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Cowboys Running Backs Better Get Used To Running AND Receiving The Ball

The Cowboys will be using their running backs in multiple ways this season.

Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

The Cowboys did a decent job of running the ball last year. DeMarco Murray put together some wonderful numbers, but the feeling is the Cowboys could have relied on the running game even more than they did. Especially when it came to salting away a few leads in the second half of games. With the addition of Zack Martin on the offensive line, there is the thought that Dallas could control games by running the ball. But, with Scott Linehan now running the offense, there is serious doubt about how much he'll commit to the run. Out own KD posted an exhaustive look at Linehan's tendencies, and they point to passing the ball.

The good news for the running backs? Linehan likes to pass the ball to his running backs. Both DeMarco Murray and Lance Dunbar are good in space and both catch the ball well. So while their rushing numbers may not explode, their yards and pass-catching stats might. Linehan is already displaying this tendency.

I have had two opportunities to observe a practice with Scott Linehan as the primary play caller. He is big on putting running backs in the formation as receivers. He is not afraid to put a running back out wide near the sideline or in the slot. One of the strengths of this running back position is their ability to catch the ball in space. There were times during his college career where DeMarco Murray was lined up as a receiver and had the ball thrown in his direction on the outside. As we work through these OTA practices and minicamps, Linehan will be able to add a wrinkle here and there to this offense and this is one of those opportunities.

Linehan views short passes to the running backs as extensions of the running game.

Now enter Scott Linehan, the Cowboys’ play-caller who doubles as the team’s passing game coordinator. The second title is telling because it reveals much about his natural tendencies as a coach. Linehan, after all, likes to throw the ball. Between 2009 and 2013, when Linehan directed Detroit’s offense, no NFL club attempted more passes than the Lions. During that period, the running game became an underutilized branch in Detroit’s attack. Never was that more apparent than in the 2012 season, when the Lions had the lowest percentage of carries in the league.

"We threw it a lot in Detroit, but a lot of our passing game was designed to be a lot of what we didn’t feel we had in the running game," Linehan said.

So the question is will Linehan feel comfortable handing it off to DeMarco Murray; does he feel the Cowboys "have it" in the running game? Or will he utilize the "pass as run" philosophy? DeMarco Murray has already made it clear that he doesn't care how he is used as long as the team is winning.

"DeMarco has always been a hard runner," guard Mackenzy Bernadeau said. "He runs his behind off. He’s good at making the reads and making the cuts. Getting a repetition of the plays, knowing how we’re going to block the scheme, knowing what to look for when he’s making his cuts and reads, it just took time. It takes time."

"The times we have success, I think everybody was doing their job," Murray said. "It’s all about being on the same page and trusting technique and trusting coaches."

Murray hopes, in turn, his superiors believe enough in him that they feel he has what it takes to shoulder the load and deliver victories just as Romo is expected to do. Linehan says he has confidence the Cowboys’ top running back is capable of that. "Murray can do it," he said.

A healthy Lance Dunbar would provide another option in the passing game, resembling a player that Linehan had in Detroit.

"Yeah I think [Dunbar's] got some of those kind of traits [like Reggie Bush]. He’s got ability in space to make plays," Linehan said. "These guys grow up in these systems in college where people spread people out. They put these guys in the game that can run it and catch it."

Dunbar not only is back practicing again, but seems heavily involved in offensive packages with the first-team units. During Monday’s OTA practice, Dunbar lined up in three different spots on three different plays, from the tailback spot, to the slot receiver to a wide out position, where he caught a receiver screen.

"He’s shown me a nice feel for the game as a runner and a guy who can do some nice things as a receiver, too."

Running or catching the ball, the Cowboys running backs will be busy in 2014.

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