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Breaking Bad: Broken Tackles, Missed Tackles And Where The Cowboys Stand

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The Cowboys lead the league in broken tackles on offense, but the situation on defense is not quite as rosy.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

If blind homerism were a reliable stat, life would be a lot simpler. We'd never have any debates anymore about whether Tony Romo is the best, the second best (passer rating), third best (ESPN's QBR), fourth best (WPA), sixth best (DVOA), eighth best (PFF grade), 10th best (EPA), or the 15th best (passing yards) QB in the league.

If somebody were to talk about broken tackles, we'd simply say "DeMarco Murray," drop the mic and walk away. Everybody knows that DeMarco Murray has the most broken tackles in the league. After all, he's a slippery dude, he plays for my team, and I saw him break a lot of tackles in the games I watched with my own eyes - so it must be true.

Unfortunately, blind homerism is not a reliable stat.

DeMarco Murray has a heck of a lot of broken tackles - 58 on rushing attempts and 18 after receptions, according to Pro Football Focus - but Marshawn Lynch has more. Lynch leads the league with 79 broken tackles (68 rushing, 11 receiving), three more than Murray.

But regardless of whether he's ranked first or second, few things are more exciting than watching Murray break two or three tackles, falling forward and picking up a first down on second-and-long. Broken tackles on offense are a key factor in keeping offenses on the field, because they give an offense extra time of possession where they would have normally turned over the ball via a punt or a field goal attempt.

Similarly, few things are more frustrating to see than when your safety whiffs on a tackle and lets the opposing running back gain an extra 15 yards before he's brought down.

For the Cowboys, DeMarco Murray is not the only player breaking tackles, though he contributes by far the most broken tackles:

Broken Tackles through Week 14, 2014
Name Running Receiving Total
DeMarco Murray 58 18 76
Dez Bryant 0 14 14
Joseph Randle 6 1 7
Cole Beasley 0 6 6
Lance Dunbar 1 5 6
Dwayne Harris 1 3 4
Terrance Williams 0 1 1
Jason Witten 1 1

PFF shows the Cowboys with 115 broken tackles over 13 games, tied for the most in the league with the Seahawks, who also have 115. But the Cowboys ran slightly fewer plays on offense (816) than the Seahawks (831), so their broken tackle rate is 14.1%, the best value in the league.

Running backs often break multiple tackles during the same run, so the 14.1% broken tackle rate doesn't mean the Cowboys will break a tackle every 7.1 plays (7.1 = 100 / 14.1), but the percentage is a good indicator of the relative frequency at which a Cowboys player breaks a tackle.

Broken Tackle Rate by Team, Wk 14 2014
Team Plays Br. Tkls in % Team Plays Br. Tkls in % Team Plays Br. Tkls in %
DAL 816 115 14.1% TEN 729 93 12.8% BUF 835 80 9.6%
SEA 831 115 13.8% NO 898 93 10.4% SF 826 79 9.6%
PIT 901 113 12.5% BAL 833 92 11.0% HOU 837 77 9.2%
GB 800 111 13.9% NYJ 869 89 10.2% MIN 796 76 9.5%
DET 860 107 12.4% WAS 816 88 10.8% STL 782 74 9.5%
DEN 867 102 11.8% MIA 823 88 10.7% CLE 865 74 8.6%
IND 919 102 11.1% NE 884 88 10.0% TB 771 62 8.0%
KC 780 101 12.9% CAR 858 86 10.0% ARI 798 54 6.8%
NYG 884 101 11.4% CIN 815 85 10.4% OAK 789 51 6.5%
CHI 825 96 11.6% SD 802 84 10.5% JAC 811 51 6.3%
PHI 920 94 10.2% ATL 847 83 9.8%

Broken tackles will never be a stat that is directly correlated to winning and losing, for that the metric is simply too dependent on other variables in the game. But they are a great stat for showing how good an offense and specific players in that offense are at breaking tackles. Similarly, missed tackles by a defense illustrate well how good or bad a team is with the fundamentals of tackling.

Which brings us to the defensive side of the ball and a metric called Tackling Efficiency. Tackling Efficiency calculates the number of tackling attempts per missed tackle with a simple formula:

Total Tackles + Missed Tackles
_________________________________ 
Missed Tackles

The resulting number shows the number of attempted tackles per missed tackle. The league average so far this season is 8.2, meaning that the average NFL player misses a tackle once every 8.2 tackle attempts. The higher the number the better, because a higher number would indicate that a player doesn't miss a lot of tackles.

The Cowboys have a below average Tackling Efficiency number of 7.7, which ranks them 25th in the league. The Cowboys miss more tackles than many other teams. Here's how the Cowboys compare with other teams across the league:

Tackling Efficiency by Team, Wk 14 2014
Team Tkls M.Tkls. Tkl. Eff. Team Tkls M.Tkls. Tkl. Eff. Team Tkls M.Tkls. Tkl. Eff.
SF 638 66 10.7 GB 743 100 8.4 NYG 678 99 7.8
CLE 732 78 10.4 PHI 716 97 8.4 PIT 609 89 7.8
CHI 709 77 10.2 WAS 629 86 8.3 DAL 697 104 7.7
NYJ 643 79 9.1 SEA 646 89 8.3 OAK 746 113 7.6
MIN 769 95 9.1 CAR 718 99 8.3 STL 689 105 7.6
BUF 687 86 9.0 HOU 732 101 8.2 DET 640 100 7.4
SD 663 83 9.0 ARI 656 91 8.2 KC 672 107 7.3
TEN 781 99 8.9 BAL 687 97 8.1 JAC 762 124 7.1
NE 653 84 8.8 IND 644 91 8.1 TB 733 121 7.1
CIN 779 102 8.6 ATL 756 108 8.0 NO 677 123 6.5
MIA 702 92 8.6 DEN 657 95 7.9

While the NFL records and keeps a tally of tackles, tackles are not an official league statistic. The problem with tackles is that unlike a completion or an interception — which are generally undisputed as far as record-keeping goes - tackles are awarded in split-second judgment calls by the home team's scorekeeper. In many cases, the tackle numbers listed in the official gamebooks don't make a lot of sense. And by not making them an official stat, the league doesn't need to verify tackle numbers or take any responsibility for whether they are accurate or not.

The Cowboys, like all other NFL teams, keep their own stats which they compile from the coaching film (at least that's how the legend goes). Those stats show that Rolando McClain is the team's leading tackler with 101 combined tackles (79 solo, 22 assists). NFL.com shows McClain with 72 tackles (59 solo, 13 assists). Pro Football Focus show McClain with 77 tackles (67 tackles, 10 assists). For this exercise, we're going with the PFF numbers, simply because they are the only source listing missed tackles, so we might as well use their tackle data as well.

Going by those numbers, the Cowboys aren't a team that's particularly good at tackling. But not every Cowboys player is a bad tackler. Here's an overview of all the Cowboys defenders with at least ten tackles for the season and what their Tackling Efficiency looks like:

Broken Tackles through Week 14, 2014
Name Total Tackles Missed Tackles Tkl. Efficiency
Nick Hayden 31 0
Anthony Spencer 21 0
Terrell McClain 13 0
Henry Melton 12 0
Sterling Moore 37 3 13.3
Anthony Hitchens 61 7 9.7
Justin Durant 49 6 9.2
Rolando McClain 72 10 8.2
Barry Church 78 11 8.1
Tyrone Crawford 27 4 7.8
Kyle Wilber 20 3 7.7
Orlando Scandrick 45 7 7.4
Bruce Carter 47 9 6.2
George Selvie 26 5 6.2
Jeremy Mincey 25 5 6.0
J.J. Wilcox 63 14 5.5
Brandon Carr 43 14 4.1

At the top of the list you have four defensive linemen who haven't missed a single tackle all season. That's pretty impressive.

But perhaps even more impressive - at least for me - is where Sterling Moore is ranked. I've never thought all that much about Moore's coverage ability, but if you compare him to Brandon Carr, who'd you rather have in coverage? Moore misses a tackle once every 13 tackle attempts, Carr every four tackle attempts. That's bad.

Earlier this week we used the PFF rankings to look at the Top-rated Cowboys Players Through Week 13, and there was some discussion about whether PFF were grading Carr and Wilcox too harshly. They might be, but those missed tackle rates are harsh all by themselves.

The Cowboys had their lowest missed tackle total of the season against the Jaguars, where PFF only shows one missed tackle for the defense. Their highest total was 15 missed tackles in the 31-28 win over the Giants in Week 12. Their second highest total came in Week 13, when they missed 12 tackles at home against Philly.

If the Cowboys want to win on Sunday, they'll have to tighten up their tackling. And they'll need Murray and Bryant to go all Heisenberg on the Eagles.