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Cowboys Running Game: Used Too Little Or Used Ineffectively?

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The Cowboys running game; does it need to be used more?
The Cowboys running game; does it need to be used more?

Throughout Jason Garrett's tenure as the Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator, much was made of his penchant for the passing game. Various reasons have been put forth as to why it's so. 1) That's where the Cowboys strength is with Tony Romo and a bevy of talented receivers. 2) The Cowboys offensive line is a better pass-blocking unit than run-blocking unit. 3) It's just a product of the NFL now being a passing league. 4) As a former QB himself, Garrett naturally gravitated to giving that position the responsibility of carrying a team. There are probably bits of truths in most of those statements.

Another way to analyze it is through statistics to find out when, and how much, the Cowboys actually passed the ball as compared to handing it off to the backfield. Even when you do that, you run into the issue of some passes actually being running plays, think of screen passes or short hitches or slants, etc.

Over at ESPN, Dan Graziano authored a piece suggesting that the Cowboys need to get back to running the ball more. The crux of his argument is that the Cowboys don't necessarily have to commit to a feature back, they can still use the running-back-by-committee approach, but that their overall rushing attempts need to go up. He cites last season as evidence.

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In the first eight games of the 2010 season, with Wade Phillips as their head coach, the Cowboys ran the ball 169 times and threw 326 passes. In Garrett's eight games as head coach, the Cowboys had 259 rush attempts and 250 pass attempts. Because Romo wasn't there? Sure, maybe. But it worked. They were 4-0 in games in which they had more run plays than pass plays (all four under Garrett). You don't need me to do the math to tell you that means they were 2-10 when they passed more than they ran.

At first glance, that seems reasonable enough. But as we've learned the last few years, simple statistics can be misleading.

You have to apply the common-sense factor. If you're behind in a game, you're naturally going to pass a lot more. In 2010, through the first eight games, the Cowboys were behind, a lot. In six of their first eight games under Wade Phillips, Dallas was trailing at halftime. In a few of those games they trailed by significant margins. Under Jason Garrett, the Cowboys were behind at halftime in four games, ahead in three games and tied in the other. That's a much better ratio and allows an offense to stick with the running game longer.

Also, you have to look at the running game disguised as a passing game. Pro Football Focus calculates the Cowboys, over the past three years, have passed 59% of the time against 41% rushing. But they also point out that Felix Jones has become a real weapon in the passing game, his catch totals have been increasing along with his yards each year. Last year, Jones was particularly effective in the "passing game", catching 48 passes for 450 yards. Many of those passes are just running plays in disguise.

Finally, refer back to an excellent series by our own OCC earlier this year. In it, he broke down the comparison of the offensive line's run-blocking in the Phillips games of 2010 and the Garrett games. What he found by looking at some of the advanced stats was that the run-blocking by the Cowboys line was much better in the second half of the season. Don't forget that Garrett instituted the practice-in-pads rule on Wednesdays, and almost universally the players and coaches said this gave the Cowboys more physicality in the running game. So under Phillips, the run was partly being abandoned because the blocking was ineffective.

You could go on and on breaking down the Cowboys run game stats vs. passing game stats. I think Graziano's point is still valid to some extent. The Cowboys offense relies on the pass a lot, and this can have unintended consequences. It can expose your QB to more danger, it can lead to more turnovers, it can lead to quick possessions which in turn lead to the defense being put on the field too often, too quickly.

But the Cowboys offense hasn't really been the problem overall, where they really struggle is in short-yardage runs and in the redzone. They eat up plenty of yards, but their points per yard totals over the last few years haven't matched up to what you'd expect. This where a strong running game can really help. Or at least a running game disguised as a passing game. 

Maybe DeMarco Murray is a guy who can help. Marion Barber used to be the guy you could count on for the tough yards around the goal line, but his touchdown numbers have been decreasing rapidly, as has his short-yardage ability. If the Cowboys can't just smashmouth the ball into endzone, then maybe versatility out of the backfield will help. Maybe that's what they have in mind for Murray. When asked how the Cowboys plan to use him, Murray said:

"They told me they wanted to use me in a lot of ways, just like Oklahoma did. Whether it be slot, outside receiver, special teams. They're definitely going to use me and put me in great positions to make plays."