The Dallas Cowboys entered the 2017 season with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. This was based, primarily, on the fact a potent offense fueled by young playmakers was returning largely intact. The defense wasn’t quite as powerful but hopes were a generally average unit, augmented by a talented group of youngsters, could perhaps be a top-10 unit.
A preseason grade of each unit of the team based on two factors (quality and confidence) might have yield the following results:
Both columns use a 1-5 grade:
- 5 = elite
- 4 = good
- 3 = average
- 2 = poor
- 1 = very bad
Confidence level reflects how confident we are each unit will meet expectations:
- 5 = very confident
- 4 = quite confident
- 3 = reasonably confident
- 2 = somewhat confident
- 1 = not confident
We had confident expectations the running backs and offensive line would be elite, just as they were in 2016. Running the football, after all, is the strength and identity of the team. Dallas has invested four first-round draft picks along the offensive line and at running back. The team ranked second in rushing yards in 2016 and ran the ball more than any other team.
There were, of course, questions. The offensive line was the only unit on offense to experience turnover, with two of the five positions featuring new faces. One of the new faces was a relatively known entity; third-year player La’el Collins would be replacing the retired Doug Free. Collins was considered a first-round talent in acquired in 2015 but injuries and an inability to displace LG Ronald Leary had prevented him from establishing an identity in the NFL. The fact he was moving from guard to right tackle further complicated the situation.
The left guard position would be an even bigger unknown. A motley group consisting of a failed former high draft pick (Jonathan Cooper), an ever-injured in-house draftee (Chaz Green) and low-pedigreed journeyman (Byron Bell) would compete for the position. Cooper looked to be the likely winner when Green was predictably injured in training camp. The coaching staff, however, chose to go with Green once he recovered.
We’re now three games (19%) in the season and the reality is the running game has been mediocre. Some have pointed the finger at Ezekiel Elliott, including former scout Bryan Broaddus:
Chaz Green has not been the problem with what’s going on with this offense line. Your problem is that the running back hasn’t made as many tacklers miss as he did last season. You saw what happened on his 30 yard run -- he made an unblocked man miss and they were off to the races. They need more of that from the back.
I would suggest that if the plan relies upon the running back making unblocked tacklers miss in the backfield the plan needs to be reevaluated.
Standard rushing statistics
Let’s let the numbers tell the story. It’s not really debatable that the running game has not been as effective as last year. The numbers bear this out:
All of the above are per game numbers...and we see significant declines in every category:
- Fewer attempts (-23%)
- Fewer yards (-40%)
- Fewer yards per carry (-21%)
- Fewer touchdowns (-50%)
- Lower touchdown percentage (-42%)
As a result, the Cowboys’ rankings have also declined:
First, those 2016 rankings are remarkably dominant. It would be almost impossible for any team to replicate that kind of performance, even harder when replacing 40% of the offensive line. However, it’s very disconcerting to see the 2017 Cowboys don’t rank in the top 10 of any major rushing category. Here’s the rankings in chart form (the numbers are reversed, so a 32 means the team was the best in the league):
This isn’t news to anyone; it simply uses numbers to confirm what we’ve all seen with our own eyes. It also captures the magnitude of the decline. Dallas isn’t terrible in any metric but there’s no question the rushing game hasn’t been elite thus far.
Advanced rushing statistics
Football Outsider’s DVOA metric (Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average) shows similar results, with Dallas ranking very high in both overall offense and rushing offense in 2016 and below average in 2017:
Football Outsider’s compiles advanced metrics designed to measure both an overall rushing game and offensive line performance. The primary metric is something they call “Adjusted Line Yards”:
Teams are ranked according to Adjusted Line Yards. Based on regression analysis, the Adjusted Line Yards formula takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line based on the following percentages:
- Losses: 120% value
- 0-4 Yards: 100% value
- 5-10 Yards: 50% value
- 11+ Yards: 0% value
These numbers are then adjusted based on down, distance, situation, opponent, and the difference in rushing average between shotgun compared to standard formations. Finally, we normalize the numbers so that the league average for Adjusted Line Yards per carry is the same as the league average for RB yards per carry.
They have five additional metrics, as described on their site:
RB Yards: Yards per carry by that team's running backs, according to standard NFL numbers.
Power Success: Percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer. This is the only statistic on this page that includes quarterbacks.
Stuffed: Percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. Since being stuffed is bad, teams are ranked from stuffed least often (#1) to most often (#32).
Second Level Yards: Yards which this team's running backs earn between 5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage, divided by total running back carries.
Open Field Yards: Yards which this team's running backs earn more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, divided by total running back carries.
Let’s compare the 2017 Cowboys’ numbers in each metric to the 2016 team and the NFL average:
If you’re wondering why the YPC number is different from the standard statistic’s table above it’s because Football Outsider’s numbers are limited to carries by the running back (excluding those by the quarterback).
Other than Power Success, Dallas has declined, and declined significantly, in every category. Most noteworthy is the 60% increase in Stuffed percentage. Dallas had about 1 of 6 plays “stuffed” in 2016 but 1 of 4 plays in 2017. That’s a clear indicator the offensive line is really struggling compared to last year.
The 100% number on “Power Success” is, however, a good indicator; these are short-yardage plays where everyone knows the offense is trying to run the ball. The fact the Cowboys are succeeding in these situations is reason for hope the unit can succeed more often in other situations.
Here’s the team rankings in each metric:
This shows, yet again, just how truly outstanding the 2016 Cowboys were rushing the ball with top five ranks in five of the six categories. We also see these advanced metrics rank the 2017 Cowboys lower than the standard rushing statistics, with most in the bottom third of the league.
Here’s the chart version of the table above:
Football Outsiders also compiles their Adjusted Line Yards number by where the play is run. This gives some sense of whether a team is more or less successful running at one gap or another:
The table shows Dallas has actually been better running left than in 2016. Running up the middle the team has declined compared to 2016 and is below average. The real issue is running right, where the team is far below average. Also note how the team was successful in all directions in 2016.
But keep in mind, though, these are small sample sizes. Half of all runs are generally up the middle:
Thus, the key to improving isn’t likely to come from running left more often, it’s going to come from improving performance on runs to the right and up the middle.
One area where the offensive line has improved is pass protection. Dallas has better numbers in each of three pass protection statistics:
Dallas is allowing 0.5 fewer sacks per game, which has increased their ranking from 13th to 7th. The teams adjusted sack rate has improved significantly, dropping 1.7 percentage points. Now, these numbers could dramatically change from a five-sack game but I would agree that pass protection has been better thus far than the run-game blocking.
NFL seasons rarely go according to plan. The 2016 rushing unit was dominant and repeating dominance is difficult. To answer the question, no, thus far the offensive line hasn’t been elite. That doesn’t mean it can’t be by the end of the season. We all know Dallas has faced high-quality defenses thus far. Starting this week they face a Rams team ranked in the bottom third of most rushing metrics. If the running game struggles continue for another week then I’ll be concerned.
What do you think BTBers, is the Dallas offensive line still an elite unit?
Is the Cowboys’ offensive line still an elite unit?
This poll is closed
Yes - absolutely
Yes - but they haven’t shown it yet
No - but they will be soon
No - and they won’t be this season