Depending who you ask, the Cowboys just signed quarterback Tony Romo to the worst contract in the history of sports, or they acquired value on one of the game's most underrated players. Regardless of your stance on Romo's big $108 million extension, there's no doubt that the quarterback needs help from the players around him. The most obvious place to look is the running game, where the Cowboys averaged just 3.6 yards per carry (YPC) as a team in 2012, the second-worst mark in the NFL.
But just how much can an improved running game help Romo's play? And would the Cowboys benefit most from a heavier reliance on the running game, meaning more attempts, or improved efficiency? I set out to take a look by examining nine of the game's top signal-callers and their histories with above and below-average running games.
There are different ways to measure the effectiveness of a running game. One popular way is to simply track the overall rushing yards for either a single player or the entire team. It's been well-documented that Romo has never had a 1,000-yard rusher in any of his five full seasons as the team's starter, but how much does that hurt him?
Below, I graphed the yards per attempt (YPA) for various quarterbacks, breaking down their seasons into two categories based on whether or not their team rushed for at least 1,800 yards, around the median total rushing yards for all 32 teams in a given season.
Some quarterbacks – Romo, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning – have performed better when their offenses have rushed for a lot of yards. Other passers, however, have performed more efficiently without much total production on the ground. Overall, the nine quarterbacks have actually totaled better efficiency (7.83 YPA) when their teams have rushed for fewer than 1,800 yards than when they've crossed that mark (7.56 YPA).
That's actually pretty strong evidence that posting a bunch of yards on the ground doesn't really help quarterbacks. The reason is likely that a large percentage of those rushing yards come late in games after the team has already secured a lead. Since we know that the best teams tend to gain leads by passing efficiently and then rack up rushing yards when they're milking the clock, it's pretty remarkable that the game's best quarterbacks still average higher YPA when their teams don't compile a lot of rushing yards. It's more evidence of what astute analysts have known for years: Bulk rushing yards can explain past events, but they aren't predictive of future ones. In regards to quarterback play, total rushing yards are basically worthless.
A better way to assess the effectiveness of the running game, of course, is to examine efficiency in terms of yards per carry. Remember, rushing attempts alone don't help teams win, but rushing efficiency can be far more useful. Below, I graphed the yards per attempt for the quarterbacks based on the efficiency of their running games.
While only three of the nine quarterbacks have posted greater efficiency in seasons when their offenses have rushed for over 1,800 yards, six of the nine have been superior when their teams have rushed for at least 4.3 YPC. Overall, the passers have totaled 7.68 YPA when their teams have rushed for at least 4.3 YPC in a season, compared to 7.54 YPA when the offenses checked in below 4.3 YPC. That difference isn't monumental, but it's certainly more telling than the quarterbacks' numbers based on bulk rushing yards.
So, back to Romo. It's true that the quarterback hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher in any season that he's thrown at least 350 passes, but that doesn't mean he hasn't had help on the ground during his career. The Cowboys have used a committee system for most of Romo's tenure in Dallas, and they've rushed for at least 1,800 yards twice in his five full seasons. More important, the 'Boys have posted above-average rushing efficiency in three of Romo's five full seasons. Let's see how those numbers compare to the other quarterbacks.
In terms of rushing efficiency, only Eli Manning has had a higher percentage of seasons with an above-average rushing game. Romo's rate of seasons with an efficient running attack (60 percent) is substantially higher than that for Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. Actually, although there's a consensus that Brady was helped immensely by a dominant rushing game during his early days with the New England Patriots, the team has posted 4.3 YPC just one during his career, and it came in 2010.
The Cowboys undoubtedly need to improve their 31st-ranked rushing offense from 2012, but the idea that Romo has never had help from his running backs isn't true. He hasn't benefited from a 1,000-yard rusher, but the team's overall rushing success during Romo's reign in Dallas has been comparable to that for other top quarterbacks around the NFL.
But that doesn't mean the Cowboys need to lean on the running game to "take pressure off of Romo." They must find a way to be more efficient on the ground, but blindly handing the ball to DeMarco Murray & Co. isn't going to help Romo. Actually, the numbers suggest it could hurt the quarterback by putting the offense in sub-optimal situations.
Yup, the 2013 Dallas Cowboys are going to live and die with Romo. We'd all love to see the Cowboys rush for 2,000-plus yards, but that success will come as the result of acquiring leads via the passing game; keeping the ball on the ground too much in an effort to rack up rushing yards at all costs will hurt Romo's chances for success. As always, the team's fate lies in the hands of Tony Romo's arm, and that is why he's the $108 million man.