DeMarco Murray #29 of the Dallas Cowboys carries the ball against Keenan Lewis #23 of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ryan Clark #25 of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ziggy Hood #96 of the Pittsburgh Steelers at Cowboys Stadium.
Everyone knows that the Cowboys’ running game needs to improve. Most equate that to sticking with the run, although that will likely just result in the team getting down early and, ironically, being forced to pass. Instead, the team really just needs to rush the ball more efficiently, especially in crucial situations like short-yardage, goal line, and late in games.
Speaking of short-yardage runs, they could actually be one of the reasons the Cowboys ranked so low in rushing efficiency in 2012. Dallas ranked 31st in both attempts and rushing yards, which is to be expected given how often they were down in games, but they were also just 31st in efficiency at 3.6 YPC. That’s a poor number no matter how you slice it.
However, it’s probably a bit skewed by the situations in which Dallas ran the ball. They kept the ball on the ground a lot in short-yardage and other low-upside situations, so their efficiency was bound to be relatively low. That’s one of the reasons that a stat like YPC can be really misleading; it doesn’t account for game situations. It values a two-yard run on third-and-one the same as a two-yard run on first-and-10, but there’s obviously a major difference there; one is a successful play, and one is not.
That’s why the best metric to judge rushing success is the aptly named ‘success rate.’ Success rate measures the percentage of plays that result in an offense increasing their chances of scoring. So the metric rewards a two-yard run on third-and-one, as it should. It’s a better gauge of rushing success than YPC because it accounts for such situations.
Well, the Cowboys weren’t particularly great in success rate in 2012, but they did rank 18th in the league. That suggests that Dallas ran the ball a lot in low-upside situations, which they should. NFL offenses tend to pass the ball too often in situations such as third-and-one, when they should almost always be running, but they run the ball too much on first-and-10, when they should almost be passing. That creates an interesting phenomenon whereby a lot of the league’s true best rushing teams don’t have the greatest efficiency in terms of YPC because they’re running the ball when they should be. The teams that run often on first down might have the highest YPC, but they’re failing to maximize yards per play.
So in 2013, the Cowboys’ YPC is going to rise. I hardly think they’ll be among the league-leaders in YPC, but it’s not out of the question to think they can jump back up to 4.2 or 4.3 YPC on the season. Bill Callahan seems like he wants to run the ball in more early-down situations, which will naturally increase the Cowboys’ efficiency as well. Let’s hope that a decline in their offensive success rate doesn’t coincide with that increase.
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.