Looking For The Space Cowboy

When healthy, Felix Jones can be one of the best space players in the league.

When thinking of the term Space Cowboy, most people will think of the Steve Miller Band. Some of our younger readers may think of Jamiroquai's more recent cover of the same song. And if you're a child of the 80s, you may even remember Sigue Sigue Sputnik's 21st Century Boy in which they claimed that they too were a Space Cowboy. The cineastically inclined might think of a film by the same name, in which a couple of old geezers are predictably launched into space.

What you probably won't be thinking of are Cowboys players like Miles Austin or Felix Jones. But you should.

In an article on Grantland.com from last year, Chris Brown talked about what a "space player" is:

In recent years, the NFL has seen a dramatic rise in the number and quality of skill players who do their damage not just by moving the pile or outrunning defenders, but also by working the flats and soft spots on the football field. These naturally gifted players need just a little bit of open territory to operate, and when they get it they incinerate defenses. They operate in the area between the short dive up the middle and the long bomb down the sideline. They are "space players."

Brown then goes on to talk about space players in the running game and space players in the passing game., specifically referencing Wes Welker and the prototype of a space player, Darren Sproles. As I reviewed the receiving stats of both these players, one thing in particular stood out for me: In 2011, Welker and Sproles ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in Yards after Catch (YAC) respectively.

After the break, we go looking for the Space Cowboy as we take a closer look at who the Cowboys' space players could be.

In 2011, the four top players in the NFL in terms of total YAC played three different positions. Here's how their numbers compare to the NFL average:

Player POS Team Rec. Yards Yards after Catch YAC in % NFL Avg.
Wes Welker WR NE 1,569 732 47% 33%
Darren Sproles RB NO 710 690 97% 101%
Ray Rice RB BAL 704 677 96% 101%
Rob Gronkowski TE NE 1,327 656 49% 41%

About half of Welker's and Gronkowski's total receiving yards are YAC, and both rates are quite a bit above the NFL average. So for tight ends and receivers it appears that the YAC percentage of total receiving yards is indicative of their ability to find space to produce extra yards.

Running backs on the other hand get almost all of their receiving yards as YAC, and when you stop to think about it, that actually makes sense. Running backs rarely run deep routes, instead, most of their receptions come on screen passes, underneath routes or simple dump-offs. As a result, almost all of their receiving yards qualify as YAC.

Players like Sproles, on the other hand, just need a glimpse of open field, created either by defensive alignments or the coach's schemes, and once there they thrive. They are looking for creases between defenders and one-on-one situations against guys unable to cover them.

So a running back's ability to find space is less about a percentage of yards, or about total yardage, but much more about YAC per reception. Here's how the YAC/Reception compared last year among the three position groups:

RBs: 8.2
TEs: 4.8
WRs: 4.5

Sproles had a YAC/Rec. of 8.0, which is actually slightly below average, while Rice was above average at 8.9.

But now on to the Cowboys. Last season, none of the Cowboys' starters really stood out in either of the two metrics:

TE & WRs YAC in % RBs YAC/Reception
Jason Witten 38% DeMarco Murray 8.8
Dez Bryant 33% Felix Jones 8.1
Laurent Robinson 31%
Miles Austin 36%

Jason Witten came in slightly below the league average last season in terms of YAC as a percentage of total receiving yards. Bryant and Robinson were right around the average for wide receivers, while Miles Austin was slightly above the mark for wide receivers.

DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones didn't have that many receptions last year (26 and 33 respectively), so we need to exercise some caution as we look at these numbers. But Murray did come in with an above average number comparable to Ray Rice, while Felix Jones had a number just a little below average.

One of the main issues here is that outside of Robinson, who won't be returning to the Cowboys, Witten is the only starter on this list who was not injured at some point in the 2011 season. So I went back two seasons to see if any of these players had already previously demonstarted the ability to be an above average 'space player' for the Cowboys, and here's what popped up:

  • In 2010, Felix Jones had a YAC/Reception on 48 caught passes of 11.7. That number ranked Felix Jones No. 1 in the league among all running backs with more than five receptions for the season.
  • Miles Austin had almost Welker-like numbers in 2009, when 45% of his total receiving yardage were YAC. Those 45% tied him for fourth among all all wide receivers with 500+ total receiving yards. The number dropped to 42% in 2010 when he caught passes for the bulk of the season from Jon Kitna, and dropped further to 36% in 2011 as Austin struggled with injuries.
  • Jason Witten is as steady as they come, and his YAC percentage varies only marginally around the average, from 40% in 2009 to 36% in 2010 and up again to 38% last year.

In Austin and Jones, the Cowboys have two players who have shown to be highly dynamic receivers on the field, and who are able to gain large chunks of yardage in space - if they remain healthy. So keep a close eye on Austin and Jones in 2012, and particularly on their yards after catch. After all, you may be watching two honest to goodness Space Cowboys.

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