The Dallas Cowboys ran the ball a franchise-low nine times against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 9, and one of those rushes was a scramble from quarterback Tony Romo. The running backs combined for eight total carries—only four from starter DeMarco Murray—and totaled 28 yards on those rushes. Twenty-seven of those yards came on one run.
Head coach Jason Garrett has preached the importance of balance. He told Nick Eatman of DallasCowboys.com, “Yeah, we just didn’t get it done. We have to be more balanced. We have to give the running game more of an opportunity to get going.”
Here’s the thing. Garrett doesn’t really want offensive balance, or anything close to it.
If he did, do you really think the media would have this discussion almost every week? No, Garrett would just run the ball more. It’s pretty simple.
But he knows that running the ball early and often isn’t an effective offensive strategy. Actually, it’s incredibly detrimental to an offense, especially the one in Dallas.
The Numbers on the Run/Pass Balance
Against both the San Diego Chargers and Detroit Lions, the Cowboys remained relatively balanced early in the contests, only to lose down the stretch. In addition to being a poor running team in general, there are a couple reasons that rushing the ball often is a sub-optimal strategy for Dallas.
First, it shortens the game. The Cowboys have a quality offense and should want to run as many plays as possible in most situations. Running the ball decreases the number of potential plays.
Second, and more importantly, it keeps the game close when it shouldn’t be. We saw that against Detroit, but it was especially apparent last year in Baltimore.
Remember when Dallas ran all over the Ravens for 227 yards?
Many blamed kicker Dan Bailey for missing a last-second field goal for the loss, but the Cowboys shouldn’t have even been in that position. When you run the ball a lot, even if you run it efficiently, it keeps the other team in the game and can result in undeserved losses.
But here’s why we really know the Cowboys shouldn’t seek offensive balance in the traditional sense: It hasn’t worked in the past.
Yes, there are a million stats like “The Cowboys are 20-1 when they run the ball 35 times” or “Dallas is 2-20 when Tony Romo throws the ball more than 40 times,” but that’s only because teams that are already winning run the ball and teams that are already losing must throw it.
Offensive balance is often an effect of winning, not a cause of it.
Instead of analyzing final box scores, we should really be looking at how teams call plays earlier in games and how that affects their results. I’ve done that in the past. From an article on the illusion of balance:
Since 2008, the Cowboys have won just 27.6 percent of their when they pass on greater than 57 percent of their offensive plays. Wow, better keep it on the ground, right?
Before jumping to conclusions, soak this one in: that rate miraculously jumps to 63.6 percent when the ’Boys pass on at least 57 percent of plays through the first three quarters, compared to only 41.9 percent when they pass on fewer than 57 percent of plays.
When the Cowboys open up games by throwing, they’re a better team than when they keep it on the ground.
It’s not that offensive balance in the final box score is bad, because that can often signify winning. But really, the way to achieve final balance isn’t by remaining balanced early; it’s through passing efficiently to acquire a lead and then running late to close out the game.
One of the times when the Cowboys (and all NFL teams) should be passing more often is on first down. Check out the Cowboys’ first-down run rate after each quarter.
That final rate of 42.2 percent, while one of the lowest numbers in the NFL, is still much too high. Take a look at the efficiency of NFL offenses on first down runs versus passes.
That’s a pretty dramatic difference. Coaches justify running on first down because it’s safe and it “sets up manageable third downs.”
Ignoring the fact that teams should be trying to avoid third down by calling plays in a more efficient manner on earlier downs, is rushing the ball really “safer” than passing on first down? Are there more consistent gains?
No! Look at the percentage of first-down runs and passes to exceed four yards—the number of yards that’s generally considered a “neutral” play for both the offense and defense on most areas of the field.
The Cowboys’ first-down success rate mirrors the numbers across the league. As a whole, NFL teams have posted more than four yards on 33.0 percent of their first-down runs—well below the 47.6 percent of first-down passes that have gone for that number.
Yet many teams, including the Cowboys, try to maintain balance on first down. Why?
The Value of Running
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think the Cowboys should pass the ball on every play. Eighty percent, maybe, but not every single play.
The most value the running game can bring Dallas is in short-yardage situations.
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.
The Cowboys don’t need to run the ball more. They need to run it better, and that starts in short-yardage situations (including near the goal line, which is of obvious importance).
By running the rock more efficiently, the Cowboys will be able to do more of what they do best: spread the field and let quarterback Tony Romo chuck it around. As has been the case since Romo started his first game in Dallas, that gives the Cowboys the best chance to win.