The Dallas Cowboys are resting and healing during the bye week with a 7-3 record. That puts them in the best position to get into the playoffs since the 2009 season. The late bye seems to be just about ideally placed for the team, although they have a grueling stretch of three games in just twelve days, including having to go from a Sunday night game at the New York Giants to the Thanksgiving Day game hosting the Philadelphia Eagles. They will need all the rest and healing they can manage before the final six games of the season, although the team is fortunate to be dealing with relatively few injuries for this time of the season.
The bye week also gives the coaching staff a chance to make some adjustments. Given the success the team has had, there are not likely to be a lot of changes in the approach the team takes. It is clear that Tony Romo is vital to winning, that the offensive line is one of the absolute best in the league, that Dez Bryant is going to earn a lot of money in the near future, and that the defense is playing a lot better than almost anyone could have imagined.
Bigger than all those things, however, is the year that DeMarco Murray is having. He leads the league by a staggering 411 yards rushing (although with one more game played than most other backs). On a per game basis, he has a 21.5 yard/game advantage - and the number two running back in the league, Arian Foster, is out with an injury in week 11.
But in order to achieve the 1,233 total yards he has amassed, he has had to carry the ball 244 times already this season. The heavy workload has been a source of concern for many fans and media, although the coaching staff has not seemed unduly alarmed. However, his injury history makes questions about whether the load should be reduced unavoidable.
And recent games indicate that the Cowboys may be dialing back his responsibilities a bit. After averaging 26.7 carries for the first seven games of the season, he has carried the ball exactly 19 times in each of the last three. Two of those were the losses to Washington and the Arizona Cardinals, which saw his streak of consecutive games with over 100 yards come to an end, but the most recent game against the Jacksonville Jaguars saw him get back to the century mark - and provide a blueprint for the team to utilize him at the somewhat reduced level while still maintaining the rushing attack that has been such a major part of the team's success.
That blueprint is based mostly on giving more carries to backup running back Joseph Randle. He had his best game of the season in London, carrying the ball seven times for 56 yards, including the 40-yard touchdown dash in the third quarter that effectively put the game out of reach for the Jaguars.
As that one run showed, he is a talented back in his own right, and the Cowboys lead the way with what may be best run blocking of any NFL team. This includes not just the first-round-pick-laden line, but also tight ends and wide receivers that have done an outstanding job all season. Randle has one of the highest yards per carry averages among running backs in the NFL at 6.9. None of the backs who have a higher average has nearly as many carries as he does, either. (Only quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Ryan Tannehill have more carries with a higher average gain per attempt.)
If the Cowboys can keep a similar distribution of carries while maintaining the combined production at over 150 yards a game, the chance of having Murray make it through his first complete NFL season would appear to be increased. It of course challenges the meme about whether or not he gets 20 carries a game being the most important single factor in determining whether Dallas wins, but the coaches seem remarkably unimpressed by that particular statistic.
There also seems to be little question that having Randle come into the game as a fresh set of legs is in itself an effective tactic. After having used him sparingly while Murray was racking up the carries early in the season, the coaching staff may be ready to increase his role in hopes of getting more of those 50+ yards a game performances. Given the way Randle jeopardized his career with the infamous undies and cologne caper, it is understandable that there may have been some hesitation to give him a bigger part to play. But the season is down to the stretch run now. There are six games left for the Cowboys. Dallas needs to win at least three to make sure the have a good shot at making the playoffs, and four would just about be a guarantee. Randle may have been a total fool and complete jerk in shoplifting items for no discernible reason, but now his ability on the field is needed.
The coaching staff may revert to putting more of the load on Murray's shoulders as the season winds down, but that would be a bit surprising. It seems more likely they would try to keep Murray healthy, give him a little more rest in the games, and use Randle to do what he does best.
We'll know soon enough.