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RTN: Do the Cowboys Really Need To Run the Ball More?

Posted Feb 21, 2013

Heading to Baltimore to face the Ravens in Week 6 of the 2012 season, the Cowboys were sitting at 2-2 and in desperate need of a victory. The ’Boys’ running game, stagnant until that point in the season, erupted for 227 yards on 42 carries. Dallas came out firing from the start, rushing 33 times for 194 yards through the first three quarters.

With such dominance on the ground, it came as a shock to many when the Cowboys ended up losing by two points. Yes, you can say kicker Dan Bailey “should have” made a 51-yard field goal attempt with six seconds remaining in the contest, but the real “should have” was that the Dallas should have parlayed their authority over Baltimore into a late-game lead, not a deficit and a long field goal try that was far from a sure thing.

So what went wrong against the Ravens? Dare I say that the Cowboys’ offense, a unit that absolutely conquered an above-average Baltimore run defense, ran the ball too much?

In the preseason, I published an article detailing five myths surrounding the Cowboys, one of which was that the team wins by running the football early and often:

Running the ball is strongly correlated with winning, so teams obviously need a powerful rushing attack to win games, right? Not really. Teams that are already winning rush the football to close out games, creating the illusion that running often is the impetus for team success. In reality, teams generally acquire the lead by throwing the football with great efficiency.

The Cowboys are no exception to the rule. Since 2008, they’ve won just 27.6 percent of their games when they pass on greater than 57 percent of their offensive plays. Wow, better keep it on the ground, right?

Before jumping to conclusions, soak this one in: That win rate miraculously jumps to 63.6 percent when the ’Boys pass on at least 57 percent of plays through the first three quarters, compared to only 41.9 percent when they pass on fewer than 57 percent of plays.

The Cowboys are a passing team, built to win on the back of Romo and his arsenal of pass-catching weapons.

We hear it all the time that the Cowboys need to “establish the run” early in games or they have to pound away on the ground to “wear down the defense.” The problem is that, if true, we’d expect those ideas to be reflected in the Cowboys’ win-loss record. That is, if establishing the run early is truly effective, we’d see a better record for the Cowboys when they rush the ball early in games than when they come out throwing. And we don’t. The ’Boys are a better team when they pass the ball early and often.

The numbers from the 2012 season mirror that hypothesis. Once again, Dallas was successful when they posted run-pass balance in the final box score, leading most to assume that balance was the impetus for their victories. When the Cowboys passed the ball on more than 57 percent of their plays, they were just 4-7. When they threw it less frequently than that, they won four of their five games. It’s really no wonder that you can turn on any pre-game show and hear just about every analyst trumpet the importance of keeping the ball on the ground; it seems like a natural conclusion to draw from the overall numbers.

Again, we need to be careful about confusing correlation (the relationship between rushing the ball often and winning) and causation (the idea that rushing the ball often is the reason for winning). We saw an example of this concept in the Cowboys’ very first game of the season. With a 31-to-26 pass-to-run ratio, Jason Garrett was praised by many for his balance. Through three quarters, though, the ’Boys actually passed the ball on over 60 percent of their plays, running late when they owned a lead.

We saw the same idea come to fruition in the Cowboys’ matchup with the Panthers and their first against the Eagles. In both contests, the final box score showed a balanced attack, but Dallas really pounced on their opponents through the air early on.

Similarly, the importance of the passing game can go unappreciated when teams are forced to pass a whole lot late in games because they’re already losing (many times because they rushed too often early). That phenomenon actually happened in the Cowboys’ Week 17 loss in Washington; down in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys dropped back to pass on 15 of their 16 plays, creating the illusion of a pass-heavy game plan. Through the first three quarters, though, Dallas actually passed the ball on only 53.3 percent of their plays. As is typical, the early balance didn’t pay off.

All told, the Cowboys, a team that was 4-1 when they rushed the ball on at least 43 percent of their plays, were actually only 1-2 when they did the same through the first three quarters of game. The only game the Cowboys won all year with an early run-heavy attack, the second win over Philly, they were actually losing by a touchdown heading into the fourth quarter.

Now, it’s important that we don’t downgrade the significance of rushing efficiency. The Cowboys absolutely need to improve their running game next year, primarily because that success can be transformed into big plays through the air. But contrary to popular belief, that efficiency on the ground and the team’s win total, won’t increase just from dialing up more running plays. As the stats prove, an abundance of early rushes is actually detrimental to the team.

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