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Inside the Numbers: The 2009 Cowboys Running Game (Part II)

Trick trivia question to start off this post: Since moving to a 16 game schedule in 1978, how many times have the Cowboys rushed for more than 2,100 yards in a season without either an Emmitt Smith or a Tony Dorsett on the team?

The Dorsett led teams surpassed 2,100 rushing yards 5 times, from 1978-1981 and in 1983 ('82 was the strike-shortened season). The Smith led teams surpassed 2,100 yards rushing in all three Super Bowl years ('92,'93,'95) and once more in 2001, although it might be better not to dwell too much on that particular year.

Well, as you may have surmised from the title of this post, the 2009 Cowboys were the only Cowboys team since 1978 to rush for more than 2,100 yards without a Hall Of Fame running back.

Here are the stats for each of our running backs for the 2009 regular season:

2009
Carries Yards Average Rush TDs
Marion Barber 214 932 4.4 7
Felix Jones 116 685 5.9 3
Tashard Choice 64 349 5.5 3

So as I sat here, watching the stats, having a beer, a thought suddenly crossed my mind: "Wasssaaaaap with these numbers?" What exactly do they tell us? Is Jones the better runner because of his better YPC? Is Barber more valuable for the team because he scored more TDs? Or is Tashard truly the people's choice, you just can't see it in these numbers? And should we perhaps consider trading one of them?

What we have here is a baffling conundrum. We have three running backs. Each contributes a specific element to the Cowboys running game. All three have produced at a fairly high level according to the stats. But to better understand the value each running back adds to the Cowboys running game, we need find a common denominator to compare them with.

Follow me as we shine the uncompromising light of Expected Points Value (EPV) on our running backs to uncover the truth behind the stats.

Go back to my previous post if you need a refresher on EPV.

Also, before digging into the individual player stats, I need to make one point perfectly clear: The EPV I'm using in these posts is the value of each play, not the value of each player. As I look at the player stats, what I'm actually doing is adding up the value of each play a player was involved in according to the play-by-play of the NFL game books.

Why is that important? Because football is a team sport, and the credit or blame for each run is shared by the running back, the O-line, the coaching, opposing defenses and many others. If you're so inclined, you might even give Roy Williams part of the credit for his near mythical down field blocking ability. Heck, some companies would have you believe that the shoes the athletes wear or even the credit cards they use have a profound impact on their performance.

Dallas Cowboys running backs EPV

Without much further ado, here are the EPV numbers for our three running backs:


Total Rushing EPV, 2009
Player
Runs EPV EPV/Run
Marion Barber
214 -6.85 -0.03
Felix Jones
116 7.36 0.06
Tashard Choice 64 9.07 0.14

If you just started crying when you saw these numbers, or are running around in circles shouting 'I told you so' over and over, or are thinking about ways to get a refund on your Barber jersey - don't.

Keep in mind that the average value of all runs combined is close to zero. Here's why: A first down play needs at least four yards to be at least break-even in terms of EPV, and in the NFL about 55% of runs on first and ten gain less than four yards. If your name is Marion Barber, and you're the guy who's going to get called on for those short yardage situations, your EPV is bound to be low.

24% of Barber's runs came on downs with a distance to go of three yards or less. Choice had 18% of his runs in those situations, Jones only 10%. So that is a big part of why Barber's EPV is lower than that of the other running backs.

There are three other reasons for Barbers low EPV. The first is his fumble in the first Washington game on the Washington 16 yard line. EPV: -5.03. The second are his three successive failed tries on first and goal against San Diego. EPV: -5.37. The third reason are his two failed fourth and one conversion attempts in the second Washington game. EPV -3.85.

And here is where it get's a little philosophical: Who's to blame for that? On the fumble, well, that's really on Barber, nobody told him to fumble that ball. But on the other two points, the coaching is at least as culpable, if not more so, and the O-line didn't exactly shine either. At the very end of this post, I'll have a table that shows a 'clean' version of Marion Barber's stat lines, but for now I'll show the numbers the way they are, warts and all.

Runs by down - First it giveth then it taketh away

All our running backs generated a positive EVP on first downs, roughly maintained that value on second downs and gave it up again on third downs.


Barber Jones Choice
Down
Runs EPV/Run Runs EPV/Run Runs EPV/Run
1st
122 0.05 72 0.13 36 0.33
2nd
68 -0.03 39 -0.02 12 -0.13
3rd
21 -0.27 5 -0.25 12 -0.06
4th
3 -1.87 - - - - - - - -

To understand the dynamic of EVP vs down and distance, here is an example of the yardage required to maintain your EVP at about plus/minus zero from the 50 yard line:

1-10-DAL 50. EVP: 2.04

2-6-Opp 46. EVP: 2.05

3-1-Opp 41. EVP: 2.11

1-10-Opp 40. EVP: 2.66

For the running game, this means that, barring a run for a first down, you need to average about four to five yards per run to maintain your EVP. That's a tall order. It also puts the numbers in the table above into perspective. On first down runs, all our running backs were actually improving our scoring chances according to the EVP model. That is good. On second down, the backs on average were keeping the EVP scoring chances roughly even. Also not bad.

The way to think about these numbers is that any number greater than zero means that the running back is adding value to the Cowboys' game. On first and second downs combined, our running backs were adding value with every run. It's on third downs that our running backs had trouble finishing what they started, and where the value of their plays actually decreased. Barber's three failed runs on fourth and one also did not add value.

Runs inside the five yard line - a plague of biblical proportions

When the Cowboys were inside the 5 yard line and lined up for a run, the best strategy as a fan was probably to close your eyes. Here's why:


Barber Jones Choice
Runs by field position
Runs EPV/Run Runs EPV/Run Runs EPV/Run
Own half
108 0.07 73 0.02 36 0.15
Short Field (50-21 yrd line)
64 -0.10 31 0.25 16 0.24
Red Zone (20-6 yrd line)
26 -0.08 12 -0.18 8 0.15
Goal line (5 yards and less)
16 -0.37 - - - - 4 -0.30

A couple of things stand out as we look at the EPVs by field position. First, Tashard Choice looks like a good option everywhere outside the 5 yard line. But keep in mind that his low number of carries is not marred by any lost fumbles (Barber and Jones each have one) that would drive his average down. In the NFL last season, every 43rd rushing attempt saw a lost fumble. You could argue that Choice was overdue for at least one fumble.

Second, the fact that both Choice and Barber have negative EVPs on the goal line suggests that the issue at the goal line is less a running back issue and perhaps more of a O-line/team/play-calling issue.

Third, beware of sample size effects. If I were to take out Choice's 66 yard run against Oakland, his 'own half' EVP/run would drop to 0.03. Similarly, without the 36 yard TD run against the Chiefs, his 'short field' EVP/run would drop to 0.04.

Number of runs per game - How much is too much? 

There has been a lot of debate on this board and elsewhere about which of our backs are every down backs, and which aren't. Be careful as you read on from here, because depending on which side you were on in that discussion, you may find the following stats surprising, perhaps even disturbing:


Barber Jones Choice
No of runs in a game
Runs EPV/Run Runs EPV/Run Runs EPV/Run
Runs 1-5 75 0.03 65 0.10 39 0.12
Runs 6-10
70 -0.09 42 0.12 13 0.19
Runs 11-15
56 -0.03 9 -0.50 9 0.18
Runs 16 +
13 -0.08 - - - - 3 0.17

Again, beware of the sample size on Choice, but it looks like Choice and Barber were basically able to maintain their EVP regardless of how many times they had to carry the ball. In Choice's case, he only had more than ten carries in two games, against Carolina and Denver.

Depending on how much of a Barber fan you are, if you take out any combination of turnovers, fumbles, or plays inside the 5 yard line, most of his EPV numbers would turn positive on the above table.

Felix Jones is the odd man out in this analysis. His numbers drop significantly when asked to carry the ball more than ten times in a game. Again, it's only nine carries, but on 7 of those nine carries he had a negative EVP, getting a positive EVP only on two runs of 6 and 5 yards respectively. All of the nine runs came in the 4th quarter of the Chargers and second Eagles games.

Runs by direction - Go left, life is peaceful there

We saw it in the overall analysis of the Cowboys' running game, and we see it again as we look at our running backs individually: running down the left side of our O-Line created positive value:


Barber Jones Choice All RBs
Runs by direction
Runs EPV/Run Runs EPV/Run Runs EPV/Run Inside the 5
Left end 16 0.19 22 0.38 4 0.17 0.18
Left tackle 28 0.21 17 0.16 14 0.21 -0.06
Left guard 22 -0.11 3 0.12 3 0.02 1.77
Up the middle 68 -0.05 29 0.07 31 0.17 -1.83
Right guard 35 -0.23 12 -0.27 3 0.17 -4.23
Right tackle 30 -0.13 18 -0.03 4 -0.27 -3.02
Right end 15 0.16 15 -0.15 5 0.15 - -

Curios: 48% of Choice's runs came up the middle vs. only 32% for Barber and 25% for Jones. And here I was thinking Barber was the straight ahead guy. Go figure.

Running down the left side is the only direction in which all three running backs came up with positive EVPs. I've also added the 20 runs our RBs ran from inside the five yard line, and their respective EVPs, to the table. Once again, this is a very low sample size, but the numbers from inside the five confirm and amplify the trend we see over the rest of the playing field. Still sticking to your mock drafts now?

Wildcat / Razorback / Single wing set / Direct snap - whatever that thing is called

The NFL game books show 15 runs out the formation the Cowboys prefer to call the Razorback - all of them by Tashard Choice, a Yellow Jacket. Choice had 64 runs last season. Of his first 48 runs of the season, only two were direct snaps. Of his last 16 snaps, 13 were direct snaps.

In conventional measures, those 15 snaps yielded 117 yards and a 7.8 YPC. Not bad at all. Of course, one of the runs was the 66-yarder against Oakland, so if we were to take that out, 14 direct snaps resulted in 51 yards and 3.6 YPC.

The EPV per run out of the Razorback is 0.45. Excluding the Oakland run, it' still a respectable 0.18.  

Please don't hurt me, Mr. Barber

There is no question that Marion Barber is one of the toughest running backs in the league. When Barber plows headfirst into a hapless defender I can't help but think that this type of punishing running must have a positive effect on his teammates - it certainly has on me. And perhaps it is this style of running, always looking for someone to hit, that also helps explain why his EPV numbers are lower versus the other RBs: In his quest for the next bone crushing contact with a defender, it sometimes felt to me like he failed to take that one cut that would have taken him further down the field and given him exactly those extra yards that Jones and Choice were getting on the same play in the next series.

And because I'm afraid that Barber may find out where I live and pay me a visit, here are the 'clean' rushing EPV stats for Marion Barber. I've removed his one fumble, taken out all 16 plays from within the 5 yard line as well the failed fourth and one attempts.

Marion Barber
Total EPV
Runs EPV/Run No of runs in a game Runs EPV/Run
All runs 195 0.04 Runs 1-5 70 0.08
Runs by direction
Runs EPV/Run Runs 6-10 60 0.01
Left end 14 0.20 Runs 11-15 52 0.06
Left tackle 27 0.22 Runs 16+ 13 -0.08
Left guard 20 -0.19 Runs by field position Runs EPV/Run
Up the middle 62 -0.03 Own half 108 0.07
Right guard 29 -0.06 Short Field (50-21 yrd line) 62 -0.04
Right tackle 28 0.15 Red Zone (20-6 yrd line) 25 0.12
Right end 15 0.16 Marion-barber-655x350_medium
Runs by down
Runs EPV/Run
1st down 113 0.04
2nd down 63 0.05
3rd down 19 0.00

[Special tip of the hat to Brian Burke at advancednflstats.com for providing the EPV data. Follow the link if you want to dig deeper into EPV. TJ Johnson at the MileHighReport here on SB Nation also has a great series running on EPV which I highly recommend.]