There has been extensive debate within the BTB Community on whether the Dallas Cowboys should or need to run the ball (more) for a balanced attack. The debate rears its ugly head throughout posts and responses, from discussions of our offensive (in)efficiency and offensive line and coaches, to the (over/under) utilization of personnel and the season’s early woes. I believe it is also at the core of questioning the bust status of Felix Jones, and in a way, Martellus Bennett. The debate is rooted in such a fundamental aspect of football that the implications spread to most players and phases of the game. In essence, it’s a philosophical question. And if you haven’t guessed, or already read, I am firmly entrenched in one of these camps and schools of thought.
So let the debate rage on…but let’s save the other posts our rhetoric by trapping it in this Pandora’s Box.
First, to make some things clear. I acknowledge the fact that a team must be able to pass the ball effectively to win games. I understand that a pass play will usually gain more yards than a rush attempt. I believe QB is the most important position in sports, commanding the offense and important in every play, yes, even on a run play…especially on a fake one. I know a capable quarterback with talented receivers can chop up a defense and light up score boards with ESPN highlights of quick strikes and incredible touchdowns.
But you must understand. What the advocates of a rushing attack are saying is that running the ball will help improve the passing attack and the aforementioned benefits.
The Tao of a Rushing Attack
A Balanced Attack:
A balanced attack does not necessarily mean an equal amount of throws and runs. It means you can gain yards by doing either. You use one to improve the other by not having tendencies and keeping defenses off balance. It allows you to set up your opponent and take advantage of opportunities. It allows you to control and “impose your will” on your opponent. It wins games.
Football is a thinking man’s game. A chess match with gladiators. There are more players, coaches, formations, units, and strategies than in any other sport. The more variables you can incorporate the more difficult you will be to stop. (Unless, of course, you can just power through your opponent with Emmitt Smith running the same play throughout the game…but we can only be so lucky. But don’t misconstrued, the Triplet Dynasty Cowboys were a run first team but had a balanced offense that could take advantage and throw the ball downfield.)
So why allow the defense to know you are more than likely throwing the ball? Why let them pin back their ears and come after your quarterback with reckless abandon? Why are more teams blitzing more often? Why do teams often blitz the Cowboys more than other opponents? Why do we not run more?!
A balanced attack forces defenses into mistakes. Safeties start creeping up to better play the run or step back to not get beat deep and thus get out of position. Defensive linemen slow their first step to read run or pass and not lose gap control. Linebackers start to misread play-actions, misdirections, counters, and delays. Corners get beat up by tackling someone running at them and then miss the next attempted tackle or press coverage. A balanced attack lets you control the pace and flow of the game. It lets you dictate the play, instead of just taking what the defense gives you.
Let the Big Dogs Eat:
Offensive linemen would rather step into the trenches to win the battle than have to step back for pass protection and fend off the pass rush. It invigorates them. Would you rather be the sword or the shield? And please don’t again try to claim that our offensive line can’t run block. Our low YPC is as much a reflection of our lack of commitment to the run (more on that later) as it is the linemen being tired from pass blocking. Most of our guys are big maulers that can move the pile (evenly matched, not so well on the goal line recently). Doug Free is the most “finesse” of the bunch, but watch him lead block for Felix 40 yards down field against the Eagles and you’ll see him smiling too. And if you want to take it a step further, not only can our offensive line run block, but all are receivers are more than capable, Roy, Austin, Witten, Bennett, and in time I assume Dez.
“The game (war) is won and lost in the trenches” and you are doing your line a disservice by forcing them to pass block all game and not allowing them to attack the defense and pancake somebody.
Only the Strong Survive:
When you run the ball well, you let the other team know you are more physical. “Football is a game of inches” and if you convince your opponent that you can get that yard every time, you will also win the battle of wills. A big pass play can be blamed on blown coverage, a slip on the turf, the lights in your eyes, or miscommunication. Gaining yard, after yard, after yard, until you break the defenses’ back with a long TD run cannot be excused. It’s demoralizing. That’s why defensive backs claim they have no memory of a bad play and have to look to the next one, but defensive linemen and linebackers hold grudges and get in fights. A capable running attack can defeat your opponent physically and psychologically. And let’s not forget your running backs can help keep your defense strong in the 4th quarter (of a game and the season) by keeping them off the field longer to avoid some wear and tear.
Patience and Perseverance:
A running attack is not a one night stand. It takes repetition and patience to bring out its best. Partly, this is because you eventually tire out the defensive front seven, but also because you learn from every attempt and create a rhythm. The blockers learn to anticipate the flow of the backers. The running backs work through their jitters and adrenaline, and begin to see the field with better vision while setting up their blockers and waiting for the play to develop. The coaches (should) learn from the attempts and adjust accordingly. Rushing a dozen times during three quarters, never finding rhythm, never throwing jabs to weaken and read the defense, is not conducive to then running it as many times in the 4th quarter to ice the game or break a goal line stand with success. And not a rushing attack do those 20-30 attempts make. But if you run it a dozen times each of the first two quarters to make 3rd downs more manageable, and learn from the failed attempts in the beginning of the game instead of quitting on the run, then after half time, you will face an opponent who is both hurting physically and worrying mentally. Suddenly, you run for 5 or 6 yards a pop. You start to take advantage of the middle of the field behind the linebackers pressing against the run. Then the defense puts 8 or 9 in the box and Miles kills them on a hitch and go, or Witten streaks down the seam after a play action that sends the backers biting. Suddenly, Bennett and Felix have mismatches against the base defense. Suddenly, Dez is single covered and catching a 40 yard fade in the back of the end zone. And then we successfully run out the clock in the 4th, Barber becomes the Barbarian and Felix puts the nail in the coffin...all because of a little patience and perseverance.
You Need to Run the Ball to Win in December and January:
For those younger fans, this phrase is not only a reference to bad weather games late in the season and was said before any Super Bowls were played in February. The idea is that teams that can’t run the ball late in the season can’t win big games or in the Playoffs against the best competition in the league. One dimensional football can win a lot of games during the season against the rabble, especially with a Pro Bowl quarterback and receivers. But once you start playing the better defenses and offenses in the NFL, you need to be able to fool and dominate the former, and defend (or better yet, keep off the field) the latter.
I know, many of you are yelling WHERE ARE THE STATS to back this all up? Well, most of the benefits of a rushing attack are intangibles. There are no stats for moral, the battle of wills, and the measurement of blood, sweat, and tears. There are only outcomes that we must then extrapolate data from while arguing whether we’ve found symptoms or causations. For example:
There are currently four teams that average over 300 passing yards/game (the Cowboys are one of them) and their combined records are 7-8. Three of the four rank in the bottom seven in the league in rushing yards/game. (Cowboys 26th, Colts 29th, Broncos 32nd)
The top 4 teams in rushing yards/game are a combined 12-3. Two of them rank in the top 10 for passing (Texans 8th, Falcons 10th) and two rank in the bottom 10 (Jets 25th, Chiefs 27th). This is not an example of running when you win; it truly is running to win. Arian Foster leads the league in rushing and that did not all come in the 4th quarters. Michael Turner is 11th in rushing yards and has run 74 times (twice as often as Barber) because the Falcons have a balanced offense. Clearly, the Chiefs and Jets have to run to win games. Now, could this also be evidence that running the ball helps the passing game? I would say yes, with the caveat being you also must have a good quarter back and receivers to take advantage of the situation, i.e. Texans and Falcons.
There were seven teams with more than 10 wins and all of them were ranked in the top 10 in passing yards, but wait…the majority of them also ranked in the top half of the league in rushing yards. Three of those four top rushing teams won at least one playoff game. Only one of the three non rushing teams won a playoff game - and that exception is due to the phenom known as Payton Manning. You must be able to run to win in December and January. The Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints were ranked 4th in passing and 6th in rushing.
I am not suggesting we must lead the league in rushing. But I refuse to believe that our offense will be better if we don’t run the ball more, and thus better. But I have said too much, let the raving begin…