The Dallas Cowboys are really good at running the football.
In 2014, DeMarco Murray, with a Star on his helmet, produced more yards than anyone in the NFL. 2015 saw Darren McFadden, sporting the blue and silver, earn more yards than all but three NFL running backs. This season, Ezekiel Elliott is also likely to have a high yardage total toting the rock for America’s Team.
What’s the common denominator in this three year period?
The Cowboys began the road to building the NFL’s best Offensive Line in 2011 when they drafted Tyron Smith in the first round. Two years later, it was Travis Frederick whose name was called, and a year after that it was
Johnny Football Zack Martin that joined the Space Cowboys. That’s the constant we’re looking for, right?
Flip your calendar back to the 2015 NFL Draft.
Not even one week after its completion, Jerry Jones pulled off one of the greatest heists in NFL History by signing the then Undrafted Free Agent, La’el Collins. Unfortunately for La’el, circumstances leading up to the Draft caused him to never hear his name called, but the Dallas Cowboys came running and asked him to help do some.
It was at that moment, unbeknownst to all of us, that the idea for Price Per Yard was born.
Price Per Yard: What Is It?
Thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), the rookies who are drafted in the NFL are subject to a rookie wage scale. Prior to this agreement in 2011, rookies could make whatever their agents agreed to. Savvy veterans were getting pennies on the dollar next to kids who had never played a down before.
Rookies are paid a fraction (albeit still a significant amount of money) of what the top players at their respective positions are paid. These rookie deals are for four years, but first round selections are eligible for a fifth year option (which must be picked up prior to entering the player’s fourth season).
Say that you hit on an elite quarterback in the first round. That means you get high-quality production out of him for four, likely five, seasons at a great rate. The idea is obviously to get the best players that you can, and if you do, it gives you financial freedom to do other things.
The Cowboys have had their elite offensive linemen on rookie deals (Tyron Smith signed an 8-year extension in 2014), DeMarco Murray on the final year of his rookie deal in 2014, and Darren McFadden at a cheap rate in 2015. In that time they’ve also been one of the best rushing units in the National Football League.
I wanted to determine how much the Cowboys are paying per yard in the run game. That’s where the name Price Per Yard comes from.
It’s not a complicated name, and in fact it’s been used before. That link calculates Price Per Yard for individual running back performance; however, this is an evaluation on the whole run game (every Running Back plus the Offensive Linemen).
It just makes sense to call mashed up apples apple sauce, right?
Price Per Yard: The Calculation
Determining how much an NFL team pays per yard sounds relatively simple, right? Well the lack of sleep I’ve had over the last few weeks would disagree.
Obviously, first we needed to figure out how much a team is paying. I want to give an enormous shout out to Mike – @CowboysNation’s Content Manager – for talking this project out with me and pointing me in the right direction, even when I missed it the first time.
Who does a team pay to run the ball? It’s so much more than their starting running back. Every single running back on a team’s payroll is factored into this metric. Why? The reason that those players are paid, even though they’re bench or role players, is to run the football and produce yards. Simple.
Additionally, and somewhat obviously at this point, a team’s offensive line is factored into Price Per Yard. Why? The linemen are also paid to block, right? Of course, and part of the reason that team’s pay their offensive lines is to lead the way for the running backs they pay.
Run Game Spending = Running Back Spending + Offensive Line Spending
That’s what we’re looking at here. The Run Game Spending.
There was one more little trick, though.
Players like Tyron Smith are signed to massive deals and their contracts become wells that their respective teams dip into to save salary cap space. So for instance, Tyron Smith is the best left tackle in football, but his cap hits are relatively low some seasons. This suggests that the average cost per season of a player’s total contract should be the number considered, but players don’t always (and usually don’t) fulfill their whole contracts.
It is for this reason that the “spending” calculated is drawn from these players’ salary cap hits for that season. That’s the most objective way of handling this. In that particular season, that is how much that player was paid to do their job, which was produce rushing yards.
Once we know how much the team spent on the run game, we just divide it by the team’s total rushing yards, right?
Teams like the Carolina Panthers and their rush yard totals are inflated by mobile quarterbacks such as Cam Newton. It’s for this reason that every yard that has gone into this was earned ONLY by the running backs on these teams’ payrolls for that particular season.
So if in 2013 Team A paid Running Backs X, Y, and Z… only their yardage totals are factored into it. Their quarterback, fullback, wide receivers, and whoever else, are not.
Those people were not paid exclusively to run the football.
All contract information was pulled from Spotrac.com and all yardage counts were sourced from Pro-Football-Reference.com. My infinite thanks go out to them for doing the work they do that allows me to cultivate this fun project.
Price Per Yard: The 2013 Season
The important thing to remember about Price Per Yard is that there is no indisputable winner. It is up to you, the educated reader, to draw the best conclusion and one you like the most. Think of this like a candy store where you’re picking your favorite flavor…
2013 NFC Price Per Yard
** Click the image to zoom in.
I know, I know. That’s a lot of colors! Hold my hand and let me walk you through this.
First of all, I know that the St. Louis (now L.A.) Rams don’t have any data (Spoiler: The Browns don’t either). Spotrac didn’t have their cap numbers available but hey, it’s the Rams. Oh well.
If you looked at Price Per Yard simply as a number… you would think that the Lions were the best and that the Seahawks were among the worst in the NFC. This is where you have to think a little.
If you invest $100k into something, you expect $100k in return, right? If you invest $100k and only get a $50k production you’re doing bad, but if you’re getting a $200k production you’re dominating. That part is simple. Look at Price Yer Yard the same way.
For example, the Lions are paying the least amount per yard in the NFC, AND they’re 4th in the conference in rushing. So they’re paying significantly less than 11 teams and still outperforming them. Inversely the Seahawks may be paying the most per yard, but they’re 5th in rushing. The Seahawks are paying a lot, but getting a lot in return.
The data also suggests that the Giants are terrible at this.
They’re investing a serious amount of money (more than anyone in the conference) and have the third fewest yards produced. They’re yielding a terrible return on their investment.
Another observation that can be drawn is that the Panthers struggle with this, but for a different reason. While they have the lowest total yardage count in the conference, this doesn’t include Cam Newton’s yardage. But for that matter, if Cam is going to help your run game significantly… why pay a hefty price to your run game? Carolina actually pays the fourth most to its running backs, and they’re not performing to that level of investment.
The Panthers have far and away the lowest rushing attempts, which would be like buying a Ferrari and driving it a few times a year.
2013 AFC Price Per Yard
I told you the Browns weren’t cool enough to join the party! In reality their data simply wasn’t available, so we’ll have to move on without them.
Immediately, the Tennessee Titans jump out to us. They’re paying $30,285.99 per yard (most in the NFL) and only have 1,372 yards to show for it (making them 9th in the AFC). Inversely, the Patriots are paying $12,571.16 per yard and have the most rushing yards in the NFL (in terms of people we’re accounting yards for, remember?).
Perspective is really necessary when analyzing the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers. If you look at PPY as simply a number in a vacuum then you’d assume that they’re among the best since theirs is quite low. While they didn’t pay a whole lot for three feet of ground, they also didn’t accumulate that much.
This was a point that I kept circling back to throughout PPY. So what if a team is paying a low amount per yard? What does that even prove?
I talked this idea out with my Dad and realized that a base value was necessary. PPY continued to evolve!
Price Per Yard: Determining A Base Value
While my initial purpose in this experiment was simply to determine how much a team was paying per yard, that information doesn’t tell us much, not unless it’s applied contextually.
If I told you that the average customer pays $800 for a TV, that wouldn’t mean anything. What brand of TV was it? What are the dimensions on it? Is it HD? 4K? There are so many factors involved here.
What we are truly looking for is what is a team’s Return On Investment? If they’re investing a lot of money, they should be seeing a lot of yards in return. If they’re not devoting so much, they’re likely not to be getting something significant back. If they’re being frugal but still yielding great results, right on! If a team is devoting a lot and seeing little return, well… yikes.
It must be remembered that the objective of each of these 32 NFL teams (or the rushing games in this case) is to gain yards. The purpose is not simply to pay the least amount of money per yard. Obviously you want to gain a ton of yards while paying the least amount possible.
In determining a base value, I kept that consideration as a priority above all else, so what did I do? I averaged the Top 10 Team Rushing Yards. Remember that these are the yards produced only by the running backs on these teams.
Why the Top 10? If you’re in the Top 10, then you’re considered among the best.
Additionally, I averaged the respective PPYs of the Top 10 Teams whose Rushing Yards I averaged. Why? If we’re determining the average of the Top 10 rushing yardages, we need to determine the average price paid for that type of performance.
The average rushing yardage of teams in the Top 10 was 1,800.10. The average price per yard those teams paid for that performance was $14,489.76. What we needed to do now was compare and contrast each team against this number to see what their percentage was against these base values.
Price Per Yard: Applying The Base Value
Again, you’ll have to excuse the Rams and Browns. They don’t want to be a part of this sweet shindig I’m throwing. The math might be too complicated for them, who knows.
The “% Diff From RY BV” is just that. The percentage difference from the Rushing Yards Base Value. For example, the New Orleans Saints had 23.39% less yards than the Rushing Yards Base Value (1,800.10).
The “% Diff From PPY BV” is self-explanatory as well. It is the percentage difference from the Price Per Yard Base Value. For example, the Indianapolis Colts paid 57.68% more per yard than the Price Per Yard Base Value ($14,489.76).
The institution of base values help us to determine some points to which we were already making our way downtown (shoutout to Vanessa Carlton). The Lions paid 28.66% less than the BV and only had 6.12% less yards than the BV. That’s an incredible bargain.
We talked about the Steelers and how their PPY could be misleading, and the BV proves that. While, yes, they are paying 20.18% less than the BV per yard, they’re also gaining 30% less yards than the BV. So Pittsburgh is paying far less, but unlike Detroit they are getting a much more inferior product.
Look at the Eagles. They’re paying 8.68% more than the BV per yard, but they’re out-gaining all but one team in terms of yardage. Their investment is higher, but the return that they’re getting is matching it.
In my own estimation, the New England Patriots are the best at this in terms of the 2013 season. They’re paying 13.24% less per yard against the BV, but outperforming the entire NFL in terms of yardage.
Price Per Yard: The 2013 Dallas Cowboys
You come to Inside The Star for Dallas Cowboys content, and I’m sorry to disappoint you, but in 2013 America’s Team didn’t dominate this arena (Spoiler Alert: They will soon).
The Cowboys paid 3.63% more per yard than the BV, and to be honest that’s not so bad. Where they struggled is their yardage output, producing almost 20% less than the BV. This means that the Cowboys were paying more than the average and getting significantly less out of it.
That’s no bueno.
You have to remember that 2013 was Travis Frederick’s rookie year, so Zack Martin had not yet arrived. I’ve charted the 2014 and 2015 seasons (you’ll have to come back for the continuation of Price Per Yard, by the way) and can promise you that the Cowboys become one of the more dominating teams in the entire NFL when it comes to this metric.
What Does Being Good At This Mean For A Team?
This discovery is really important because it revolves around the money devoted to a team and its ensuing production.
Consider the New England Patriots, for example. Due to the fact that they are getting an insane return on investment in the run game, they can devote some of that money elsewhere… places where they might need a bigger investment to get a bigger return.
I can’t emphasize enough that there is no correct answer here. Conclusions must be drawn and preferences can be taken.
Look at the 2013 Vikings. They’re paying 43.94% more than the BV, but they’re only getting 4.73% yards less. If that’s the style of game you want to play, then play it. It’s up to these teams and how they want to handle their finances.
The underlying theme in all of this is that you want to get, at the very least, an equal return on your investment. That’s not just true in the running game of football, that’s Finance 101. The more bang you can get for your buck, the better.
Price Per Yard is something that I had an enormous amount of fun researching and charting. This data encompasses only the 2013 season, and there is so much more for us to digest.
As a result, this is the first installment in a four part series. Next Monday (July 11, 2016), I will debut how PPY correlates with the 2014 season, the following Monday will be 2015, and the following Monday all three years are combined to see the trends that teams have developed over a three-year period.
If you have any comments or questions about Price Per Yard, the philosophy behind it, the formula that went into it, or just simply want to talk and/or debate it… you can comment below, email me at RJ@RJOchoaShow.com, or Tweet to me at @rjochoa.