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Running back carries: the meaningless NFL statistic that just won't go away

Ezekiel Elliott carried the ball 22 times Sunday in the Cowboys' divisional playoff loss to the Packers. Should Dallas have fed him the ball more? [Getty Images]

Ezekiel Elliott carried the ball 22 times Sunday in the Cowboys' divisional playoff loss to the Packers. Should Dallas have fed him the ball more? [Getty Images]

It has gone on for far too long, and it has to stop. Today. Right now.

We're a divided nation, but a greater purpose demands we band together, regardless of our allegiances.

Whether you root for the Giants or the Eagles, the Ravens or the Steelers, the Bucs or the Falcons, it's time to take a stand — a stand against NFL commentators' repeated attempts to link running back carries to team wins.

The relationship is, at best, spurious.

Yet we continue to hear it cited on television, on radio, on Twitter.

Here's one recent example, a tweet from Gil Brandt, an analyst and former Cowboys personnel executive:

Le'Veon Bell made it 38-0 Sunday when he rushed 30 times for 170 yards to help the Steelers edge the Chiefs 18-16.

Brandt's tweet resurfaced Monday on ESPN's "First Take" when Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman and guest Will Cain dissected the Cowboys' 34-31 loss to the Packers. Cain is an ESPN contributor who has worked for CNN and TheBlaze, the network founded by political firebrand Glenn Beck.

Cain, a Cowboys fan, cited the statistic while criticizing coach Jason Garrett's play-calling.

"Ezekiel Elliott was carving up the Packers defense, averaging 6 yards a carry," he said. "Give the man the ball twice, and it's a first down. Just do that over and over and over until they stop it."

Elliott rushed 22 times for 125 yards, an average of 5.7 yards per attempt.

The statistic Cain referenced is accurate. It is, however, problematic. It implies that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between carries and winning. There is not. Effectiveness matters, not volume.

There was time when you could hand the ball off 44 times to Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris and win the game. Teams today, though, run when they win, not win when they run, as Football Outsiders has found.

The Texans didn't beat the Raiders in the wild-card round because Lamar Miller rushed 31 times (2.4 yards per carry).

The Patriots didn't beat the Colts in the AFC championship in 2015 because LeGarrette Blount rushed 30 times (4.9 yards per carry).

The Ravens didn't beat the 49ers in the Super Bowl in 2013 because Ray Rice rushed 30 times (2.0 yards per carry).

The Seahawks didn't beat the Panthers in the NFC championship in 2006 because Shaun Alexander rushed 34 times (3.9 yards per carry).

Those teams won because they built leads and then tried to run out the clock. In 30 of the 38 playoff games in which a running back has rushed at least 30 times (complete list below), his team led at halftime. What's more, 27 of those 30 teams led by double digits at some point.

"I'm sure the arbitrary number (30 carries) has no direct causal link," Cain told me on Twitter. "But it's representative of a style of play and commitment that overwhelmingly leads to wins. And I wish the Cowboys had made that commitment."

Dallas made that commitment, at least early on. In the first quarter, the Cowboys' run and pass rates were consistent with their regular-season rates; Elliott rushed six times and Dak Prescott threw seven times. The play-calling balance didn't shift until the Packers jumped out to a 14-3 and then a 21-3 lead halfway through the second quarter.

From that point, Prescott threw twice as often as Elliott ran (31 times to 16). Dallas rallied and scored 28 of the next 38 points, thanks in no small part to its rookie quarterback. Before the Cowboys fell behind by 18, Prescott posted a 63.2 passer rating in three series. Afterward, he completed almost 70 percent of his passes and recorded a 115.6 rating. It was not enough, however, as the Packers prevailed when Mason Crosby hit a 51-yard field goal as time expired.

The Cowboys didn't lose because they didn't feed Elliott enough. They lost because they couldn't derail Aaron Rodgers. Early in the game, they allowed him too much time, and late, they allowed one too many big plays — a 36-yard dagger from Rodgers to tight end Jared Cook that set up Crosby's game-winner.

Football Outsiders has suggested the rushing attempts myth exists because many of today's commentators came of age or played during the run-heavy 1970s. Considering the amount of data available to us, that thinking is becoming less and less defensible.

While time is running out on this season, it's not too late to make a pledge, to refuse to perpetuate such nonsense. Say it with me once more: In general, teams run when they win, not win when they run.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.

Running backs to rush at least 30 times in a playoff game (since 1950)

Date Player Team Opponent Halftime lead? Double-digit lead?
1/15/2017 Le'Veon Bell Steelers Chiefs Yes No
1/7/2017 Lamar Miller Texans Raiders Yes Yes
1/18/2015 LeGarrette Blount Patriots Colts Yes Yes
2/3/2013 Ray Rice Ravens 49ers Yes Yes
1/12/2013 Ray Rice Ravens Broncos No No
1/5/2013 Arian Foster Texans Bengals Yes No
1/22/2006 Shaun Alexander Seahawks Panthers Yes Yes
1/27/2002 Marshall Faulk Rams Eagles No No
12/31/2000 Jamal Lewis Ravens Broncos Yes Yes
12/30/2000 Lamar Smith Dolphins Colts No No
1/17/1999 Terrell Davis Broncos Jets No Yes
1/10/1999 Curtis Martin Jets Jaguars Yes Yes
1/3/1999 Fred Taylor Jaguars Patriots Yes Yes
1/25/1998 Terrell Davis Broncos Packers Yes Yes
12/27/1997 Terrell Davis Broncos Jaguars Yes Yes
12/28/1996 Natrone Means Jaguars Bills No No
1/14/1996 Emmitt Smith Cowboys Packers Yes Yes
1/30/1994 Emmitt Smith Cowboys Bills No Yes
1/23/1994 Thurman Thomas Bills Chiefs Yes Yes
1/9/1994 Rodney Hampton Giants Vikings No No
12/28/1991 Barry Word Chiefs Raiders Yes No
1/12/1991 Thurman Thomas Bills Dolphins Yes Yes
12/28/1986 Freeman McNeil Jets Chiefs Yes Yes
1/4/1986 Eric Dickerson Rams Cowboys Yes Yes
1/8/1984 John Riggins Washington 49ers Yes Yes
1/30/1983 John Riggins Washington Dolphins No Yes
1/22/1983 John Riggins Washington Cowboys Yes Yes
1/15/1983 John Riggins Washington Vikings Yes Yes
12/27/1981 Rob Carpenter Giants Eagles Yes Yes
12/29/1979 Ricky Bell Buccaneers Eagles Yes Yes
12/26/1977 Chuck Foreman Vikings Rams Yes Yes
12/27/1975 Lawrence McCutcheon Rams Cardinals Yes Yes
1/12/1975 Franco Harris Steelers Vikings Yes Yes
1/13/1974 Larry Csonka Dolphins Vikings Yes Yes
12/31/1972 Larry Brown Washington Cowboys Yes Yes
12/26/1970 Duane Thomas Cowboys Lions Yes Yes
1/12/1969 Matt Snell Jets Colts Yes Yes
12/30/1962 Jim Taylor Packers Giants Yes Yes
Source: Pro Football Reference

Running back carries: the meaningless NFL statistic that just won't go away 01/18/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 18, 2017 5:35am]
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