With Bill Callahan taking over the offensive play calling duties for the Dallas Cowboys, many fans and observers anticipated that he would be placing a greater emphasis on the running game. However, in the opening game against the New York Giants, the Cowboys only rushed 23 times out of 74 offensive snaps (not counting plays that were called back due to penalty). That's just 31% running plays. Sadly, it looks like the same old story for the Cowboys, with an ineffective ground game putting pressure on Tony Romo to get it done through the air.
At this point, I would like to remind the reader that there are three types of falsehoods: Lies, damnable lies, and statistics. And in this case, there are some other numbers besides that 31% that indicate that the Cowboys may have more going for it in the ground game than you might think.
I want to put out a definition of sorts to start with. An effective NFL ground game is not judged by how many yards it accumulates, but on how well it contributes to getting the job done, i.e., does it remain a credible enough threat that the opposing defense cannot disregard it and focus entirely on shutting down the passing game?
That is, I will submit, the main function for the run with the majority of NFL teams. There are very few that rely primarily on rushing the ball to win games, because it is now a passing league, and there are not very many Adrian Peterson type backs out there. And I think the Cowboys got exactly what they needed out of DeMarco Murray in beating the Giants.
To counter what I think is a misleading statistic, I'll throw up some counter-stats. First, 4.3 YPC. That was what Murray averaged against the Giants. He was effectively the only running back for the Cowboys, with Phillip Tanner officially credited with one carry for two yards. He was not given any more opportunities after he put the ball on the ground, albeit while fighting for extra yards. (I also believe Gavin Escobar jumped on the ball to save the situation for Dallas, which was one way he was contributing that did not show up in the stats.) 4.3 YPC is a good, solid number, good enough to grind out a first down. When Murray is running like that, the opponents have to account for him, or Callahan is liable to just feed him the ball and eat up yards and clock when he gets a lead.
The next number to consider: 87 vs. 50. That is the total yards for the Cowboys and the Giants. The fact is, the Giants did give up on running the ball to a large degree, only making 14 attempts all night, versus 21 by Dallas (plus two scrambles by Tony Romo that were not rushing attempts per se). Partly, it was because David Wilson lost the ball twice, and also because they were down by as much as 17 points late in the third quarter. And it must be admitted, they were very effective through the air when Eli Manning remembered which color jersey to throw to. Dallas, with the advantage of playing from a lead for most of the game (remember, the Cowboys never trailed, a departure from every single game last year) was able to stick with the running game, and actually was in a position to prefer running down the clock.
Next is the number 5. That is the number next to DeMarco Murray's name when you go to ProFootballFocus and look at the rank order of running backs in the NFL. He had the fifth highest ranking in the league. Now, this does not just reflect the effectiveness of a runner in gaining yards, but also looks at the player's entire contribution, including receiving and pass blocking. Murray was very good in those aspects, which was where he got most of his positive score from PFF. To get a more accurate read on his running requires looking at just the yards gained as a rusher, and in that list, Murray ranks . . . fifth in the NFL.
That's right. Only four running backs accumulated more yards on the ground than Murray for the opening weekend. (Oakland QB Terrelle Pryor also had more yards, so technically Murray is sixth if you count all positions.) How many realized that Murray had that good a day? But if you look at it, 86 yards a game would be 1,376 yards if he could do that every week. I don't think too many would complain about that kind of performance on the season.
And if you think that this is an inaccurate assessment on PFF's part, consider this:
Also, PFF does a unique thing called the elusiveness rating, which essentially measures how well they think a back can avoid tacklers in space. And Murray is their third ranked back on this scale, behind LeSean McCoy and Adrian Peterson.
As a team, the Cowboys did not rank so highly in rushing, since other teams often have multiple backs with significant carries. Still, Dallas was fifteenth in the league, or just better than the median. (As a contrast, the Giants were 29th.)
It is really just more evidence of what I mentioned already, that this is a passing league. And as long as the running game is effective enough to demand respect from the defense, it is doing the job. That means that a team does not even have to get 100 yards a game rushing to consider that part of the offense a success. Based on one week's evidence, the Cowboys have the effective rushing game they need. After all, it helped them win the game both directly and indirectly.
Finally, don't forget that Lance Dunbar was out, and Joseph Randle was a healthy scratch, so the Cowboys may be improved once they become a part of the equation. And we will always take better.