Why the Cowboys’ Running Game Will Improve in 2013
I posted two articles on the Cowboys’ running game today, one at NBC and the other at DallasCowboys.com. At NBC:
Everyone knows that the Cowboys’ running game needs to improve. Most equate that to sticking with the run, although that will likely just result in the team getting down early and, ironically, being forced to pass. Instead, the team really just needs to rush the ball more efficiently, especially in crucial situations like short-yardage, goal line, and late in games.
Speaking of short-yardage runs, they could actually be one of the reasons the Cowboys ranked so low in rushing efficiency in 2012. Dallas ranked 31st in both attempts and rushing yards, which is to be expected given how often they were down in games, but they were also just 31st in efficiency at 3.6 YPC. That’s a poor number no matter how you slice it.
A Skewed Stat
Earlier this week, I predicted that the Cowboys will have a substantially better running game in terms of YPC in 2013. The reason is that, although they’re hardly dominant on the ground, Dallas isn’t quite as poor as most think. They ended the season 31st with just 3.6 YPC, but the Cowboys didn’t run the ball as often as some other teams in high-upside situations, such as first-and-10. They actually passed the ball 58.3 percent of the time on first-and-10, compared to the league average of just 47.9 percent.
On down-and-distances such as first-and-10, offenses have an easier time running the ball. All NFL teams collectively averaged 4.41 YPC on first-and-10 last year, but only 4.26 YPC on all runs in any situation. On short-yardage runs with either one or two yards to go, offenses checked in at just 2.97 YPC.
So you can see that YPC is heavily influenced by the situations in which teams run. The Vikings were one of those that kept it on the ground in high-upside situations, allowing Peterson to rack up lots of yards and great efficiency. Other teams, like the Cowboys, don’t necessarily run the ball as much when there are more than a few yards to go for a first down.
So YPC is skewed based on game situations. But a different metric, called “success rate,” accounts for those situations. Success rate is the percentage of plays during which an offense increases the points they can expect to score. Whereas YPC downgrades a team for a 2-yard run on fourth-and-1, success rate rewards it because such a play would increase the probability of scoring. It better captures true rushing ability, and it doesn’t penalize teams for (astutely) passing the ball often in situations like first-and-10.
When we think about rushing effectiveness in terms of success rate, it can really change our perception of the game. Remember, the goal for an offense isn’t to maximize their YPC at all costs. It’s to utilize their running game to help them score touchdowns. When all is said and done, success rate measures an offense’s ability to translate the running game into points, whereas YPC doesn’t always do that. We can’t keep penalizing offenses for gaining first downs in short-yardage situations.