Over the course of the season, yards-per-carry is an effective measure by which one can measure a running back or an entire team’s running game. In the short-term, however, YPC can sometimes be a bit misleading. The Cowboys always strive for high YPC in the rushing game, of course, but the exact number is often dictated largely by game situations. In a single game, a team might have an unusually high number of short-yardage or goal line plays, for example, dragging down their YPC to potentially inaccurately reflect their rushing success. Over the course of a season, those irregularities tend to even out.
The situation-dependent nature of the running game is one reason why ‘expected points’ is often a better statistic than YPC when assessing rushing efficiency. If you recall, ‘expected points’ is a measure of how many points an offense can anticipate scoring on any given drive, on average, based on the down-and-distance, field position, and time remaining. To exemplify the superiority of expected points over YPC, consider a two-yard gain on 4th and 1. Such a run would generally pull down YPC, yet in reality the rush was extremely successful and important. That value is captured in expected points.
On Sunday, the Cowboys showed really poor rushing efficiency in terms of YPC, averaging only 2.04 YPC. However, nine of the Cowboys’ 24 rushes came in short-yardage situations with three or fewer yards needed for a first down. Another run—the last offensive play of the game—was basically used to set up the game-winning field goal, and another was a botched end-around that lost 11 yards.
Most important, Jason Garrett utilized the running game differently in Week 14. Instead of rushing often on early downs to try to set up “manageable” third downs, the ‘Boys rushed when they should—in short-yardage situations and on third down. On 1st and 10, the Cowboys passed the ball 16 out of 27 plays; that 59.3 percent pass rate well above the league-wide 48.1 percent pass rate on 1st and 10.
The last drive was the epitome of how Dallas—a team that obviously lacks an elite running game—should run the ball. The ‘Boys ran four draw plays on that drive alone, all from spread formations. Two of the rushes came with one yard to go for a first down, extending the drive. And of course the big run on 3rd and 5—a situation in which rushing is actually nearly just as effective as passing—set up Dan Bailey’s game-winning field goal.
The Cowboys aren’t going to be relying on their running game for big chunks of yards in 2012. If you see low efficiency in terms of YPC, however, remember that it might not necessarily be bad. If the Cowboys are using DeMarco Murray & Co. less often on 1st and 10 and more often in short-yardage situations, we’d expect YPC to be lower, while expected points—a stat that’s inherently representative of how well an offense is performing—will improve.
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.