The Cowboys’ front office has never cared about following league-wide trends. And as they continue to bolster their analytics team, their hires indicate they won’t follow analytical trends either.
Several analytics-focused hires this month have shown that Mike McCarthy is serious about his goal to revamp the department. First came John Park as the new director of strategic football operations. Park worked his way up the Colts analytics team over seven years, eventually landing the title of director of football research.
He was a fixture in the department as Indianapolis drafted Jonathan Taylor and gave him a league-leading 332 carries in 2021. The Colts stayed true to the ground game despite the NFL’s move towards the passing game.
A highly-regarded name in the analytics community like Park made it clear changes were coming. The following week, Sarah Mallepalle — a longtime player analyst for the Ravens — was brought on as a strategic football analyst.
Mallepalle participated in a forum at the 2022 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference that focused on trends in football analytics. She had this to say on her perceptions of the run game since joining Baltimore:
"One of the analytics Twitter mantras is “running backs don’t matter,” … and coming in-house, especially to a team like Baltimore … my perspective kinda changed on that and seeing how when an offensive line blocks for a running back — once you get to that second or that third level defender and you're one-on-one with them are you a back that’s able to either shake that tackle?"- Sarah Mallepalle
The NFL does not spend money on the run game. Running backs, interior linemen and linebackers are among the lowest-paid positions in the league. Modern analytics tend to indicate that’s the best way to win games.
But the Cowboys have pumped resources into those areas in recent years — spending first round picks on a defensive tackle and (projected) guard, a flurry of mid-round picks on linebackers and making a move in 2022 for Johnathan Hankins.
And most critically, they finally let Ezekiel Elliott go — freeing up 200+ carries a year to go to more explosive backs.
Dallas wants to bring their offense into the modern day, and they want to be more explosive than they historically have been. But to the dismay of many Cowboy faithful, that may not mean airing the ball out more.
Park and Mallepalle both come from teams that understand the value of the run game. Both teams possess explosive offenses, but neither generates that big-play ability through a dangerous pass attack.
The Cowboys have a dangerous pass attack. But the running back room is at a crossroads; Pollard may not be there in 2024, and no one expects Malik Davis, Ronald Jones, Rico Dowdle or Deuce Vaughn to handle the whole load.
If Mallepalle still values running backs who create additional yards, she’s sure to love Pollard. He averaged the third-most rushing yards over expected (RYOE) per attempt, according to Next Gen Stats. And in two games as the starter, he put up 3.19 yards after contact per attempt.
It’s hard to see the Cowboys passing on a potential Pollard extension if the organization’s direction continues. Mike McCarthy and Brian Schottenheimer want to run the football, and they’re going to pump resources into making the rushing attack a fine-tuned machine, unlike the one that’s teetered out in January each of the last two years.