Football Outsiders Ranks Top Five Cowboys Running Backs Of All Time

So, who do you think was the best running back in franchise history?

Football Outsiders, one of the industries leading advanced stat websites, feels it's Emmitt Smith; probably the sentiment of 95-99% of the general population. It's not that hard to figure out. The man does hold the NFL rushing record and accumulated all of the necessary record-breaking yardage with the Dallas Cowboys, his original team before ending his career in Arizona. Earning three world championships including a Super Bowl MVP, eight pro bowls, four first team All-Pro's, et cetera, et cetera... that will pretty much endear you to a fan base.

While all of those accolades are nice, they mean next to squat in the metric world of FO. They like to be more analytical when evaluating player performances. One of their famed measurements that I've grown fond of over the last year is DYAR. DYAR, stands for Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. In a nutshell, it calculates how much better (or worse) a player performed than a replacement-level player would have given all of the same teammates and game situations, in assumed yardage.

Here's their explanation of the stat.

Let’s say you have a running back who carries the ball 300 times in a season. What would happen if you were to remove this player from his team’s offense? What would happen to those 300 plays? Those plays don’t disappear with the player, though some might be lost to the defense because of the associated loss of first downs. Rather those plays would have to be distributed among the remaining players in the offense, with the bulk of them being given to a replacement running back. This is where we arrive at the concept of replacement level, borrowed from our partners at Baseball Prospectus. When a player is removed from an offense, he is usually not replaced by a player of similar ability. Nearly every starting player in the NFL is a starter because he is better than the alternative. Those 300 plays will typically be given to a significantly worse player, someone who is the backup because he doesn’t have as much experience and/or talent. A player’s true value can then be measured by the level of performance he provides above that replacement level baseline, totaled over all of his run or pass attempts.

-- Football Outsider's 2011 Almanac

FO uses their cabinet of metrics to analyze current seasons, but also goes back to prior seasons (they evaluate two seasons per year, and we'll get the results from 1991 and 2011 this summer). Going back to 1992 though, Emmitt's greatness is still apparent.

Top 50 Single-Season DYAR Appearances
Player Appearances
Emmitt Smith 4
LaDainian Tomlinson 4
Clinton Portis 3
Priest Holmes 3
Terrell Davis 3
Edgerrin James 3

Emmitt’s 1995 season ranks seventh, 1992 ranks 18th, 1994 ranks 19th, and 1993 ranks 28th. When we get 1991 finished, it might possibly squeak into the top 50 but is more likely to join 1998 late in the top 100.

Follow the jump for much more on Emmitt, and the rest of the Cowboys Top 5.

FO has a great tidbit in their classic Emmitt write-up for all those that want to debate Smith vs Sanders and the systems they were a part of. Take this with you the next time you head to the water cooler:

Emmitt versus Barry is going to come up in the thread, so let’s start the ball rolling now. We all know that Emmitt was helped by his superstar teammates, while Barry Sanders was saddled with Rodney Peete and Scott Mitchell and a hinky offense that crippled his statistical production. Except that is not really accurate. The run ‘n’ shoot helped Sanders for many years. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, teams were not prepared to play nickel and dime defense for 70 snaps per game. The NFL was only a few years removed from considering the nickel defense strictly a third-and-15 strategy. Dime defenses were just starting to appear in the NFL, but only for third-and-long or in the two minute drill. The idea that a team would put four wide receivers on the field and run any rushing play other than a draw was unheard of, so nickel-and-dime strategies were designed to focus only on passes.

So with Mr. 22 clearly entrenched at number one, let's take a look at who rounds out the top five.

2. Tony Dorsett

Dorsett was one of the last great running backs at just outrunning the defense on sweeps. There was much more to his game than that, but it was what set him apart in an era that was defined by great running backs.

3. Calvin Hill

Hill, on the other hand, was the best offensive player on the 1972 Cowboys and second-best behind Roger Staubach on the 1973 Cowboys. He was truly excellent in those seasons, as well as in 1969. But he was an injury case in all the others, and Hill’s best seasons never quite lined up with the Cowboys’ best years

4. Don Perkins

Perkins ranked ahead of Hill until the final edit. It is a hard call. Perkins was a six-time Pro Bowler, but you must remember that in the 1960s, the NFL picked two full Pro Bowl squads from among 14 or 15 teams. In 1963, when Perkins made the Pro Bowl with 614 rushing yards and 14 receptions, seven NFL running backs were honored.

5. Walt Garrison

There’s a type of stat line that has vanished from NFL statistical history. I call it the Other Back stat line. It’s the 500-yard, 25-catch, 8-touchdown full season, something that was very common from the 1950s until about the early 1980s. Let’s prorate the numbers to 16 games: 600 yards, 30 catches. James Starks, Felix Jones, and Peyton Hillis had seasons like that in 2011...No one looks at those stat lines and says "hey, that’s the kind of production we expect for the next half decade."

For much of football history, though, players made full careers out of stat lines like those. Garrison spent six full seasons oscillating between 429 and 818 yards while catching between 13 and 40 passes. Robert Newhouse then spent eight full years in Dallas gaining about 400-500 yards per year, usually with 15-20 catches.

The FO piece is a good read, especially to switch up the pace from talking about free agents we may or may not get, or draft picks that may or may not be available to us. Unfortunately there is also a review of the top five Giants running backs, but hey, no article is perfect. I'd still suggest you check out the full writeup, here.

Obviously, with FO only tracking using their metrics back to 1992 at this point, their evaluation of the other backs is more subjective than objective. So what do you think? Any disagreement with the list? Do you think any a player like Marion Barber (who is mentioned in the piece) deserves some consideration?

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