Kudos to KD for sparking controversial debate with Piney over Felix Jones' production. This got me thinking about how we take a running back by committee approach to our ground attack. Is that a successful strategy? Others regret that we don't 'have' a feature star running back like Chris Johnson. Is Felix that good a player? Is he being held back by our committee approach? I decided to do some digging to figure out this whole mess.
I wanted to look at the rest of the league to see which was more effective, a having a star feature-back or doing it by committee like the Cowboys do. So, lets look at last years top 5 teams on the ground and their top 3 rushers.
#1 Chiefs 164.2/G 2,627 yards
•Jamaal charles: car 230, yrds 1,467, avg 6.4
•Thomas Jones: car 245, yds 896, avg 3.7
•Matt Cassel QB: car 33, yds 125, avg 3.8
#2 Raiders 155.9/G 2,494 yards
#3 Jaguars 149.7/G 2,395 yards
#4 Jets 148.4/G 2,374 yards
#5 Eagles 145.2/G 2,324 yards
From the data, it would appear not a single top 5 rushing team was a 'feature-back' team. Each team had more than one successful running back that allowed them to make it into the top 5. Interestingly enough, 4 of the top 5 have their QB as one of the top 3 on their team in rushing. Oh! Does this mean Tony should be running more? Not so fast. Of the top 3, the Raiders were the highest ranked in passing, at 23rd... If your QB is running a lot, he isn't spending a whole lot of time passing (unless you're Mike Vick).
Anyway, back to the subject at hand. The Cowboys have been doing their running game by a 3-back 'committee', the top 5 in rushing look more like they have a one-two punch (as far as running backs are concerned). Wanna know how other teams did that were feature-back only? Well! I was just about to get to that. First, let's look at the top 6 running backs in the league last year.
2 of the top 6 were on one of the top 5 rushing teams last year. The other 4? Well, they appear to be their team's feature-back. So, how did their team rank last year compared to everyone else?
#7 Texans 127.6/G 2,042 yards
•Arian Foster: car 327, yds 1616, avg 4.9
•Derrick Ward: car 50, yds 315, avg 6.3
•Matt Schaub QB: car 22, 28 yds, avg 1.3
#10 Vikings 121.4/G 1,942 yards
#12 Falcons 118.2/G 1891 yards
•Michael Turner: car 334, yds 1371, avg 4.1
•Jason Snelling: car 87, yds 324, avg 3.7
•Matt Ryan QB: 46 car, 122 yds, avg 2.7
#17 Titans 107.9/G 1,727 yards
•Chris Johnson: car 316, yds 1364, avg 4.3
•Javon Ringer: car 51, yds 239, avg 4.7
•Vince Young QB: car 25, yds 125, avg 5
The Texans clock in at #7, having the running back with the most yards in the league will do that for ya. But, after that, it's diminishing returns as your feature-back ranks lower behind the other best in the league. Look at the Titans, even though CJ2K is their guy, they ranked just below the Cowboys.
It's no wonder, when your feature guy is the only one doing the heavy lifting. Chris Johnson had over 6 times the carries and over 5 times the yards as the next guy. The Titans ranked second in rushing in '09, but that can only be attained with a feature-back if he goes super-human and runs for 2K yards. Chris Johnson was unable to repeat his performance the following year, so welcome to 17th in rushing town, Titans!
So, whats my conclusion on the findings? Well, it certainly looks like the committee approach is very effective. But, it is only truly effective when you've got multiple productive backs. Think of it like having two #1 receivers on your team (like the Cowboys!). I could go back and show you the effects of having only one good receiver on your team, but I think you know. More productive players at a position will lead to more... production! Oh, what intricate math that is. 2 + 2 = 4. The whole is greater than the individual parts, who knew? Unless your talking about a variable, like X, where X + 1 = 4. But, thats just it, its a variable. It could just as easily be X + 1 = 2 (right CJ1.3K?).
I know some of you at home are thinking, 'Hey! The top 4 teams in rushing were all in the bottom half of the league in passing! What does this have to do with our 6th ranked pass-happy Cowboys?' Astute observation. Those teams are 'crap' with the pass, so their running backs get more carries. That is the circle of life is it not? (unless your the Eagles, stupid data ruiners)
What this means for the Cowboys is that the committee approach doesn't necessarily hold them back, it can be a strength. But, the pressure is on for the running backs to perform. They've got to do more with less essentially. It honestly does not matter how many touches you get, you'd better be effective when you get them. What this means is, if you are a running back for a pass-happy team, you'd better have good yards per carry. Last year Felix got 800 yards with 185 carries for a 4.3 yard average. Based on my quick impressions, the 'magic' average for a really effective back looks like its closer to 5 ypc than 4. With the same number of carries, if Felix had a 5 ypc average, he would have had 925 yards on the year. Pretty close to KD's magic milestone.
The thing is, Felix had a down year compared to '09. That year he posted a fantastic 5.9 ypc. If he repeated that effectiveness last year he would have ended up with 1092 yards. You know something? That sounds about right for this team. 1K yards is not that great a feat compared to the likes of Arian Foster. Since this team is geared for the pass, the type of back you need is efficient and consistent. It's all about perspective. If you gave Felix, last year, the number of carries Arian Foster got, he'd be third in the league with 1,406 yards. Lament total yards stat enthusiasts, for Felix will never get those kinds of carries.
The Cowboys were 7th in rushing in '09. Last year of course the Cowboys ranked 16th. Why the drop off? Because the efficiency of the running backs dropped off of course. All three of them. Felix goes from 5.9 to 4.4 average, Barber goes from 4.4 to 3.3 average, and Choice goes from 5.5 to 3.7 average. Simply not that effective.
But wait! you say. The Cowboys abandoned the run last year! The media said so! The carries totals must be drastically lower than '09!
•Barber 214 carries
•Jones 116 carries
•Choice 64 carries
•Jones 185 carries
•Barber 113 carries
•Choice 66 carries
Hmm. 30 less carries, eh? Thats abandoning the run? Like.. almost 2 runs a game? Suppose they could have put those carries in weeks 7 thru 9 and nobody would be calling foul. The running backs continued the same proportions of carries as the year before based on who's starting. I'm not going to get into the reasons why the running backs were less efficient across the board last year. I'll leave that to myth and legend. (Seriously, does someone have stats for that?)
Point is, the running backs, no matter how the roster shakes out, have to be effective this year. Felix Jones needs to approach or exceed 1K this year. Why? Because he's the best running back on the team. At this point, who knows how Murray is going to do? How would Choice be with more carries? Miller? This particular year, I really don't think we'll see the kinds of numbers we want to see out of the backs from the #2 down. So the pressure is on Felix to perform. Sure, the 1K yard milestone is just a stat. But, if Jones is as efficient as we need him to be, with the kinds of carries he will most likely get, he will reach that mark. The bigger question is the production of the other backs as a part of this 'committee'.
So, here are the kinds of numbers I think we should see out of Felix this year. 5.0+ yards per carry with between 900 to 1100 yards. I believe he can do it, he's been that efficient before and he'll get the carries he needs to make it. Now, what about the rest of them? Well, I'm not convinced its attainable this year, but... from the number 2 back I think we need to see about 500-700 yards with some average like 4.5 ypc. The third back needs to do only about 200-350 yards with an average of about 4.2 ypc. Those numbers are certainly do-able. This year that might just be able to land us as the 10th best rushing team or thereabouts. We don't have to be ranked in the top 5 to feel good about our running backs. So long as they make the most of their carries, we should see the running game compliment to our pass game that we need.