What Did We Really Learn About The Cowboys' Rushing Game?

Jason Miller

Dallas fans were excited and gratified to see the Cowboys accumulate 170 yards rushing against the Miami Dolphins. But be cautious about making sweeping generalizations, because this was almost certainly not a typical game to base your assumptions on.

If you ask observers what the most significant thing was about the Dallas Cowboys' pre-season game against the Miami Dolphins, most would probably answer something to the effect of "The Cowboys, with their anemic running attack in 2012, ran the ball 34 times and only passed 21."

There is certainly a case to be made for that. After the totally ineffective ground attack last year, the staff, starting with Jason Garrett, has made an improved running game one of the priorities this year. It was believed that Bill Callahan, in taking over the in-game playcalling duties, would be instrumental in carrying that out.

So now we have clear evidence of that. The team is going to use more running plays for sure. Right?

Well, there can be issues with a one game sample size. And with not including the bigger picture when you sum up things.

Let's take that sentence above, and make it a bit more complete.

"The Cowboys, with their anemic running attack in 2012, ran the ball 34 times and only passed 21 after jumping out to a 17-0 lead in the first half."

Oh. Yeah. A three score lead to open the game. That might lend itself to using the run a lot to control the clock and try to keep the ball out of the opponents's hands.

Well, let's try to look at how the Cowboys have handled this kind of game situation in the past. How did they do last year in a similar situation?

Hm. Let's see. After careful examination of the box scores from all the games in 2012, I have determined that, during the entire season the Cowboys held a 17 point lead, or greater, exactly 0:00 on the clock. As in zilch. Nada. Zero. Never.

In other words, this was pretty much unknown territory for the Cowboys. Heck, most of the season, Dallas was trying to dig itself out of a hole to start the game, not working with a lead. I don't think you can necessarily read too much into the number of plays called in what has hardly been the normal game situation for Dallas.

What we did see was how Callahan is likely to handle success. Sit back, go conservative, pound the ball, and rely on the defense to keep the other guys from catching up. Which is probably exactly what he would always have done. Or what Garrett would have done, if given the opportunity. If he had an effective running game. And a defense capable of making a stop.

None of that really existed in 2012, particularly in the second half of the year. So the performance in Canton might not tell us what so many thought it did.

But it does show how all the pieces might come together.

  • When Callahan did go to the rushing game, it was effective, with a 5.0 yards/carry average. In the NFL, unless you have a running back named Adrian Peterson, you take that any Sunday of the year. (With Peterson, you would still take that about half the time.) The depth at running back looks really good, and we haven't seen DeMarco Murray yet.
  • Just in case you didn't believe in the value of winning the turnover battle, you ought to be a true believer now. 14 points of the 17-point lead that let Callahan unleash the hounds on the ground came from the two turnovers. Getting an early edge in turnovers is one of the most effective ways to get a big, early lead. Even the most efficient offenses in the league don't often march the length of the field three times while the other team is held scoreless. It does happen rarely. But most of the time, those big margins come through fumbles and interceptions (see, for instance, Dallas at Seattle, last year, when the shoe was on the other foot - the one getting punts blocked, perhaps).
  • It does help to have some faith in the D. Yes, the Dolphins got close - but they had to scratch and claw to do it (not easy when you are a limbless aquatic mammal, but I digress), and they still fell short. As I mentioned in my post on the defensive coaching, the Cowboys forced the Dolphins to four fourth downs in the red zone. They had to convert twice to get the two late touchdowns they did score (one of their field goals was on 4th down at the nine yard line, also). With the backups playing defense, remember, and frequently against players that should have been better, based on depth charts.

This wasn't about how all the games are going to be called by Callahan. This was about how he will use the running game, when it is appropriate and when it is effective. There was no need to force the passing attack, with a couple of backups who weren't exactly lighting the scoreboard up with their arms. Instead, he just had them keep feeding Lance Dunbar, Phillip Tanner, Joseph Randle and Kendial Lawrence. And they were ready to take the ball and able to do what they were asked to do.

The good news is that it looks like going heavy with the run is likely to be much more appropriate and effective this year than it was in 2012. That is based on a small sample size, of course. But it does look good, so far.

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