At some point in the season the answer to the big offseason question, "was it DeMarco Murray or was it the offensive line" will be revealed.
The Cowboys running attack turned a big corner in 2014 as the team showed great improvement over the last three seasons:
|Year||YPC (rank)||Attempts (rank)||Yards (rank)|
|2012||3.6 (30)||355 (31)||1,265 (31)|
|2013||4.5 (8)||336 (31)||1,504 (24)|
|2014||4.6 (3)||508 (3)||2,354 (2)|
In 2012, Dallas didn’t run the ball well and didn’t run it very much.
In 2013, Dallas ran it well, but didn’t run it very much.
In 2014, Dallas ran it well and ran it often.
You can point to your favorite reason as to why the Cowboys have now established themselves as a premiere running team in this league. But why choose? Dallas has been committed to improving several aspects of their offense to get to this point. And it all starts with…
The Offensive Line
The Cowboys have three Pro Bowl offensive linemen. It’s taken some time, but the foundation is in place. These guys are young, they’re hard-working, but most importantly – they are just so great at blocking evil do’ers. And with a blue-chip prospect joining the group, the non-Pro Bowlers will have some added motivation as they try to build upon their quality play last season. This is a very physical and disciplined offensive line. They’re not going to just wake up in 2015 and suddenly stop pushing defenders off the line of scrimmage.
Many Cowboys fans have been telling people for years that if Romo just had a running game surrounding him, he’d make the team a winner. Looks like those fans were right. Last year Romo got his running game and right on cue – he led them to victory. Leading the league in passing rating (113.2) and completion percentage (69%) are two great indicators that he threw the ball very well. He didn’t have to put the offense on his shoulders, but that didn’t mean he stopped being Romo. He still threw for 34 TDs, which was the second highest total in his career. He didn’t turn into a conservative, game manager who dinks and dunks. In fact, after seeing his yards per attempt drop for two consecutive years, Romo came back strong and led the league with 8.6 yards per attempt. Tony is still the playmaking QB he’s always been.
Assortment of Weapons
When Romo is going through his progressions looking for a receiver, I often imagine it is like Bruce Willis in the movie Pulp Fiction when he perusing through the pawnshop contemplating which weapon he wants. It doesn’t matter what he chooses, Zed’s in trouble.
However you slice it, Romo has a lot of great options to choose from. And he's made great choices, maximizing the use of his options last season. It is surprising that between Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, and Gavin Escobar – not a single one of them caught more passes in 2014 than they had the prior season. But what is astonishing is that every single one of them had more touchdowns than they had the prior season. Even though Tony threw 100 fewer passes in 2014 than he did in 2013, he still found the end zone more.
Defenses are going to be on their heels because they have to be concerned about so many different offensive threats. Dallas has demonstrated that they can take advantage of those situations.
The 10-time Pro Bowl tight end has sacrificed his high receiving targets for more blocking assignments. Witten had only 64 catches in 2014. The only time in his 12-year career that he’s had fewer catches was his rookie season where he only started seven games.
There was a time where the three-cone shuttle speed of Hanna made him an intriguing space tight end option. Those days are gone. He doesn’t catch passes. In fact, Romo doesn’t even look for him. Hanna’s first catch of 2014 didn’t come until week 8 against the Arizona Cardinals and that was only because Brandon Weeden was at quarterback. But Hanna’s job isn’t to catch passes. His job is to block. He now uses his quickness to get into his blocks and he has developed the physical ability to sustain them.
The addition of rookie tight end, Geoff Swaim doesn’t bring into question Hanna’s importance to the team, but rather validates it. A strong blocking TE is a big deal. Hanna played in 31% of the team’s offensive snaps last season so it’s critical to maintain that contribution.
The Running Backs
The offensive line opens up the holes, but the running back has got to find them. And DeMarco Murray knew how to find them. It is uncertain how well either Joseph Randle or Darren McFadden will do finding the running lanes, but there are a couple things that indicate they'll do just fine.
It has been assumed by some fans that the talent gap between 1,800 yard All-Pro back, DeMarco Murray and discount shopper, Joseph Randle, is significant. But is it? Here are the rushing leaders over the last ten years:
DeMarco Murray has the lowest yards per carry than any running back on this list. Is it possible that Murray’s big 2014 performance could be attributed to him being just a volume runner? Don’t get me wrong – it’s a credit to Murray’s durability to be out there grinding it out for 392 carries, but is this productivity a reflection of his skill set?
Murray did a great job developing his craft as a running back, but that doesn’t mean someone else can’t as well. The key is still going to be effectively reading the blocks and seeking out the running lanes. Dallas will throw some different runners out there, looking for the best one and there stands a good chance that they’ll fall short of being the same dirty runner as Murray. But it won’t matter. They’ll be solid and occasionally they’ll break out big runs. But most assuredly, they'll keep running the ball.
The Big Play Threat
In 2013, the Cowboys were 26th in the league with a third down efficiency of 35%. Last year, they finished 2nd in the league at 47.3%. In typical Jason Garrett fashion, the Cowboys took something they were dreadful at, and fixed it.
One of the reasons the Cowboys were so good on third down was because of the success they had on first down. Dallas led the league in first down efficiency with 7.04 yards a play. Here is how well the team has improved over the last three seasons:
|Year||Rush YPP (rank)||Pass YPP (rank)||Overall YPP (rank)|
|2012||4.26 (32)||6.92 (11)||5.80 (25)|
|2013||6.04 (10)||6.61 (15)||6.35 (11)|
|2014||6.33 (6)||8.76 (1)||7.04 (1)|
It is remarkable to see the improvement the offense has had over the last few seasons on first down, but what is interesting is how the rushing and passing yards break down. There wasn’t much of an improvement in rushing yards per play on first down from 2013 to 2014, so the first down running of DeMarco Murray didn't change much. However, there is a huge jump when the team passes the ball. The Cowboys may not throw the ball very much on first down, but when they do – it’s very effective. As defenses become lulled into focusing on the run, they become vulnerable to big passing plays. And Romo is exposing them.
The Dallas offense still has the tools in place to sustain a strong running game. And it’s not going to take a perennial superstar running back to achieve it. A solid runner is just one piece to the Cowboys success. And there are a lot more pieces still wearing the Star.