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The 2015 Cowboys Running Game Has Same Task As The 2014 Defense: Just Be Good Enough

A drop off is almost inevitable, but it is hardly a crippling problem.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

If you haven't noticed, someone around here takes great delight in keeping alive the memory of how negatively the Dallas Cowboys were viewed at this time last year. All snark aside, there were several things the Cowboys had to do last season to improve on the string of 8-8 finishes. It actually is a bit understandable why there was doubt the team could accomplish all of them. A couple of major ones were keeping Tony Romo healthy and finally utilizing the running game effectively. Those were accomplished through a combination of the much improved job Scott Linehan did as offensive play caller and de facto coordinator, combined with the steady growth of the offensive line. But the really big one was for the defense to move from being among the dregs in 2013 to a modicum of respectability. As with the role Linehan played, Rod Marinelli was masterful in moving his charges into the middle of the pack, which combined with the stellar offensive performances to vault Dallas into the upper echelon of the league.

While the overall challenge for the team has changed somewhat now that they are defending their division crown, there are some parallels between last year and now. The team has lost star-level talent, leaving important questions that must be answered. It is still understandable that there is some doubt about how well the team can do this. But given the way that the challenges were met and the continuity of the staff, it is well within the team's ability to do so again.

The big issue now is of course how to replace the stunning production of DeMarco Murray. The defense still has a lot of room for improvement, but the many steps taken in free agency and the draft offer reason to expect that it can. A group of returning players who show promise of better play also enter into this. What happens at running back is the big uncertainty.

There are some valid comparisons to be made between this year's situation in the running game and the overall status of the defense a year ago. While the team is now tasked with replacing one back who had a truly stellar year, the 2014 defense was down three true stars from the previous season. DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, the two best pass rushers from 2013, had departed, and the best linebacker on the team, Sean Lee, was out with injury. In both years the team took some steps to replace the production lost, but there are legitimate questions about how effective those steps would be. 2014's addition of DeMarcus Lawrence (who would miss much of the season) and Anthony Hitchens through the draft and the free agent signings of players like Jeremy Mincey, Terrell McClain, and Rolando McClain did not fill many with confidence. Henry Melton was the one big free agent signing, and his injury history was also a major concern that did turn out to have some justification. This year's acquisition of Darren McFadden and declining to make what the team considered a reach in the draft is similarly viewed with skepticism. Relying on Joseph Randle, who has limited experience on the field and a propensity for boneheaded behavior off it, has its own risks. With Ryan Williams and Lache Seastrunk the only other candidates available (Lance Dunbar is seen as strictly a change of pace and third down specialist), the team is taking a calculated risk. They are banking on Linehan, the offensive line, and the potent passing game to work together with the running backs to get it done.

The interplay of the different aspects of the offense are important, because it does not have to be at all the same as last season for the Cowboys to score points and control the clock. Those factors aided the defense last year as well. Looking at just one aspect of a team fails to take into account that it is the mix of things that leads to success or failure. Outside of the running backs, it can be argued that every part of the team is stronger or at least just as good as it was in 2014. Other improvements can make a regression in the ground game manageable, as long as it is not too severe. During last year's preseason, the argument was made several times, including here, that the defense didn't have to be great. It just needed to be good enough. That is the situation for the running game now. It just has to be good enough. The team doesn't need a back to average over 100 yards a game the way Murray did. It does need the total rushing yards to be around the 100 yard mark consistently, and to have a good average gain on first and second downs when the run play is called. That is what we need to see from Randle and company. If they do more, it just improves the situation, but the key is fulfilling the role of the ground game.

With Romo in the best health in years and a happy and motivated Dez Bryant leading a strong contingent of receivers, the runners don't have to carry the load the way Murray did in many games. No one expected him to going into 2014. It was a situation that developed as the season progressed and he began racking up those 100 yard performances. The team wisely went with what was working. (Say those last six words five times really fast.) This season the pendulum will likely swing back to the passing game. Given what Dallas has to work with there, it is not exactly a terrible thing. And where in 2014 the offense helped protect the defense, this year there is reason to hope the defense can be more of a help to the offense with getting the ball back and providing some short fields.

It will make for one of the more intense storylines between now and the opening game. But there is no reason to despair at the moment, and the Cowboys always can try to add a runner later if it becomes absolutely necessary. It's just my opinion, but I expect the run game to be just fine.

And most importantly, football is almost here.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB

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