Cowboys Running Game: Falsely Accused?

Gregory Shamus

Everyone talks about how Dallas is not able to run the ball. This may be an oversimplification and a distraction from the real issues.

There are many culprits in the Dallas Cowboys' soul-crushing loss to the Detroit Lions. But as I lie among the bitter ashes of all my hopes and once again find myself staring into the gaping maw of horrendous mediocrity for my favorite team, I still find myself wanting to understand what happened and what the Cowboys need to do to fix it.

Before you can fix something, you have to figure out what is wrong. In doing that, you also have to make sure you don't get fixated on the wrong things. One issue that has been brought up repeatedly is the failure of the Cowboys to effictively run the ball in the game.

That surprised me a bit. It simply did not jibe with my own impression of the game. What I thought I saw in watching it was a running game that was effective when used correctly. I think that Dallas can do just fine with the running attack they have, if the coaches handle it properly.

Obviously, the "because I said so" argument is not going to carry much weight here, so let me build the argument.

I charted out the first quarter's carries, and whether the run was a success or a failure using the Football Outsider's definition (which simply put is that success means you got 40% of the yards needed to move the sticks on first down, 60% on second down, and 100% on third or fourth down). All these carries were by Joseph Randle, except the last carry of the quarter by Lance Dunbar.

Down 1 1 2 1 2 1 2
Distance to go 10 10 3 10 3 10 6
Yards gained 5 7 -3 7 0 4 -3
Success/failure Success Success Failure Success Failure Success Failure

Something that is not clear from the chart (although it makes sense if you look at the yards to go) is that the first and second downs here are all consecutive. You will notice a pattern here: on every first down run of the first quarter, the Cowboys were successful. And on every second down run, each of which came after a running play, they got stuffed.

By the third first and second down pair here, I was already shouting at the television (which scared the heck out of the dog and cat, as well as startling my wife) "DON"T RUN IT AGAIN, THEY ARE WAITING FOR IT!" Sadly, the Cowboys coaching staff was unable to hear me.

There was some discussion I recall on Twitter about the Cowboys having the first part of the game scripted on offense. I understand the value of that, but why do you stick with a specific play if all indications are that the other guys have figured your script out and are just going to shove it back in your face? This just looked like really unimaginative playcalling, and resulted in Dallas not capitalizing on successful first down runs.

When I looked through the entire game, the Cowboys were generally successful on first down runs except at the end of the halves. As the first half was drawing down, the team tried an end around to Dez Bryant that only netted one yard, and when they got the ball on the Detroit 4-yard line after Sean Lee's second interception, Randle got stuffed for a yard, which was probably due to the Lions selling out because they guessed that it would be a run.

The second half was the same. There was one sequence on the second Dallas possession (after throwing five consecutive passes on the first possession) where the Cowboys ran the ball four times in a row, netting 5, 4, 3 (converting a third and 1) and 5 yards, the last on a more successful end-around to Terrance Williams. What killed the run late was that the Lions knew the Cowboys were going to try and run the ball on the last couple of possessions to milk the clock, the announcers knew it, the stadium crowd knew it, and everyone watching at home knew it. Detroit again sold out to stop the run, and was able to do so.

It was not the running game that failed for the Cowboys. And it looks like the coaches were well aware of that, since the team ran it 25 times (plus one kneel down at the end of the first half) and passed 30. There is that balanced attack so many love.

The failure was the passing game. In the NFL, if you have more than a couple of yards to go on third down, you throw the ball. And time after time, on third down, Tony Romo threw the ball - to nobody. The Cowboys were 3-13 on third downs, and that includes the conversion above on the ground. Dallas simply could not sustain drives. Even when it scored, it could not sustain drives. Every touchdown involved three plays or fewer.

This is the issue the offense is having. The Detroit game was one of the more obvious examples, because Dallas could not muster consistent sustained drives. They had one 10-play possession, an 8, and a 7. Everything else was shorter, and of course mostly ended on an incomplete pass followed by a punt. Dallas did not have an issue with the mix of running and passing plays. The problem was only getting 56 plays run in total, while the Lions were running 78 - by sustaining more drives.

All the rumors about Dallas trading for a running back were not only ignoring the fact that, under the cap, Dallas has less free space than Rebel Wilson's blue jeans, but that there is absolutely no need for a running back. DeMarco Murray and Joseph Randle are perfectly capable of providing adequate yards running, if they are used correctly. And that is dependent on the Cowboys being able to convert those third downs to keep drives alive. I don't know whether the team's problems are centered on Romo, or exactly what they are, or if the issues are more in the plays coming down from Bill Callahan. But I do know that trying to find solutions for what is ailing the Cowboys by trying to fix the running game is not going to accomplish anything besides diverting attention from the real offensive deficiencies.

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