Closer Look At The Dallas Cowboys Running Game Situation For 2014 And Beyond

Patrick McDermott

The Cowboys have made some changes to their offensive structure and personnel, but is the running game going to be a case of the more things change, the more they remain the same?

Simmer down young man; this here's a passing league.

It is a passing league, and it becomes more so with every passing year. However, only those that rely on statistical evidence with no regard of game flow will tell you the run game is of no importance. The ability to run where you want, when you want... when vital to sustaining drives, is something that cannot be explained by a run/pass ratio.

Of course, there are going to be people that can quickly trot out certain metrics that look at averages without situational context that prove passing and pass defense show far more of a correlation to winning than successfully running the football does. Those guys are correct, but what they cannot explain with those metrics is the situational effect that running the ball has on being able to pass effectively. The nuance of calling a game will be missed.

A team could skew towards passing on 60% of their snaps; but the success of their offense will be predicated on whether or not they have the confidence in their run game to pound the ball on 3rd and 3 when they need the clock to keep moving, as opposed to risking an incompletion.

And that is the balance that we need to eat up the clock number 1, to protect the ball number 2, to play field position number 3, to allow our defense and our special teams to get back to what they do best... -Emmitt Smith

It is here, in these crucial situations, where Cowboys followers have been disappointed time and time again. It's been a mixture of both inability to run successfully and refusal to call the run; a cyclical relationship. When you are trying to protect a lead, as Dallas was in their depressing, come-from-ahead defeats to Detroit and Green Bay, being able to run successfully is a vital component missing from Dallas' arsenal. First down incomplete passes are a death sentence to a milk-the-clock drive; yet over and over again we watched this happen to Dallas.

It's a valid debate whether rushing the ball, which has a lower average yield, is a better plan than passing for a first down. Obviously if the pass is successful, it will likely be the better play; it's more likely to result in more yardage, which by gaining multiple first downs can keep the clock moving. But the risk/reward ratio jumps to the opposite side when a failed pass stops the clock, or worse, gives the other team the ball on an interception.

My philosophy is, in tight game situations, there are far more bad things that can happen when passing. Incompletions stop the clock and interceptions stop the drive. Sacks are normally far worse than any negative run and the same fumble a running back could have can also be committed by a receiver after the catch. It's a no-brainer for me.

Sure, there is hope that the maturation of Travis Frederick and the addition of Zack Martin inspire more confidence in the run game, but that is hope and speculation. Just as possible are a sophomore slump for the budding star at center or the usual rough start for a rookie at a new position with the right guard.

For the 2014 Dallas Cowboys, I don't expect much change at all to what we've seen in the past, and here's why.

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Somewhere, in the far reaches of the vast internet wasteland, someone created the narrative that Scott Linehan has no problem running the ball when his team has a viable running back option. Somewhere, people must have hidden the evidence, extremely well. Here's a look at Linehan's team's rushing ranks when he was in charge of the offense.

The Linehan Offenses
Total Offense Rushing Off
Year Tm(Role) Top Rusher (Gms) Yds Pts GiveAway Att Yds TD Y/A FL
2002 MIN (OC) Michael Bennett (16) 2 8 31 8 1 1 1 27
2003 MIN (OC) Moe Williams/ Bennett (7 each) 1 6 7 7 4 12 6 13
2004 MIN (OC) Committee 4 6 5 28 18 29 2 5
2005 MIA (OC) Ronnie Brown(14)/Ricky Williams(3) 14 16 20 17 12 17 8 21
2006 STL (HC) Steven Jackson (16) 6 10 3 23 17 14 10 10
2007 STL (HC) Steven Jackson (12) 24 28 29 24 25 32 25 8
2008 (4 gm) STL (HC) Steven Jackson 27 30 27 22 25 30 25 20
2009 DET (OC) Kevin Smith (13) 26 27 32 24 24 22 28 7
2010 DET (OC) Jahvid Best (9)/Maurice Morris (7) 17 15 12 24 23 18 20 9
2011 DET (OC) Committee 5 4 11 31 29 23 13 8
2012 DET (OC) Mikel Leshoure (14) 3 17 27 25 23 6 18 27
2013 DET (OC) Reggie Bush (14) 6 13 30 14 17 10 22 29

One might quickly look at the attempt rankings when Linehan was in Minnesota and become hopeful. They shouldn't.

During his tenure there, the rushing stats were inflated thanks to having Dante Culpepper as a running quarterback that amassed 1,431 yards and 16 touchdowns on 267 attempts over his three years with Scott. To put this in perspective, Tony Romo and his now-questionable back ran 94 times for 275 yards and 3 touchdowns during the most "prolific" rushing years of his career. Suffice to say, he's not duplicating that effort.

Do you have concerns about Scott Linehan's commitment to the running game based on his previous experience? Most definitely. Most definitely. Not to say that he can't make an adjustment, but yeah. -Emmitt Smith

Look at the rush attempt rankings when he had workhorse Steven Jackson as his lead back in St. Louis. The Rams never ranked higher than 22nd under Linehan. Now, of course, the quality of a team and how often they control the action in a game is a direct correlation to how often they can run the ball. Bad teams that are behind have to pass the rock. That always has to be accounted for when looking at volume statistics. Even with this caveat, I still feel very comfortable proclaiming that Linehan likes to run the rock a bit of an urban legend.

What Linehan does do, however, is get his backs involved in the passing game. Last year, both of his backs, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, caught over 50 receptions each. In 2012 Linehan's backs had 96 catches between them. The year prior he had three different backs with at least 20 catches each. Linehan has no problem utilizing the screen, swing and checkdown game in his offense. That should make PPR fantasy owners of DeMarco Murray extremely happy.

Circling back to my original point of how the running game affects the tone of the game, these passes are not the same thing as rush attempts. Think back to some of the things that Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith said to BTB in our exclusive interview with him.

And that is the balance that we need to eat up the clock number 1, to protect the ball number 2, to play field position number 3, to allow our defense and our special teams to get back to what they do best... [...]

That commitment got everybody's mind focused in the direction that we should go. And that clarity just made everything that we worked for in the offseason, in training camp... everyone's mindset was ‘we gonna pass the ball when we have to, we're gonna run the ball when we have to.' At the end of the day, our guys were happy knowing they were gonna fire off on a defensive lineman, rather than playing catch the whole time...

Running the ball is your only chance as an offensive lineman to really fire off, hit somebody in the mouth, and make them feel you. When you pass setting the whole time, they're firing off on you for four quarters. That is not a cool thing to do. You are the receiver. The mentality there is you give your guys a chance to fight back. As long as they pass setting, they can't fight back.

Unless something changes, the Cowboys will continue to face fresh defenses that have dictated to the offensive line throughout the course of the game. When the fourth quarter stretch comes, and the offensive linemen are exhausted because they've been "catching" the brunt of the DL's energy all game, there will continue to be a lack of faith and effort in the run game.

While we're talking about using the run to wear down defenses; don't think that this is lost on the rest of the league. Quiet as kept, in this league of high octane offenses, several of the top teams are expected to be run-oriented in 2014.

There are seven of the twelve 2013 playoff teams in that group, and the last two world champions are going to try and protect the ball and take intelligent shots as opposed to focusing on the pass game. The Cowboys have a quarterback with a back issue and one of the worst defenses in the league that has now lost it's three best players.

Not only that, Dallas has a litany of offensive weapons that would stand to benefit from the defense having to be preoccupied with stopping the run.

I'm not saying, I'm just saying.

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Once the 2013 season ended, the Dallas Cowboys running game situation may have looked relatively clear to the casual observer. DeMarco Murray had just turned in his best season as a professional, running at a 5.2 yard per carry clip and becoming the first Cowboys back to surpass 1,000 yards since Julius Jones in 2006. He was backed up by jitterbug back Lance Dunbar, who had shown brief flashes of breakaway ability but was hampered by multiple injuries and a propensity for fumbling dating back to the preseason. Third-string back Joseph Randle was seen to have a similar skill-set as Murray, but had yet to prove himself on the field in any substantial way.

The Cowboys, however, seemed to remain allergic to running the rock, despite their apparent success in doing so. It took until the last quarter of the season for the team to look to include Dunbar's change-of-pace nature, and he was injured in his first game of heavy action. The following game, Randle had his finest game, but his carries came when the team was down multiple scores to a porous Chicago defense.

Murray was seldom used himself on occasion, with several games where his total carries left fans scratching their heads as to the offensive game plan initiated by head coach Jason Garrett. Sure, the overall results of the offense were adequate, but by no means could you consider the total impact a weapon for this team.

Just look at the stats in the run game versus their run defense. Dallas averaged less than 100 yards a game rushing, amassing only 1,504 yards over the entire season. They gave up over 2,000 yards on the ground. More to the point, however, was the rushing attempts. Dallas averaged 4.5 yards a carry but only toted the rock 336 times.By comparison, opponents only ran the ball at a 4.7 yards a carry clip, but toted the rock over 100 times more on the season.

For a team that both won and lost games in every way imaginable on their way to a .500 record; you'd think they would generally have the same opportunities to ice a lead, milk the clock and get that crucial first down. Regardless of that, Dallas still ran far fewer times than their opponents.

If Dallas' offensive brain-trust should somehow realize all of this as they plan their 2014 attack, it appears they have plenty of talent in the fold to execute a greater emphasis on the run game. Added to the fold of Murray, Dunbar and Randle is a very interesting prospect in Ryan Williams. The Cowboys worked out Williams during the rookie minicamp and signed him immediately.

With Williams strange history while in Arizona, I looked to a sharp mind that focuses on all-things Arizona for some additional insight into why the former second-round pick was available. Shaun Church of Revenge of the Birds (@Church_NFL on twitter, give him a follow) chimed in.

You'll notice immediately that Ryan Williams is as shifty as just about any back in the league. His change-of-direction ability, acceleration and vision are reasons why many thought the former second-round pick could start over Beanie Wells as a rookie-it takes only a few steps for Williams to be at full speed.

Injuries are the obvious concern. But beyond that, some questioned his competitiveness and drive after he removed himself from practice last July complaining of knee pain-this after being cleared by Arizona's medical staff to resume full football activities. It's assumed that is the reason Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians kept him as a healthy scratch for all 16 games in 2013, though that has never been-and likely will never be-confirmed by anyone.

If he can stay healthy and is not afraid of a few bumps, bruises and every-day pain that comes with being a football player, Williams could compete for backup duty early with the Cowboys. If he develops into the back he has the potential to be, he could end up being the reason Jerry Jones opts not to extend DeMarco Murray, who will end up costing far more than Williams next season.

Shaun brings up a great point that has never been lost on the BTB community. Murray is a free agent next year, and in the NFL, it just doesn't make much sense to be the team that gives the inflated second contract to running backs. With the speed that Dallas signed Williams, one could easily envision him getting a very fair shot at proving to be the back Dallas wants to keep heading into 2015. I fully expect Lance Dunbar to thrive in Linehan's system, but none of what I'd consider the top three running backs have any idea what it's like to remain healthy. Murray has proven his worth, but if Williams and Dunbar do the same in 2014, that could be a much cheaper option for the Cowboys who could throw another draft pick at the position next April.

The biggest question still remains, though... is how much of an opportunity any of these guys will get to prove their worth.

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