Yards-per-carry is one of the most misleading statistics in football. As a statistic that records the average, YPC doesn’t account for how runs are distributed. Because of that, it’s very susceptible to fluctuation due to outliers.
If the Cowboys were to record a single run of 80 yards, for example, their YPC would shoot from 4.10 to 4.40. That would move them from below the league-average up into the top 10 in the NFL. Is that fair? Should one play—perhaps the result of a defender failing to tie his shoe or something else random—totally distort a stat?
That’s why rushing success rate is a much more accurate way to judge team rushing strength. Rushing success rate is the percentage of plays on which a team increases their chances of scoring on a drive. A one-yard run on 1st-and-10 would be considered unsuccessful, for example, while a one-yard run on 4th-and-1 would be a success.
Since success rate isn’t distorted by outliers—an 80-yard rush is just as successful as five-yard first down run—it’s immune to wild fluctuations. And since we know big plays via the running game are relatively volatile, success rate is a more accurate way to analyze the running game.
I bring this up because I think the Cowboys use their running game in a way that’s a little bit superior to what most people believe. This year, they rank 19th in YPC but 14th in success rate; 41.6 percent of their runs have increased their expected points.
Last year, the effect was even larger. Despite one of the “worst rushing offenses ever” according to YPC, they still ranked 17th in the NFL in success rate. That’s not outstanding, but Dallas was far from 2012’s worst rushing offense.
The reason that YPC can’t be trusted, in addition to outliers, is that teams run the ball in different situations. Frequently, the “best” rushing teams in YPC are those that use the run in the wrong way. If you run the ball often in situations with high upside, such as 1st-and-10, you might maximize YPC but you won’t be doing the same to your team’s chances of scoring.
Meanwhile, a team that uses the running game more often in short-yardage situations—when it should be utilized—will naturally have a lower YPC. But are they really a worse rushing team?
Not at all. The Cowboys, for example, have converted 75.0 percent of their plays on 3rd and 4th-and-1 this year, thanks in large part to an underrated short-yardage rushing game. Meanwhile, the Bears have converted only half of their plays in those situations, ranking them fourth-worst in the NFL.
Any time we analyze a stat, we need to make sure it’s standardized. We need to make sure we’re looking at the same thing for each team.
When it comes to the running game, we aren’t. Offenses that run the ball properly, using primarily the passing game in situations with high upside, should naturally have lower YPC. That doesn’t make them a worse rushing team. It makes them intelligent.
So who is the better rushing team: the Cowboys or the Bears?
Well, Chicago ranks in the top 10 in YPC and has 1,318 rushing yards on the year. Dallas ranks well in the bottom half in YPC and 27th with 1,021 yards.
Pretty clear, right?
Not so fast. Once you account for game situations, you realize the Cowboys have been better than the Bears on the ground. Chicago has just a 36.4 percent rushing success rate, ranking them 28th in the NFL. As mentioned before, the ‘Boys rank 14th.
In addition to a weaker-than-advertised running game, here are a couple other quick-hitting stats for the Bears heading into Week 14.
209: Yards lost by Bears on negative plays
One area of their offense the Bears have improved substantially is getting the ball out quickly in the passing game. Last year, Chicago gave up 44 sacks—eighth-most in the NFL. In 2011, they ranked fifth-worst with 49 sacks allowed.
But while everyone was blaming the offensive line, the truth is that much of the Bears’ pass protection “problems” were due to Jay Cutler. He held onto the ball way too long for years. Quarterbacks are just as responsible for their protection as the line—perhaps more so. There’s a reason that Peyton Manning has “one of the league’s best lines” everywhere he goes; he makes them look good.
This year, the Bears have placed an emphasis on getting the ball out faster, and it’s worked. They’ve allowed only 19 sacks—third-fewest in the league.
20.5: Percentage of Josh McCown’s dropbacks that are play-action passes
Jay Cutler could be ready for Monday night, but it’s more likely that McCown will get the nod for Chicago. Either way, the Bears will be utilizing play-action passes; together, Cutler and McCown have shown play-action on over 21.0 percent of dropbacks.
That’s new for Chicago, and likely the result of Bears head coach Marc Trestman’s emphasis on analytics.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys tried two play-action passes on Thanksgiving after having all kinds of success on 15 of them the week prior. Tony Romo has shown play-action on 12.2 percent of his dropbacks—one of the NFL’s lowest rates.