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Running the Numbers: Can you run to set up the pass?

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At DallasCowboys.com, I took a look at why the Cowboys (and most NFL teams) don’t win by running the ball often.

But doesn’t the run set up the pass?

Last year, I implored the Cowboys to run more play-action passes. The offense attempted way fewer play-action passes than any team in the league, but like most squads, they were really effective when using it. Romo actually recorded a 109.1 passer rating on play-action passes, compared to just 88.3 on straight dropbacks.

Each time I mentioned using play-action, I received e-mails, comments, and tweets telling me that play-action is useless without an efficient running game. And in all likelihood, that’s why the Cowboys didn’t show much play-action; if you can’t run, will defenders still really bite up on run fakes?

Actually, yes they will. Defenders tend to play situations as opposed to past efficiency. And if you think about it, that makes sense. Do you really believe that a linebacker cares (or even knows) that the Cowboys might be averaging only 4.0 YPC instead of the league average of 4.25 YPC? When he sees Romo show run-action on third-and-one, he’s going to fly up toward the line, regardless of the Cowboys’ past rushing efficiency.

That’s evident in the numbers, too. Ryan Tannehill, Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers, andTony Romo were all among the most effective play-action passers in the NFL last year. Every one played on a team that ranked near the bottom of the league in rushing efficiency.

As a whole, NFL quarterbacks don’t find more success on play-action passes if they have efficient running games. As Scott Kacsmar points out, “The strongest correlation is between play-action passing and all passes, which again goes back to the importance of the quarterback and overall passing game. The correlation of play-action passes to non-play-action passes is the weakest of them all, which speaks to how effective this type of play is regardless of how bad your quarterback or running game is.”

It’s fun to think that an effective running game can set up the passing game. But it doesn’t seem to be true.

Passing efficiency is what matters most in the NFL. The single most important number for predicting team wins is Adjusted Net-YPA—a stat that factors sacks and interceptions into passing totals. It’s nearly four times as predictive of team success as rushing efficiency.

Actually, teams that have been highly efficient through the air have been dominant, regardless of their running game. If we look at the most pass-dependent teams since 1970 (in terms of the difference between their passing and rushing efficiency), every single one had a winning record.Every one. And of the 20 teams to be the most run-dependent, just two have posted a winning record. As Kacsmar states, “The top 20 pass-dependent teams still went a staggering 230-69-2 (.767) with six Super Bowl appearances in spite of their imbalance. Meanwhile the top 20 run-dependent teams only went 93-220-1 (.298) with the 2012 Vikings being the lone playoff appearance.”

By the way, if you want to know why I’m so high on Romo as a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback, consider that his 7.03 Adjusted-Net YPA is fourth-highest in NFL history—behind Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady.

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