve passed the ball less than 57 percent of the time through the first three quarters.”
When the ‘Boys pass early and often, they tend to win. At the end of games, however, running the ball with success becomes critical. In Week 6 of the 2011 season, the Cowboys lost a heartbreaker to the Patriots in New England. Up 16-13 with 3:36 remaining in the contest, head coach Jason Garrett called three straight runs. The offense gained five total yards on those plays.
Rushing efficiency can help teams when a football game is no longer about point maximization, i.e. when doing everything possible to score isn’t necessarily the best option. Many times, such as in the Cowboys-Patriots matchup, draining the clock is more important than increasing the likelihood of scoring a touchdown on a particular drive.
Had the Cowboys converted a first down via the run, they almost assuredly would have taken down the Patriots in that game. For all we know, the entire season may have unfolded differently. The point is that the importance of passing over running diminishes as the clock becomes a bigger factor in the outcome of games.
I talk a lot about how much more important passing is over running, and it is. The best NFL teams are those that throw the ball most efficiently. Still, running the ball has its place in the NFL, even if it is primarily to help set up the pass. For the Cowboys, the most critical area for running improvement is short-yardage. If the offense can win those 3rd and 1 battles this season, things could look a whole lot brighter in Dallas in 2012.