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Jason Garrett's Back To The Future Running Game

It's an old fashioned approach, but it could be a key to the Cowboys' future.
It's an old fashioned approach, but it could be a key to the Cowboys' future.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Maybe you have heard that saying. Here is another aged chestnut for you: There is nothing new under the sun. One more: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

If you are worried that I have been hitting the 18-year-old single-malt Kook Aid a little too hard and have just started rambling, let me explain my point. The NFL is not a place for major innovation. It is a league of slow evolution, not rapid revolution. Oh, every now and then something will come along and get everyone all fired up, like very athletic (read: running) quarterbacks and the wildcat formation. But shortly, things get back to normal, and, like this past season, we see a fairly traditional, drop back passer hoisting yet another Super Bowl MVP trophy. Speaking (somewhat sarcastically) of that guy, if you look at the full list of "elite" quarterbacks in the NFL today, no matter which pundit drew it up, you see all of them largely fit that mode, with the issue of mobility being a concern for evading oncoming linebackers and defensive ends, not taking off and gaining yards with their legs as part of the game plan.

The NFL is a passing league, and has been for decades now. It started to become that back in the 1960s. One of the driving forces behind it (and one of the last true innovators in the NFL) was the original head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, Tom Landry. In a league that for years was dominated by the "three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust" mentality, in a decade dominated by the Green Bay Packers and their trademark power sweep, he put the fastest human being on earth, Bob Hayes, out as a wide receiver, and changed the game forever.

Now, it is all about passing. A team with a reasonably dominant running game is a rarity, almost an aberration, in the 21st century NFL. It was partly this, I think, that allowed the Cowboys to sign free agent Lawrence Vickers from the Houston Texans. The Texans did not think he was worth the money he would cost. After all, a lead fullback is an anachronism for a 2012 NFL team.

So why did the Cowboys sign him? And why do many fans, including me, think he may be one of the most important new players for the team this year? How does that work in a league dominated by the passing game?

It's all in those chestnuts, my friends.

Find out if I get less cryptic after the jump.

When you start winning in the NFL, pretty soon there are many teams trying to duplicate your success. When Green Bay was winning with the power sweep, most of the teams were concerned about finding stellar running backs and putting pulling linemen in front of them to lead the way. When Tom Landry started stretching the field with Don Meredith and Bob Hayes, people started looking for lightening fast receivers and rifle-armed quarterbacks. When the west coast offense went more to a ball control short passing game, it was all the rage on every coast and in all the landlocked cities as well. When teams started using faster tight ends more as deep receivers and winning games, the traditional tight end who could serve as a third tackle as well as catch the football almost vanished. When Michael Vick started winning games in Atlanta by taking off and running, there was a sudden interest in quarterbacks who could do the same. When teams like the Carolina Panthers and Miami Dolphins started having success with the wildcat, every team seemed to put a version into their playbooks.

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But those last two developments were not trends, just fads. No, the one long term-trend that has withstood the test of time in the NFL is the forward pass. There has been a bit of a cyclical swing from the deep ball to the shorter passes, but that has been as much a function of the personnel involved on various teams over time and the adjustments by defenses in the never ending chess game between opposing coaches. And while coaching and a seeming trend of always improving quarterbacks and bigger, faster receivers played their part, the league took notice of an apparent correlation between throwing the ball and television ratings. A deep pass is much more dramatic and exciting for the viewer, especially the casual one who doesn't appreciate a pancake block or getting a first down with second and third effort as much as the more informed fan. No, throwing the ball downfield meant more people tuned in. Which meant higher ad rates for the networks, and increasingly lucrative contracts. As a result, the rules of the NFL have increasingly favored the passer and receiver, protecting the quarterback to the point some old time players suggest they wear a dress, and reducing downfield contact greatly.

After years of this evolution, we see an NFL where yearly passing statistics seem to climb every season, where players like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady do absurdly ridiculous things on the football field, and where for most teams, the running game seems just an afterthought.

So is Jason Garrett crazy? He has what seems a totally out of date view of the running game. In addition to bringing in Vickers, he spent a third round draft pick on DeMarco Murray in 2011. What could his possible reasoning be?

Well, there are cycles. Things fade for a while, but the good ideas keep coming back. If everybody is doing things the same way, a contrary move may pay off big. That was what happened initially with the running quarterbacks and the wildcat. They had some quick success - until defensive adjustments were made, and then they became more oddities and an occasional change of pace move, rather than a consistent approach. The passing game continues to work, aided by the rules, so that is what teams concentrate on, both offensively and defensively.

Garrett, however, is familiar with another very successful model. One that was not a fad, but the foundation for one of the great football dynasties. He played (well, stood on the sidelines, mostly) for the Dallas Cowboys during the golden age of the Triplets. Troy Aikman, quarterback. Michael Irvin, receiver. And Emmitt Smith - the all time leading rushing back in NFL history.

The domination of the passing game was largely in effect in the 1990s. But the Dallas Cowboys managed to dominate the league with a balanced attack, where the running game was just as important as the passing game.

Garrett saw how that worked from the inside. And today, I think he sees teams that focus on covering the receivers and putting pressure on the quarterback - and maybe don't have as much ability to shut down a running game.

In any competitive situation, business, politics, warfare, or sports, you always look for a weakness to exploit in your opponent. I think Jason Garrett sees a running game as a way to make all parts of his offense better. And he likes the traditional blocking fullback as part of his scheme. I suspect it is because most teams don't face that very often, which means they are not going to handle things as well. He almost had things going last year. Tony Fiammetta came in after the start the season, when things had not gone so well with the rushing attack. Behind him, DeMarco Murray exploded. But Fiammetta could not stay healthy with his inner ear issues, Murray went down with a broken ankle, Felix Jones had shoulder issues, Phillip Tanner was hurt, and the team had to depend on Sammy Morris to get through the end of the season. While the problems with the running game are hardly the only reason for the late season slump, they certainly seem to have happened on a timeline that fits very well with the fading of the team.

A good running game can have many other synergistic effects. It gives the team more options in the red zone. With only five rushing touchdowns in 2011, Dallas hardly worried opposing defensive coordinators with their ability to pound the ball into the end zone. Being one dimensional is never a good thing. An effective running game can do a lot to slow down a pass rush as well. If you are a little concerned about the ability of, say, your interior offensive linemen to keep your quarterback upright, then making those rushers up the middle have to account for Murray first is another way to protect the quarterback. (A really good lead fullback can also be a really good pass protector, as well.) It can force the opponent to bring a safety up to keep the runner from moving the ball in 8 and 10 yard chunks, which then makes the wideouts harder to cover.

This is what Garrett watched for years. It is what I think he was trying for last year, and for a few games he got very close before injuries and/or illness disrupted his plan. He does not have the triplets to work with, but at receiver, with Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, he has two potential standouts that may be as good a pair as any duo Aikman ever had. No one can match Emmitt Smith, but with Murray and Felix Jones, Garrett has a strength and speed combination that may give him something roughly equivalent. Romo has shown some tremendous skills, and for now, he has a true, classic tight end in Jason Witten that is the best to ever wear the Star. While I will never claim Lawrence Vickers is the next Daryl Johnston, he does seem to be about as good a fullback as the league has seen in years. For that matter, new guard Nate Livings may have been brought in as much for his possible contributions to the run game as anything, if I have read some reports on him correctly. Get that running game going, and then suddenly you see Romo lighting it up through the air as the pass rush slows and the coverage loosens. And if they stay focused on stopping the pass, just run it all the way to the end zone.

NFL teams are not used to seeing a truly balanced attack very often. It is all about the pass in most contests. If Garrett can get this thing to come together, he may have found that weakness to exploit. And if he does, if he has some significant success, then you know many other teams in the NFL will be looking to the Cowboys for a model.

The more things change . . .


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