On Sunday night the Cowboys managed to revive a running game that had been on life support for the better part of the 2012 campaign. On its opening drive, Dallas ripped off impressive gains of 14 and eight yards; on the second possession, they added six- and seven-yard gainers. For Cowboys fans who had watched the team's painful attempts to run the ball in recent games, these gains, and others that followed, were a welcome sight. Most welcome? The player toting the rock was DeMarco Murray, who returned to the lineup after an extended six week hiatus.
The last time the Cowboys ran the ball with any effectiveness was the last time Murray was in the lineup. On October 14, you may recall, the Cowboys went to Baltimore and, using a bevy of backs, piled up a grand total of 227 rushing yards on 42 carries. The last time the Cowboys rushed for that many yards was Oct. 23, 2011, when Murray set the Cowboys' single-game rushing mark as Dallas ground out 294 yards against the Rams. Before that? It was the 251 rushing yards they hung on the Giants in the first-ever game at JerryWorld.
Looking at this, the conclusion can easily be drawn that Murray's return correlates directly to the return of the running game. During his absence, a gimpy Felix Jones was joined by a couple of limited UDFAs in the Dallas backfield, with unimpressive results. In the six games that Murray was out of the lineup, Dallas rushed for a paltry 63 yards a game, and averaged an appalling 2.99 yards per carry. Take away the first game against the Eagles, in which the Cowboys ran for 101 yards on 25 carries, and the averages come out to 53 yards a game and and 2.7 yards per carry. Its no surprise that, coming in to the contest, Dallas was last in the league in rushing.
We can see why Sunday night was such a relief, and why Murray's return, even if he's not fully recovered, was seen by Cowboys fans - and scribes - as a beacon of hope in an otherwise murky season. Soon after the game, ESPN NFC East blogging Czar Dan Graziano penned an encomium in which he proclaimed Murray to be the Cowboys "difference maker":
What was different about the Cowboys' offense on Sunday was the running back. And if you were still of the opinion that the Cowboys' running game could be the same with Felix Jones as it is with DeMarco Murray, this game had to have cured you....there were some runs that made you gasp as Murray showed off a power and speed combination that's been absent in the Cowboys' run game since early October.
In a another recent article, our own Tom Ryle underscored Murray's importance, noting that his presence could be felt even while he was not in the game. Exhibit A supporting this argument is the fourth quarter touchdown pass to Miles Austin, in which the Eagles linebackers were sucked in by play action (because there is actually a running threat. What a concept!), thus clearing the middle for the pass and, more importantly, given #19 considerably more room to operate once he had made the catch. Murray's return to the lineup not only positively impacts the running game, Tom argues, but boosts the passing game thanks to the threat of play action.
These and other Cowboys pundits suggest that, with Murray back in the lineup, the Cowboys offense will begin to function in the manner to which we have become accustomed. To which I say...
Not. So. Fast.
While I think both of these estimable writers are correct in some respects, I cannot agree that what changed for the Dallas attack on Sunday night was that Murray was back in the lineup. To my mind, the biggest difference was that Dallas was playing the Eagles, who, to put it baldly, stink. As I noted above, the lone contest in which Dallas ran the ball with any effectiveness during Murray's absence was the game at Philadelphia. The Eagles have given up 100 yards rushing in eight straight games, with two of the three lowest totals being the games against Dallas. Moreover, their defense is a mess; players are out of position, the defensive backfield is confused and refuses to tackle, and they are generating no pressure on opposing signal callers.
To think that Murray's rushing totals signal an uptick in the Cowboys offensive fortunes seems to me to be a misinterpretation of the global picture. In weeks one through four, with a healthy Murray in the line-up, you'll recall, the Cowboys ran the ball 79 times for 271 yards. If we deduct Murray's ridiculous 48-yard run (in which he should have suffered a two-yard loss) in game one, it averages out to 2.8 yards a carry, or almost exactly what Dallas ran for in his absence.
We can certainly look to the Baltimore and second Philadelphia games as indications of the Cowboys offensive potential, especially on the ground. Given the preponderance of moribund rushing performances on Dallas' 2012 ledger, I'm inclined to say that those were aberrations, and more the result of horrible defensive performances, than they are indications of what is to come.
If Murray and Co. establish a running game against the Bengals quick, physically dominant four-man front (precisely the sort of alignment that has given the Cowboys O-line fits all year), led by seemingly unstoppable DT Geno Atkins, then I'll happily revise my opinion. Until then, I find the body of evidence that suggests either that Dallas will be able to run the ball with any consistency or that they will enjoy the benefits of that success, such as maybe derived from play action, to be scanty at best. I certainly don't see how we can view Murray's (or the offense's) Sunday night performance as predictive.
I look forward to being proven wrong, fellas. But you gotta show me before I'm a-gonna believe.