A Cowboys commitment to run the ball doesn’t have to be scary

Some things are better in actual application than they sound in conception.  Buffalo chicken wings, front-wheel drive and the Cocaine Bear movie; all pretty terrible sounding ideas when first mentioned, but after seeing the finished product, they turned out to be solid additions to the world.

When Mike McCarthy spoke to reporters at the NFL combine, he made comments that sounded scary to most analytically-savvy football minds. He said “balanced,” “complementary” and “I want to run the damn ball”.

At face value, a re-commitment to the running game this day and age sounds like a poor plan, but much like a mustache, if properly executed, it may turn out to be a nifty accessory.  The details make all the difference.

“Just look at our run totals the last three years,” McCarthy said. “We were a different offense in ’22 than we were in 2020. And that was part of the evolution of being a more balanced, more complementary football.”

He’s right. The Cowboys dropped from top-10 in early down pass rate in 2021, to bottom-10 in early down pass rate in 2022. Dallas is trending heavily in the direction of the run and McCarthy sounds like that is according to his plan.

Cause for alarm?

Dallas’ success rate on the ground was 41.4 percent, while through the air they enjoyed a 48.3 percent success rate. Their expected points added (EPA) on the ground was -0.031 per play while they were 0.082 through the air.

The running game was major problem in 2022. The fact the Cowboys were top-10 in run rate, despite being overwhelmingly less efficient on the ground than they were through the air, is certainly legitimate cause for alarm.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Surely McCarthy doesn’t simply mean to just run the same inefficient running plays more often in 2023. Despite what some may think of him, he’s been a successful coach for a reason. It’s safe to assume he plans to make running plays efficient again in Dallas. That he plans to use different schemes, different plays, different deployments, etc.… all in an effort to get different, improved results.

If it’s “run at all costs” then McCarthy probably deserves every bit of the criticism he’s getting right now. But if there are circumstances and parameters in which he wants to run, it may not be as scary as it sounds.

In the 21st century, early downs are generally regarded as passing downs. But if defenses are consistently showing shells and repeatedly giving the Cowboys light boxes, early down runs might be just what the numbers call for.

Three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust on first down does no one any good. It typically places the offense in worse shape than before, and it doesn’t provide tangible enough gains in play-action down the road. Efficiency of each run is key.

Decoding the message

Over the past few seasons, McCarthy has used the words “balanced” and “complementary” somewhat synonymously, when they, in fact, mean very different things.

Balance is defined as “an even distribution.”  McCarthy clearly doesn’t plan to have a 50/50 split in 2023. The only teams that ran the ball 50 percent of the time or more in 2022 were teams that had bona fide rushing quarterbacks and/or those who had lower-tier passers.

Complementary is defined as “combined in such a way to enhance or emphasize the qualities of each other.” This sounds a little more applicable to Cowboys football.

While play-action doesn’t need a dominant running game to make it work, the running game certainly helps. And if used to help protect leads, the running game can offer the biggest complement of all (see also: the Green Bay and Jacksonville games where Dallas couldn’t run out the clock).

Looking at the efficiency of it (expected points added/play), the only teams who gained equal or greater value on running plays last season were Baltimore, Atlanta, Carolina, Chicago and the Los Angeles Rams. These were hardly the offenses McCarthy wants to emulate and likely nothing close to the blueprint he’s describing in his statements.

Like many things, the devil is in the details. If McCarthy’s words are applied without parameters, things could get bad quite quickly. But if the run commitment is applied with logic and reason (which can reasonably be assumed), it could help the Cowboys accomplish everything they said they’re trying to accomplish. Like win a Super Bowl.

Until follow up questions are asked or McCarthy volunteers details of the plan for 2023, no one can with certainty what to expect. But his statements don’t have to be scary if his plan is applied the right way.

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