Since I began writing for DallasCowboys.com a few months ago, I've discussed the importance of possessing a dominant passing attack in today's NFL. I stand by that assessment; there is nothing that can produce success, as measured in wins, like an elite passing game.
Nevertheless, I still maintain that a strong rushing game is important to offensive efficiency. I simply think there are misconceptions about which aspects of the ground game are important. Continuing my "Top 5" series, here are the top five reasons a strong rushing attack is important in today's NFL.
5. Rushing efficiency helps close out games.
Make no mistake about it, the Cowboys win football games by passing the ball effectively. In my article on why the team should throw more, I wrote:
"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."
When the 'Boys pass early and often, they tend to win. At the end of games, however, running the ball with success becomes critical. In Week 6 of the 2011 season, the Cowboys lost a heartbreaker to the Patriots in New England. Up 16-13 with 3:36 remaining in the contest, head coach Jason Garrett called three straight runs. The offense gained five total yards on those plays.
Rushing efficiency can help teams when a football game is no longer about point maximization, i.e. when doing everything possible to score isn't necessarily the best option. Many times, such as in the Cowboys-Patriots matchup, draining the clock is more important than increasing the likelihood of scoring a touchdown on a particular drive.
Had the Cowboys converted a first down via the run, they almost assuredly would have taken down the Patriots in that game. For all we know, the entire season may have unfolded differently. The point is that the importance of passing over running diminishes as the clock becomes a bigger factor in the outcome of games.
4. It can hold back pass rushers.
All NFL offensive tackles have extremely difficult job duties, but it's particularly true for Tyron Smith and Doug Free. They need to fend off some of the best pass rushers in the world – Jason Pierre-Paul, Trent Cole, Brian Orakpo, Jason Babin – twice a year. Actually, of the top 25 players in sacks last season, 28 percent played in the NFC East. That's over twice the expected rate.
One of the ways a strong rushing game can impact offensive efficiency is by making the job of the tackles easier. When defensive ends and outside linebackers are concerned about runs, they don't immediately rush the quarterback at full speed. You saw this last year with the sensational play of DeMarco Murray, whose contributions to the team were not only reflected in his stats, but also in those of Tony Romo.
3. Rushing is crucial in the red zone.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the Cowboys' red zone offense. In suggesting how they might be able to improve in 2012, the first thing I mentioned was that running the ball becomes vital. That's particularly true inside the opponent's 10-yard line, where the field shrinks and the advantages of throwing the ball do the same.
The Cowboys finished 20th in the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage in 2011, due in large part to an inefficient red zone running game. DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones combined to rush for just three touchdowns all season, and only two of those were inside the red zone. To capitalize on red zone opportunities, a more potent rushing attack is a must.
*2. It can set up big plays via the passing game. *
Rushing with efficiency does more than hold back pass rushers. It can also draw up linebackers and safeties, making the acquisition of big plays easier. When defensive coordinators move defenders up into the box or blitz to stop the run, they expose themselves to risk. Offenses can and should capitalize on that risk.
Play-action passes are one of the premiere ways to leverage rushing efficiency into passing success. The 'Boys have called fewer than 20 play-action passes with 1-4 yards to go for a first down over the past three years combined, but I think you'll see that change in 2012 with the projected dominance of Murray.
It's important to note that an offense doesn't need to run the ball frequently to garner benefits in the passing game. The Cowboys can still come out of the gate throwing the football, using an effective running game intermittently to draw up the defense for more big-play passing success.
1. Short-yardage running is imperative to keeping drives alive.
The most effective way to add value to the offense through the rushing game is by improving short-yardage success. Dallas has been sub-par in short-yardage situations over the last few years. Last season, the offense converted on 57 percent of third and fourth down rushing plays with one or two yards to go for a first down. That was good for only 23rd in the NFL. In 2010, it was 54 percent (26th), and in 2009, it was 58 percent (26th).
How many times do you see the Cowboys get stuffed on a crucial third- or fourth-and-1? That isn't a rhetorical question; how many times do you think it happens each season? Since 2009, the answer is right around six times per year.
By increasing their short-yardage conversion rate to even a league-average mark, the 'Boys would extend two extra drives per season, on average. If the revamped interior line and quickness of Murray can improve short-yardage rushing to the point that it reaches elite status, the offense would obtain three or four more drives each year. That might not sound like much, but at their current average of around two points per drive, simply converting a handful of short-yardage runs could equate to around eight extra points each year.
In the ultra-competitive NFL, that could be the difference between a disappointing 9-7 season and a playoff-worthy 10-6 campaign. Of course, capitalizing on all of the benefits of an outstanding running game could lead to even more than 10 wins in 2012.