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Cowboys Running Backs: Just How Important Is Pass Blocking For DeMarco Murray And Felix Jones?

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Tony Romo tells DeMarco Murray to work on his pass-blocking skills.
Tony Romo tells DeMarco Murray to work on his pass-blocking skills.

A couple of days ago Pro Football Focus published an article in which they looked at three years worth of pass blocking efficiency stats for running backs.

We probably wouldn't be discussing the pass blocking prowess of running backs if the PFF article didn't mention at least one of the Cowboys' running backs, and sure enough, Felix Jones makes PFF's top ten list as the tenth-most effective back in pass protection.

Felix Jones stayed in to block 210 times over the last three years and allowed 11 pressures over that period (one sack, one hit, nine hurries). Per PFF's metrics, this gives Jones a Pass Blocking Effectiveness score of 96.0, the tenth best rate over that time span.

After the break, we dig a little deeper into that stat and wonder just how important this stat really is.

Of course, looking at a three-year time span isn't really helpful if you want to assess the Cowboys' running backs, because Felix Jones is the only back who's been with the Cowboys for more than a year. So we'll concentrate on the metrics for 2011.

The Pass Blocking Effectiveness metric measures how effective a back was in pass protection. In very simple terms, the metric measures the percentage of pass blocking plays in which a back did not allow a quarterback disruption. The maximum value is 100, and the closer the PBE is to 100 the better. The detailed formula is the following:

Pass Blocking Efficiency = 100 - [(Sacks + (0.75 * Hits) + (0.75 * Hurries)) / Pass Protection Snaps * 100]

Last season, there were 54 running backs who stayed in to block at least 40 times during the regular season. Felix Jones, despite a stellar three-year average, only comes in 33rd on the 2011 ranking with a PBE of 94.0 (one hit and five hurries in 75 pass blocking snaps).

DeMarco Murray gave up one sack, two hits and three pressures on his 48 pass blocking snaps, resulting in a less than stellar 90.1 PBE. That number ranks Murray 51st out of 54 running backs last year.

Keep in mind though that we're dealing with very small sample sizes here, as each back only allowed six overall disruptions. Also, despite his low rank, Murray finds himself in some nice company. LeSean McCoy (90.2 PBE), Matt Forte (90.5), Ray Rice (92.9) and Adrian Peterson (93.1) all rank in the bottom 15 of that 54-man ranking. So how important is pass blocking really for a running back?

That's probably more of a philosophical question than one you could answer with a simple Yes/No. Do you prefer a back who is a great runner and who will gobble up the yards on the ground, or do you prefer your halfbacks to me more versatile, multidimensional players who can add value on every single snap?

The answer for the Cowboys is pretty clear. Jason Garrett explained exactly what type of halfback he prefers when he talked about Murray shortly after the 2011 draft, and of the possibilities a player like Murray adds to the Cowboys' offense.

We like DeMarco Murray. We like what he brings to the table. He's a versatile back. He's a guy who's shown he can run the football. He's been productive as a receiver and has also been very good on third down as a receiver out of the backfield but maybe more importantly, as a blocker.

He seems to have a really good understanding of protections and not only who to block, but how to block them. So we really liked his versatility, the kind of young man that he is and he's certainly been a productive player.

In the Cowboys' system, pass blocking is an important task for any running back, as is the ability to catch the ball, but running the ball remains the primary task. Nevertheless, Jason Garrett likes his halfbacks to be good in all aspects of halfback play.

And while Felix Jones' s numbers dipped last season compared to his three-year average, the Cowboys still liked to keep him in to pass block. Jones stayed in to block on 74 of the 207 passing plays he was on the field for. That pass blocking percentage of 35.7% is the ninth highest in the league among all backs with 40 or more pass blocking snaps. And while it's clear that Jones is a good pass blocker, that high pass blocking percentage may also have something to do with the Cowboys trying to keep their quarterback upright.

In contrast to Jones, DeMarco Murray only stayed in to block on 24.5% of the passing snaps he was on the field for (48 of 196), ranking him 36th out of the 54 NFL backs.

Many of us have penciled in DeMarco Murray as the starter at halfback, relegating Felix Jones to the role of the "change of pace back", whatever that means. And while DeMarco Murray may end up starting every single game in 2012, that does not automatically make him an every-down-back, far from it. Murray still has to improve as a pass blocker, and it stands to reason that IF both players are active, Felix Jones will be the third-down-back based on his pass-blocking and receiving skills. That's a big "if" though, because for that scenario to play out, both backs will have to be healthy. At the same time.

Last season, the Cowboys started out with Felix Jones as the feature back from week one through six. After Jones got injured, Murray took over the role of the feature back starting in week seven through to his injury early in the week fourteen game against the Giants. By that time, Jones had been active again for three weeks and once again took over the role of the feature back.

The Cowboys already have one very capable third-down-back in Jones. And may have two if Murray develops as the Cowboys expect. But first, both of them have to stay healthy.