Thursday, May 05, 2016

The Final 2015 Running Game Numbers - Man Vs Zone

Miami Dolphins' Brent Grimes gets stiff-armed by Dallas Cowboys running back Darren McFadden during the fourth quarter on Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, at Sun Life Stadium in Miami. (Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/TNS)
Miami Dolphins' Brent Grimes gets stiff-armed by Dallas Cowboys running back Darren McFadden during the fourth quarter on Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, at Sun Life Stadium in Miami. (Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/TNS)

Now that the draft is over, I have a chance to tie up a few loose ends from the 2015 season that I see I overlooked as I hurried to get through as many draft prospects as possible.  Please feel free to request a topic you would like me to elaborate on between here and training camp.  I cannot promise I will do them all, but you can certainly inspire a day's work or two if you try.
For instance, I was reminded last night that I had never finished the 2015 running game analysis that I was publicly tracking throughout the season.  The data was collected, but I never posted it for you to enjoy.  So, here is the tweet that inspired this entry:
He couldn't find it because I forgot to post it.  
Granted, with the selection of Ezekiel Elliott, not to mention the signing of Alfred Morris, it is pretty clear that the Cowboys wanted to address this position for some of the items in our statistics.  They were productive last season and actually ran the ball very well for a team without much of a passing threat last season, but when you look at these numbers, you might detect an issue or two below:
As you can see from my primitive spreadsheet, here is an attempt to catalog each and every run that the Cowboys attempted in 2015.  I tried to organize it by runner and by separating it into two categories - zone runs (inside or outside zone) and man/gap blocking runs.  Most are easily identifiable when looking at the All-22's, but I do not claim 100% accuracy as I certainly did not double check my work on this many plays.  One pass through the games and I did the best I could.
Now, you can read the above chart in the following fashion.  "21" is Joseph Randle, "20" is Darren McFadden, and "30" is the departed Christine Michael (for some reason the Turbin column is just Turbin even though he wore "23", I believe).  The "21" column is zone runs, the "21-M" would be man runs.  And, then the next column in each case is the yardage.
So, Joseph Randle averaged 4.1 yards a carry if you take his 76 runs as a whole.  But, divided into the man vs zone question, you can take his 63 zone runs at 4.5 a carry and then 13 man runs which totaled 2.3 per carry.
Christine Michael and Robert Turbin were both brought in to help supplement the zone running scheme after Randle was gone (or on the way out) and while neither ever really was given a heavy workload, but when they did get the ball, it was almost all on zone plays.  And the samples are so small we can't learn much.
But, the McFadden information is interesting.  Last summer, I did a big study on McFadden's years in Oakland and discovered that one of the main story lines there for the Raiders was whether the zone running scheme was something that was hurting McFadden.  As we pointed out then, not all zone offensive lines are created equal, so the hope was that the better players in Dallas might push McFadden to new heights.
And it seemed to work!  Despite only being the #1 RB from November 1 on, McFadden and this offensive line combined to put him into the top 4 runners in the entire NFL.  Without a QB!  In a little over half the season!  If you look at it from this perspective, it really boggles the mind how well they ran the ball down the stretch.
But, it gets even crazier when you look at McFadden's numbers by type of run.  He ran the ball 239 times for 1,089 yards for 4.6 a carry.  There is nothing wrong with those numbers at all.  76.6% of those runs were of the zone running variety.  But, just 61% of the yards were on zone plays.  In other words, on zone running plays that require a slightly different skill set (patience and then decisive decisions) from where he is most comfortable, he was only able to get 3.65 yards per carry.
Meanwhile, his man/gap runs, which were only 23.4% of his total runs, racked up 39% of his yardage, at an incredible 7.5 yards per carry.  What we heard in Oakland became true here.  He specializes in the type of runs that the Cowboys only use as their change-up.  The Cowboys have built a line with massive resources that specializes in the fine art of zone blocking.  Then, when they have you set up, they throw an occasional change-up with a pulling guard or a man scheme to catch you off balance.  It has worked very well since they completely bought in with the drafting of Zack Martin in 2014.  
Now, many of you have asked - if McFadden is so good at a certain type of run and so poor at another, why don't we change the scheme to fit him?  I realize that seems like a simple solution, but if an organization is built on running a certain scheme, it seems foolish to make large-scale changes to accommodate one guy who you signed for almost no money.  Instead, the objective for 2016 was to find someone who could run their scheme.  That was Alfred Morris for a few weeks (who ran almost nothing but zone in Washington) and then Ezekiel Elliott in the 1st round (who seems to be able to do anything you want him to do).  What becomes of McFadden?  That remains to be seen in training camp, but the Cowboys do not have very many special teams contributors from their backup RBs if those backups are McFadden and Morris.  And with small game-day rosters, that might be a consideration when filling out the final roster.  We shall see.  
So there you have it.  To the best of my knowledge, the book on the 2015 running game.  And the promise that the Cowboys in 2016 are going to get back to the recipe from 2014:  Zone right, zone left, inside zone, and even more zone running down the field with only the occasional moment with a pulling La'el Collins into space to catch the defense guessing.
Hope that answers your questions on that topic.

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