The say, ‘running backs don’t matter’ in today’s NFL, but the reality is, they really do matter so let’s discuss why RBs matter for the Dallas Cowboys…
The Dallas Cowboys are on the record saying they intend to offer Ezekiel Elliott a massive extension at some point in the near future, and while many fans rejoice in the news, the analytics community cringes.
That’s because, recently, many running backs have proved to be replaceable (even the great ones) and to dedicate max dollars to an area of the team where only minimum investment is needed, appears to be a mistake. The statement, “running backs don’t matter” has thus turned into a war cry for the football loving mathematicians around the league and it’s helped create quite the chasm between the “intellectuals” and the “regular joes”.
The age of analytics is a great time to be a sports fan. Analytics provide facts in areas we previously only had feelings. They’ve helped sports strategy grow by leaps and bounds over the past two decades and are it’s now a heavily sought after position (department) in most major professional franchises.
We once believed establishing the run was needed to capitalize on play-action. Analytics proved it false. We once believed running on early downs was an effective way to achieve manageable third downs. Analytics proved it false. We even believed the running game was more likely to produce “successful plays” than the feast or famine nature of the passing game. That was unequivocally proven false.
But where analytics has led us astray, is the “running backs don’t matter” mantra. Delivered for shock value as much as a way of separating the wheat from the chaff in just about any and all intellectual debates about football, the statement has proven counterproductive in this age of enlightenment.
As with all bold and exaggerated stances, running backs don’t matter has pushed opposing views deeper into their original corners. This sports tribalism has now been hard to overcome and we’ve reached the point many will never allow themselves to be convinced, no matter how much information is presented.
Running backs DO matter (just not as much as many people think)
As illustrated by Sharp Football Stats as well as Football Perspectives, running backs have successful runs only roughly 50 percent of the time. Sharp Football Stats defines this success rate as this:
"“A play is successful when it gains 40% of yards-to-go on first down, 60% of yards-to-go on second down and 100% of yards-to-go on third or fourth down.”"
So by fail, we primarily mean the yardage gained on a particular run failed to increase the offensive’s points expectancy. In other words, the offense was statistically better off before the run.
Some may point to the invisible dividends received at the end of the game after teams have been beaten over the head by an offense who has “established the run”. While there may be some logic to that, we can’t see any statistical relationship to say there is causation or correlation.
“You must establish the run!” has been a common punchline said in jest by analytics community as result.
When looking at what positions offer the most in expected points, running backs typical fall behind virtually all three top WRs as well as behind many TE1s. Even as receiving options, running backs usually offer less than any other pass catcher on the team.
Note: This is primarily because they receive so many passes at or behind the line of scrimmage. Not because they stink as players. For instance, Zeke’s average depth of target was zero yards.
Where Running backs Matter
Running backs matter because they are still the top option in short yardage situations. Whether a team is a yard away from the first down or a yard away from pay dirt, running backs play a vital role in short yardage situations.
If you’re a team like the Dallas Cowboys who are lucky enough to have a RB who can get those tough yards, you’re at a decided advantage. If you’re a team without a good short yardage running back, you’re probably in trouble.
But that’s not the only time running backs matter. They also are key weapons when traffic in the box is thin. Something the analytics community and old school scouts both agree on is the undeniable advantage a running back has running into a relatively empty box vs running into a packed box.
Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys saw packed boxes a ton last season. And they ran right into them. Perhaps that alone explains why Zeke was only the 20th ranked running back in FP’s success rate tracking (52.3%). The numbers suggest if Dallas would have only throw in those run-stopping situations, everyone, including Zeke, would be better off.
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Running backs DO matter. And Zeke is one of the best in the business. Next week we’ll discuss what makes Zeke such a special back and why he’s not as replaceable as some people argue. But for now let’s find common ground on the value of an NFL running back.
Running backs aren’t as important as they were in the past because the game has changed so much (and now we actually have stats to qualify their exact value). But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter. They are still vital positions on the team and a franchise like the Dallas Cowboys is better off having an elite back like Zeke than they’d be if they didn’t have him. From there we can open up the discussion about how we can best use Zeke going forward.
They say running backs don’t matter, but for team like the Dallas Cowboys and many others, they really do matter. Just not as much as some would like to believe.
- Published on 06/23/2019 at 12:29 PM
- Last updated at 06/23/2019 at 12:29 PM