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News: BTB: Linehan: Cowboys Will "Run When We Want" - And They'd Better Want To When They Have The...

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    The Cowboys promise they'll run the ball more this year. That sounds like a good idea, especially if they do it when the hold a lead.

    Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas published an article earlier today titled "Linehan: Cowboys must run 'when we want'." As you can see, I've re-appropriated MacMahon's title for my own purposes.

    MacMahon points out that the Cowboys were able to run the ball effectively last year, that DeMarco Murray's rushing average of 5.2 yards per carry "was the league’s highest among backs with at least 120 carries," but that they still had the second-fewest rushing attempts of any team in the league last year..

    Scott Linehan promises to change that.

    "We have a great young front," said Linehan. "I love our running backs and our tight ends and how they fit in our running game, commitment of our receivers on the perimeter. I think that that is a mindset. I couldn’t agree more to that being something we want to really make a big point of emphasis this year."
    "If we play smart, winning football, physical football, we have the ability to run the football when we want, not just when people are giving us the run," Linehan said. "That is something we really want to work on."

    There is a persistent belief among Cowboys fans and observers alike that if the Cowboys would simply run more often, they would win more games. This argument is usually followed by pre-school level logic like: "The Cowboys are 11-0 when DeMarco Murray has 20 or more carries," or some such statistical nonsense.

    When the Cowboys were blown out by the Saints 49-17 last year, DeMarco Murray had only 16 carries. If only the Cowboys had given him the ball four more times, the Cowboys probably would have won the game, right?

    Or take the Bears game, in which Murray rushed 18 times. Just two more rushes and the Cowboys would have turned a 45-28 defeat into a rousing victory. Why doesn't Garrett understand this?

    Ultimately it's not rocket science: Teams pass more when they are trailing and run more when they have the lead. As a consequence, the Run/Pass ratio tilts heavily towards the passing game when teams are playing from behind. Conversely, when playing with a lead, especially a big one, teams tend to run more than they pass. In a post earlier today on how the offense can help the defense get more turnovers, we saw that there is a strong correlation between score differential and Run/Pass ratio:

    NFL Run/Pass ratio by score differential, 2013 regular season
    Behind by 8
    or more pts Behind by 1-7
    pts Game
    tied Ahead by 1-7
    pts Ahead by 8
    or more pts

    NFL Avg. Pass/Run Ratio in %​
    71% 62% 56% 54% 44%​


    We often talk about the Run/Pass ratio in isolation, ignoring that it is a situational stat. For most teams, favoring the pass over the run is largely dependent on the game situation, specifically the score and the time remaining on the clock, and not on some hypothetical concept of balance that exists entirely outside the physical and temporal reality of a football game.

    The Cowboys had 622 pass attempts and 335 rush attempts last year, for a Run/Pass ratio of 63.6%, the fourth highest value in the league behind the Falcons (68.5%), Browns (67.8%), and Dolphins (65.1%). Does that automatically mean that they were behind in a lot of games? Not necessarily, as the next table shows:

    NFL Run/Pass ratio by score differential, 2013 regular season
    Behind by 8
    or more pts Behind by 1-7
    pts Game
    tied Ahead by 1-7
    pts Ahead by 8
    or more pts TOTAL

    NFL Avg. Run/Pass Ratio in %​
    71.1% 61.5% 56.0% 53.6% 43.7% 58.4%
    Cowboys Run/Pass Ratio in %​
    70.4% 72.9% 57.6% 66.4% 57.8% 65.0%
    Difference​
    -0.7 pts +11.5 pts +1.6 pts +12.8 pts +14.0 pts +6.6 pts​


    When the Cowboys were behind by eight or more points, as they were at one point in seven games last year (of which they managed to win two games), they went pass-heavy at a rate that was perfectly in line with the league average. Asking the Cowboys to run more in these situations would be completely ludicrous.

    But when they were trailing by a touchdown or less (as they were at some point in 11 games), they got a little pass-happy. Perhaps because they didn't trust their running game, perhaps because "they took what the defense gave them," perhaps because they simply lacked the patience to stick with the running game.

    Somewhat surprisingly, when the game was tied, the Cowboys once again had a Run/Pass ratio that was perfectly in line with the league average. However, this number could be slightly misleading, as 135 of the 205 plays run with the score tied came in the first quarter, when the Cowboys were probably still adhering (somewhat) to their game plan. In the first quarter, the Run/Pass ratio is an even 51.9%, in the 70 snaps over the remaining quarters, the ratio jumps to 68.6%.

    But where the Cowboys deviate most strongly from the league average is when they are in the lead. Their Run/Pass ratio (marked in yellow in the table above) is significantly higher than the league average when they hold a lead. And that is the core of the Cowboys' play-calling dilemma.

    Some might valiantly try to argue that this is a sign of the Cowboys' "pedal to the metal" style of aggressive play-calling - why run to protect the lead when you can pass to further build the lead? - except deep down in our collective Cowboys fansoul we know that that simply isn't the case.

    Last year, 25 NFL teams has at least 100 plays during which they held a lead of eight points or more. The Cowboys had by far the highest pass percentage of any of those teams:

    Top 25 Teams by number of plays when ahead by eight or more points, 2103
    Team
    Games Plays Pass Rush Ratio
    Team
    Games Plays Pass Rush Ratio
    Denver
    14 543 211 205 50.7%​
    Arizona
    8 211 74 79 48.4%​
    Seattle
    11 404 122 185 39.7%​
    Green Bay
    6 206 80 76 51.3%​
    San Francisco
    11 391 98 183 34.9%​
    Tampa Bay
    6 199 60 88 40.5%​
    Philadelphia
    10 373 112 170 39.7%​
    Buffalo
    7 192 47 95 33.1%​
    Cincinnati
    11 302 98 126 43.8%​
    Baltimore
    7 182 73 70 51.0%​
    New Orleans
    8 300 116 115 50.2%​
    San Diego
    8 178 53 82 39.3%​
    Kansas City
    12 299 95 119 44.4%​
    Oakland
    6 159 48 69 41.0%​
    Carolina
    9 283 75 140 34.9%​
    Chicago
    6 127 41 47 46.6%​
    New England
    11 281 94 105 47.2%​
    New York Giants
    5 127 41 55 42.7%​
    Indianapolis
    9 262 90 108 45.5%​
    Detroit
    8 124 32 57 36.0%​
    Dallas
    12 238 93 68 57.8%
    Tennessee
    6 114 32 49 39.5%​
    Pittsburgh
    7 227 74 96 43.5%​
    New York Jets
    6 113 24 55 30.4%​
    St. Louis
    6 213 54 96 36.0%​


    Some teams have ratios in the 30s, some in the 40s, but nobody is anywhere close to the Cowboys at 57.8%, not even the other pass-happy teams like Green Bay (51.3%), Denver (50.7%) or New Orleans (50.2%).

    But here's the real kicker: The Cowboys held a lead of eight or more points in 12 games last season, second in the league only to the Denver Broncos. Yet their record in those twelve games is only 8-4, meaning they squandered an 8+ point lead in four of those games (Chargers, Broncos, Lions, Packers).

    The Run/Pass ratio is not the sole answer to the Cowboys' issues last year, not by a long shot. But you can't help but wonder what would have happened had they trusted their ground game a little more in those four games.

    12 games with a lead of eight or more points, but only an 8-8 record to show for it. If the Cowboys will "run when they want," but especially when they're in the lead, then I'm all for it.

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