The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs. Bears Preview Articles + Why DeMarco Murray Is Underrated

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At ABC, I explained why I don’t like yards-per-carry as a stat (with a little Cowboys-Bears analysis in there):

Yards-per-carry is one of the most misleading statistics in football. As a statistic that records the average, YPC doesn’t account for how runs are distributed. Because of that, it’s very susceptible to fluctuation due to outliers.

If the Cowboys were to record a single run of 80 yards, for example, their YPC would shoot from 4.10 to 4.40. That would move them from below the league-average up into the top 10 in the NFL. Is that fair? Should one play—perhaps the result of a defender failing to tie his shoe or something else random—totally distort a stat?

That’s why rushing success rate is a much more accurate way to judge team rushing strength. Rushing success rate is the percentage of plays on which a team increases their chances of scoring on a drive. A one-yard run on 1st-and-10 would be considered unsuccessful, for example, while a one-yard run on 4th-and-1 would be a success.

Since success rate isn’t distorted by outliers—an 80-yard rush is just as successful as five-yard first down run—it’s immune to wild fluctuations. And since we know big plays via the running game are relatively volatile, success rate is a more accurate way to analyze the running game.

I bring this up because I think the Cowboys use their running game in a way that’s a little bit superior to what most people believe. This year, they rank 19th in YPC but 14th in success rate; 41.6 percent of their runs have increased their expected points.

Last year, the effect was even larger. Despite one of the “worst rushing offenses ever” according to YPC, they still ranked 17th in the NFL in success rate. That’s not outstanding, but Dallas was far from 2012’s worst rushing offense.

The reason that YPC can’t be trusted, in addition to outliers, is that teams run the ball in different situations. Frequently, the “best” rushing teams in YPC are those that use the run in the wrong way. If you run the ball often in situations with high upside, such as 1st-and-10, you might maximize YPC but you won’t be doing the same to your team’s chances of scoring.

Meanwhile, a team that uses the running game more often in short-yardage situations—when it should be utilized—will naturally have a lower YPC. But are they really a worse rushing team?

Not at all. The Cowboys, for example, have converted 75.0 percent of their plays on 3rd and 4th-and-1 this year, thanks in large part to an underrated short-yardage rushing game. Meanwhile, the Bears have converted only half of their plays in those situations, ranking them fourth-worst in the NFL.

Any time we analyze a stat, we need to make sure it’s standardized. We need to make sure we’re looking at the same thing for each team.

When it comes to the running game, we aren’t. Offenses that run the ball properly, using primarily the passing game in situations with high upside, should naturally have lower YPC. That doesn’t make them a worse rushing team. It makes them intelligent.

So who is the better rushing team: the Cowboys or the Bears?

Well, Chicago ranks in the top 10 in YPC and has 1,318 rushing yards on the year. Dallas ranks well in the bottom half in YPC and 27th with 1,021 yards.

Pretty clear, right?

Not so fast. Once you account for game situations, you realize the Cowboys have been better than the Bears on the ground. Chicago has just a 36.4 percent rushing success rate, ranking them 28th in the NFL. As mentioned before, the ‘Boys rank 14th.


At Bleacher Report, I published a game plan for Dallas:

Attack the Perimeter of Chicago’s Offensive Line

If there’s one shocking graph I could create regarding the Bears, it’s this one…

The Bears offensive tackles have given up all kinds of pressure this year, ranking last and fourth-last, according to Pro Football Focus. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod has been really bad, but right tackle Jordan Mills has been just atrocious.

Even if the Cowboys don’t blitz much, they can throw some different looks at the Chicago offensive tackles to create pressure with only four rushers.

By the way, Mills’ struggles are the primary reason I’m projecting defensive end George Selvie to have a monster game.

 

Don’t Double-Team Defensive End Julius Peppers

Peppers is still one heck of a player, but he’s not the dominating pass-rusher he used to be.

You can see that both Shea McClellin and Corey Wootton have pressured the quarterback at nearly the same rate as Peppers.

Plus, Peppers has rushed the passer from the right side of the Bears defense on 88.3 percent of his pass-rush snaps. That means he’ll be matched up primarily on left tackle Tyron Smith. I wouldn’t give Smith much help unless he shows that he needs it.

Also at BR, I broke down DeMarco Murray:

Running back DeMarco Murray‘s goes unappreciated by most Dallas Cowboys fans. While he’s not an elite back in the mold of Adrian Peterson, Murray is an above-average player who doesn’t receive the credit he deserves in Dallas.

Those who might be finally coming around on Murray after his three-touchdown performance on Thanksgiving should have seen the back’s stellar play coming a long time ago. In the preseason, I published four reasons why Murray would break out and explained why I was leading the Murray hype train.

One reason was that Murray is big and fast. Guess what? Speed matters for running backs. A lot. I charted approximate value for backs based on their 40-yard dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine.

If a running back doesn’t clock in faster than 4.50 in the 40-yard dash, his chances of NFL success are tiny. We’ll always have Alfred Morris-esque outliers, but for each Morris, there are bunches of other runners who’ve thrived on straight-line speed.

The second reason I was bullish on Murray is that we often place too much emphasis on film study. Murray hardly looks overwhelming on tape, but he consistently gets thejob done for Dallas. When a 215-pound back with 4.4 speed is highly efficient in his first three seasons in the NFL, I’m not really too concerned with what he looks like on film. The numbers are meaningful enough that I don’t need to let my eyes be deceived.

Let’s take a look at those numbers.

DeMarco’s Numbers

While league-average efficiency typically hovers around 4.2 YPC, Murray’s career mark is 4.8 YPC. That’s impressive, especially when you consider that the Cowboys offensive line has long been considered one of the worst in the league.

Take a look at how Murray stacks up with the backs drafted ahead of him in 2011.

That graph says a lot about the inefficiency of NFL teams when drafting running backs, but Murray has still been far more effective than his peers.

Murray’s largest weakness up until this point in his career has been his inability to stay on the field. Is he injury prone? Maybe, maybe not. But even in terms of bulk yards, Murray blows the other backs out of the water.

Murray has missed 11 games during his three-year NFL career. At this point, it’s really difficult to determine if that’s due to being injury prone or simply the result of randomness. Murray could very well be more susceptible to injuries than the average player, but we just don’t know that for sure at this point.

Either way, he’s been efficient enough that he’s certainly worth his four-year, $2.97 million contract. Murray is on pace for 1,351 total yards, 55 receptions and 10 rushing touchdowns in 2013, despite already missing two games.

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