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Cowboys Running Game: Why Focusing On Numbers Misses The Point

Ever since Dallas saw the defending rushing champion leave for more money, the discussion has centered on whether the Cowboys could possibly replace his huge output. But they don't have to.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since Joseph Randle made his somewhat ill considered "meat left on the bone" comment about DeMarco Murray, there have been many of us that defended him for having only stated the obvious. Just about all of the writers here at BTB knew exactly what he meant, along with many others elsewhere. There were simply many runs where Murray left yards on the field because he picked the wrong running lane or just got run down from behind. Now the same thing has been observed by Sports Illustrated MMQB writer Andy Benoit.

Chip Kelly just spent $21 million in guarantees to bring Murray to Philadelphia because Kelly wants a runner who will just hit the hole. Murray does that—certainly more than LeSean McCoy, anyway. But Murray doesn't do it with nearly the regularity a man of his build and skill set should. Murray's strength is his ability to get square downhill, even off contact. His weakness is in his hips, which are a little stiff, and his feet, which are sometimes too heavy to maintain balance when changing direction. But based on some of the decisions Murray made last season, you wonder if he even knows these things about himself.

The consensus among all of the Randle apologists is that the key to the Dallas running game is not who is carrying the ball. It is the line they are running behind. With Tyron Smith, Ronald Leary, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and Doug Free back this season, plus hole card UDFA La'el Collins, the same running lanes are expected to be there for whoever is carrying the ball for the Cowboys. So it is not impossible that Dallas can replace Murray's 1,845 rushing yards, or duplicate the team total of 2,354.

But the truth is that they don't need to. Dallas' offense does not depend on a dominant running game, although it certainly had one in 2014. What it has to have is an effective running game, and that is not just a matter of racking up yards.

The running game in the NFL can win games, but it more often sets up the pass. It does this by being enough of a threat that the defense cannot discount it. It has to avoid negative plays, and needs to average better than four yards a carry. It needs to be able to convert first downs on the ground when the team is trying to control the ball. It does not have to hit any specific level of output. It just has to produce on the plays the team needs it to. This may be a 200-yard game, or a 100-yard game. As long as the team can win, it does not have to have a target number of yards.

Dallas benefited greatly from a balanced attack last season, and Tony Romo had arguably the best season of his career. He is going to be back, along with all his top receivers. Dallas went to the run sometimes because it had a lead and wanted to grind up the clock. Given how many yards Murray was getting before contact, that should be doable no matter who is carrying the ball. The Dallas zone blocking system is so effective because it does not need a superstar runner. It just needs a back who can see the right hole and hit it with authority. Randle looks to have that. If they can be healthy, so do Darren McFadden and Ryan Williams (although both had some injury issues in the OTAs, not exactly an encouraging sign). But it is not only possible, it is entirely likely that the Cowboys might only rush for a total of 1,800 yards total in 2015, or even less, and still win the division. They don't need to replace Murray or the full production of last year. They just need to be able to run the ball at the right time. Get five or more yards on first down, or really any time you keep it on the ground, and you have an effective running game, whether you rush the ball 15 or 35 times.

The argument that Murray was the key to the success of the 2014 Cowboys does not hold up. He had never shown superstar ability before last season. The big question at this time last year was how much time was he going to miss after not being able to stay on the field for all 16 games his first three campaigns. It almost seemed like the team was determined to get as much out of him before he got injured last year and just kept feeding him the ball. When he did not go out, the carries and the yards just kept adding up, although he did seem to slow down under the workload by December. Had the team put Randle in more in the second half of games with his fresh legs and what appears to be better vision at finding daylight to run to, the team rushing total may have been even higher, at the cost of some yards for Murray. But Dallas stuck with what was working. It was a logical course to take, and it certainly got the job done.

Here is a bold prediction: The Cowboys will defend their division crown and go deeper in the playoffs (no jinxing things here with too bold a claim), and one of the things that will be written about is how no one was able to fill Murray's shoes because they didn't top 1,800 yards. It will completely miss the point. That's what the whole argument about replacing him has done so far.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB

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