There's really little doubt the NFL has turned into a passing league, with the top passing offenses consistently finding the most success in the regular season and beyond. In 2011, the top 10 passing offenses, in terms of total yards, generated a .663 winning percentage. In comparison, the top 10 rushing offenses posted only a .556 winning percentage. Similarly, the bottom 10 passing offenses (.363 winning percentage) were worse than the bottom 10 rushing offenses (.425 winning percentage). Exemplifying the diminishing importance of a dominant rushing attack, the New York Giants won the Super Bowl despite ranking dead last in total rushing.
Still, there are plenty of people out there, some unfortunately within the NFL, who think you still need to "plug away" with the running game. Rushing the ball frequently, they claim, "wears down the defense." Those football traditionalists, often older in age, usually cite some sort of correlation between rushing attempts and wins. "You know, Team X is 31-5 when they run the ball over 30 times and Team Y almost never loses when they have a 100-yard rusher."
And guess what? They're right. Running the football often is very strongly correlated with winning football games. The Cowboys have seen their share of success when running the ball often, winning over 74 percent of games since 2008 when passing the ball on less than 57 percent of plays. When the team threw the football more than 57 percent of the time during that span, they won only 28 percent of games.
But guess what else? Most teams should still pass the ball more than their current rate. A lot more. Here's why ...
Last season, the Cowboys beat the Seattle Seahawks 23- 13 behind 139 yards from DeMarco Murray. Altogether, the 'Boys racked up 163 rushing yards on 29 carries, passing the ball 51.7 percent of the time. That sort of offensive balance, the traditionalists argue, wins football games.
The problem is that the Cowboys didn't win because they ran the football often, but rather it was the other way around; the team ran the football frequently because they were already winning. And they got the lead as they almost always do: Passing the football efficiently. In the first half, the Cowboys ran the ball on just 38.2 percent of plays. Nearly 35 percent of Murray & Co.'s carries came in the fourth quarter after the team had already established a lead.
Over the past four seasons, there have been numerous similar occurrences. The Cowboys get a lead by passing the football effectively, run the ball to keep the clock moving, then get credited with a "balanced" attack that won the game.
To conclude the 2009 season, the 'Boys had an enormous home matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles. With the NFC East crown on the line, Jason Garrett dialed up 32 runs and 34 passes. Marion Barber and Felix Jones both rushed for 91 yards, and the Cowboys won 24-0.
However, the final box score doesn't tell the true story. In reality, Tony Romo actually threw the ball on 61.7 percent of plays through the first three quarters. The Cowboys ran the ball on 17 of their final 25 offensive plays, again creating the illusion that a balanced attack led to the victory.
In the same way that wins are often accompanied by an exorbitant number of rushes, many losses come with excessive passes. As you might imagine, this is usually because losing teams need to throw the football, not because passing is inherently disadvantageous.
Last season, Dallas got pummeled by the Eagles, losing 34-7 in Philly. Garrett called for a pass on 77.8 percent of all plays. After getting down by 14 early and trailing 24-0 at halftime, however, he really had no choice. The Cowboys actually began the game running with some success, rushing seven times for 76 yards in the first two quarters. Romo dropped back to pass on the final 27 plays, however, skewing the run-to-pass ratio.
It's obvious that teams drastically alter their play-calling late in games as their probable fate becomes clearer, creating an imbalance in the overall ratio. By ignoring fourth quarter plays, we can get a better sense of what really wins football games.
Despite a winning percentage of only .276 since 2008 when throwing on over 57 percent of all plays, the Cowboys have a much gaudier winning percentage of .636 when throwing on more than 57 percent of plays in the first three quarters. That is, the 'Boys get the lead by throwing the ball often, then keep it by milking the clock with the run. Over that same timeframe, the Cowboys have managed just a .419 winning percentage when they've passed the ball less than 57 percent of the time through the first three quarters.
That's not to say the running game isn't important. A lot of the benefits from a strong running game are represented in passing statistics since rushing the ball with effectiveness can set up big plays via the passing game. But the numbers seem to indicate it is rushing efficiency, not attempts, that is important to NFL offenses.
So when you watch Romo dominate defenses in the first three quarters of games this year and then read about how Dallas won because of balanced play-calling, keep in mind that it wasn't those meaningless late-game carries that made the difference. And if the Cowboys happen to lose after throwing the ball 60 percent of the time, don't get on Garrett's case. Unless, of course, you think they should have thrown the ball more.