Joyner: Murray and Jones an Elite Duo

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Felix Jones:  New deal or no deal?

Today’s chat with ESPN Insider NFL and college analyst K.C. Joyner looks at the 2011 Cowboys backfield.  In 2009, Joyner started a new set of run blocking metrics, in which he looked at the blocking effectiveness of a team’s offensive line, and the yards per attempt a back generated when he received good blocking.

Win percentage will be the subject for another story.  In shortened version, Joyner defines it as a running play where the team’s blockers did not allow an opposiing player the chance to disrupt the play.  No DT pushing his blocker into the backfield.  No linebacker lunging through a gap at the running back’s feet.  Know as the starting point that the 2010 Cowboys offensive line, with the greybeards Gurode, Davis and Colombo on the right side, ranked 21st in win percentage, grading out to a win 44.2% of the time.  Bill Callahan’s Jets line led the metric, winning 59.1% of their running attempts.

Good blocking yards per attempt (GBYPA) is simply the yards a back got when he got a chance from his line.  Blocking matters significantly; as Joyner points out in the opening of Scientific Football 2011:

…previous studies in this area show that when a running back receives poor blocking (i.e. when the defense is able to do something to disrupt the play), he typically will gain between 1-2.5 yards. That means the key to running back production is to gain as many yards as possible when given good blocking, and that is what this metric gauges.

Taken together, these metrics can show whether each part of a team’s running attack carries its weight.  Does a team have a very good line, but only average to slightly above average backs behind it (the 2010 Jets) or below average blocking for an above average lead back (the 2010 Eagles) or a good line and a good back (the 2010 Texans).  The stats can also allow a better comparison between backs in a team’s rotation.

These stats show that the 2011 Cowboys got above average production from both backs, though the line, as we all know, needs improvement.

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Cowboys Nation:  Did you compile run metrics this year?  You had some pieces of your run metrics in the 2011 book.  You had offensive line ratings, and you talked about line win percentages last year.

K.C.  Joyner:  When I say I’m done with 70% of the season that includes run metrics.

CN:  We talked four games into the season and the Cowboys run metrics were poor.  They had a lot of kids playing then, two rookies and a second year center.  You pointed out their run metrics then was almost identical to the numbers the old vets had posted in 2010.  That seemed to justify the overhaul.  You said then all the NFL run games were terrible, with a handful of exceptions.  Did you see any improvement as the season progressed?

K.C.:  The 2011 Cowboys, from the games I’ve finished, had a 45.2% win rate, which includes the bad games at the beginning of the season.  45% isn’t that good, but I have the feeling it will rise by the end of the season.  I don’t think it’s going to show elite consistency in good blocking, but I think it will be a better number.

What was impressive was the size of the gaps the line created and the production of the backs with those holes.  Felix Jones had a 8.0 good blocking yards per attempt.  When you get to 8.0 in that metric at the NFL level, that’s where you’re getting to the top backs.  You’re not going to post an 8.0 or better unless you’re an elite back.  Maybe 15-20% of backs are going to be up there for a significant number of runs.

DeMarco Murray did even better.  He had an 8.2.

CN:  Some fans are fickle, especially about running backs.  Jones was playing well, but then he gets hurt, which frustrates them, because Jones gets nicked every year.  Then Murray comes in and has a phenomenal debut against the Rams. I immediately saw posters who were ready to dump Jones and go with Murray all the way.

Dallas has two quality running backs, it seems.  And they get hurt.  Murray ended the year on injured reserve.  That’s a good problem to have.

K.C.:  Murray did great against the Rams.  Everybody did great against the Rams.  The first time people paid attention to him he had that huge game against the Rams and he was talked about like a Hall of Famer, and for all I know he will be.  But you want to be very careful about how guys do when they play bad teams.  Good players are supposed to beat up on bad teams.  It’s what you do against good teams that’s a measurement of how good you truly are.

The Cowboys have one guy who’s an 8.0 and another guy who had an 8.2.  You have two guys of that caliber.  Only the top guys can do that.  The top number in this metric in the three years I’ve been doing it under this current system, the top guy is usually 9.0.  Chris Johnson in 2009, when he went over 2000 yards, had a 9.0.   And you’ve got two guys who are very close to that.  If you have that in your backfield, that’s pretty darn good.

CN:  It’s no secret they need to improve their run blocking, especially their interior run blocking, but here’s the 2010 number — the line’s win percentage was 44.2.  So the kids were just a shade better this season.  The metric strongly suggests that if you can beef up that line and raise the win percentage, the Cowboys can have a dominant rushing attack.

K.C.:  And you have the explosive backs behind them.  If I’m the Cowboys, I’m thrilled with what they have at running back.  I’d do whatever they had to keep them happy.  What’s Felix Jones’ issue?  Durability.  Now with Murray, you have a 2nd Pro Bowl  caliber back.  Now, you don’t have to say, “Jones, you need to toughen up to get 300 carries.”  Now, you can give him 180-200 touches and give Murray 200-220 and, fantastic.

CN:  It’s a collision position. Look at Chris Johnson this year.  He’s coming off two seasons where he’s over 300 carries and he had a very slow start.

K.C.:  Look at the history of running backs.  Most running backs, even the top running backs, give you 1500 carries and then they start falling off.  Some of them start the drop off at 1200 carries.  If you can put these two guys together,  you don’t have to overdo the wear and tear on either one.  Jones is only 24 and Murray is 23 so your backfield should be set, barring a catastrophic injury, for the next four years.

CN:  2012 is the last year of Felix Jones’ first contract.  I think next year there will be a lot of debate on whether to keep him or not, but this is an early marker in his favor, for keeping him.

I don’t think DeMarco Murray would be as good getting all the carries, but I think this type of thinking results from watching Emmitt Smith for so many years.  He got 90% of the team’s carries in his prime years, so a lot of people assume that’s how you do it.  You find one guy and ride him until he breaks.

K.C.:  I read a Bill Belichick comment on running backs where he said, it’s the one position where you have to have your guys healthy.  You can get away with having guys with physical ailments at a lot of other positions, but you can’t do that at running back. You need to be healthy to be productive at running back.

If you’re the Cowboys, why stick with one guy and hope you can ride him for sixteen games when you’ve got two quality guys?  If you have a guy like Felix Jones who’s close to elite caliber and you can find a way to sign him?  Sign him.  If somebody makes him a ridiculous free agent offer?  Okay, move on, but if it’s possible to keep him, keep him.

CN:  I think the durability issue may work in Dallas’ favor.  Jones has had trouble staying healthy all the time, and that may keep him from getting that crazy free agent offer.  The Cowboys may get a chance to re-sign him at a reasonable price.  But then, who knows.  Guys tend to go crazy in their contract seasons, if they’re motivated.

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Rafael Vela

Rafael Vela

Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ TheBoys.com in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for SportsTalkLine.com