It’s a crucial 3rd and 1 in the middle of the fourth quarter. Up by one point, the Cowboys call a strong side dive from a tight formation. The interior linemen all get driven back and the running back gets crushed for a one-yard loss. The ‘Boys are forced to punt.
Sound familiar? Short-yardage running is an underrated and absolutely critical aspect of offensive efficiency. A less-than-dominant running attack can still be valuable if it can consistently convert on 3rd and 4th and short.
Unfortunately, the Cowboys haven’t had an effective short-yardage running game over the 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—good for only 23rd in the NFL. It was just 54 percent (26th) in 2010 and 58 percent (26th) three seasons ago. The lack of short-yardage efficiency is one reason the Cowboys were just 20th in the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage in 2011.
The Cowboys’ guards and centers haven’t only been poor run blockers in short-yardage situations, however. Last season, the ‘Boys averaged 4.10 yards-per-carry on all runs behind the interior line, and it was only 3.41 yards-per-carry in 2010.
Free agent guard acquisitions Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau weren’t much better for their respective teams last year. Panthers running backs totaled 4.34 yards-per-carry when Bernadeau was at the point of attack in 2011 (albeit in limited action), and Bengals running backs averaged 3.98 yards-per-carry behind Livings, according to Pro Football Focus.
And it’s not as if interior line play isn’t important. Heck, the first preseason game was evidence of how poor interior line play can disrupt an offense.
To prove it further, I tracked how teams have historically performed with and without dominant interior line play. Since 2008, teams that have possessed a top 20 guard or center, as graded by PFF, have totaled 9.18 wins per season. Those with a bottom 20 interior lineman have averaged only 7.23—nearly two fewer wins per season. With a sample size of over 2,500 games, that’s a pretty substantial difference. The disparity in team wins is similar for offenses that finished in the top 10 in short-yardage rushing efficiency versus those in the bottom 10.
So what is the team to do this year? In terms of rushing the ball, they might need to get creative. The offense has been sensational on both counters and weak side runs over the past three years, even in short-yardage situations. Actually, the ‘Boys have averaged nearly 5.0 yards-per-carry on weak side runs, with 14.1 percent of those going for 10-plus yards. On counters, Cowboys backs have averaged nearly 7.0 yards-per-rush and almost 20 percent of those have gone for 10 yards or more.
Although unconventional, getting outside in short-yardage situations might be a good move for Dallas. The offense totaled a stout 5.43 yards-per-carry when running behind Tyron Smith last year. Even if defenses eventually catch up and begin to anticipate the Cowboys running behind Smith, I’d take my chances with the Pro Bowl-caliber second-year tackle over Phil Costa, Ronald Leary, or any of the other offensive linemen in Big D.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.
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