Like everything else about the Atlanta Falcons vs Dallas Cowboys, the performance of the Cowboys running back by committee experiment was a tale of two halves. The numbers for the whole game look a little better this week. Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden, and Lance Dunbar rushed 21 times for 127 yards and four touchdowns, The pace was led by Randle who gained the bulk of the yards, 87, and scored three touchdowns. McFadden added his first touchdown as a Cowboy as well. In the air the trio accounted for 12 receptions and 118 yards. That was largely do to Dunbar's 10 catch, 100-yard outing. The Dallas running backs turned in a combined 245 yards.
These numbers would be sufficient under most normal conditions, but the state of affairs in Dallas is not currently normal. If the Cowboys are not going to attack downfield without Dez Bryant and Tony Romo they are going to have to manage to get much more out of the backfield. The yardage is going to have to come from somewhere. They are going to need full-game performances like they got in the first half of Sunday's game.
Randle carried the ball 10 times before the intermission and he gained 92 yards. That is a very solid day and it was well on its way to being a spectacular outing. McFadden was having a serious performance as well. The two primary ball carriers were running at 9.2 and 8.8 yards per carry respectively. The Dallas running game looked like it was finally in sync the way it had been with DeMarco Murray as the bellcow. Dunbar was contributing as well; he had four receptions for an additional 59 yards. All told the running back by committee produced 208 yards of total offense in the first half.
Numbers like that generally mean that your team is winning, and Dallas held a 28-17 lead going in to the second half kickoff. Things looked good for Jason Garrett and his charges. The whole looked to be greater than the sum of its parts.
Things went askew for the Cowboys once the teams returned from the mid-game break. The Falcons made some great halftime adjustments to offset what Dallas was doing and Dallas had no workable solutions to counter what the Falcons staff was able to accomplish. The lack of willingness to go vertical in the passing game most likely helped make the task easier as my colleague Tom Ryle pointed out; Atlanta was able to sell out to stop the run.
The same Joseph Randle who had set the AT&T Stadium turf on fire to start the game carried the ball just four more times on the afternoon. He lost a total of five yards for his efforts. McFadden fared slightly better. He had one carry for a single yard gained. Nothing the Cowboys attempted to do, and it was not much, seemed to work. Lance Dunbar was the most significant of the trio over the closing half of the contest. He caught six balls for 41 yards.
Just as the opening half performance will win you a decent number of games, the production in the second will lose you at least as many, Thirty-seven yards of combined production is a good statistic for the backs in a series, but not in a half. Dallas had become a one-trick pony, and the Falcons coaches quickly figured out that trick. When your game plan is as conservative as the one the Cowboys used on Sunday that kind of production is not bad, it is fatal.
This becomes even more true when the defense is not able to stop the other team. Had the Cowboys been able to put a halt to Atlanta, the first-half performance might have been enough, but given the circumstances of the game Dallas wanted to be able to pound the rock consistently, run time off of the clock and get points for their efforts. The Dallas running game put the Cowboys in a position to win the game, perhaps handily, but when they slowed down the Cowboys defense failed to do what it is supposed to do; drive the nail in the coffin as my colleague Dave Halprin pointed out.
There were many failures on Sunday afternoon: coaching, defense, etc. but I suspect that we will look back on the outing as the game where the running back by committee philosophy had its first real opportunity to make the statement that they could step up and power the Dallas Cowboys to victory but failed to do so. What should have been a statement making moment turned out to be little more than a whisper at the end.
Let me make one thing clear. I don't place this loss on the backs. They did a great job doing what they are paid to do. The problem was that Dallas did not have the ability to do anything else once the other team adapted. This one is on the whole organization. Frankly, Randle showed me something I have been wanting to see and Dunbar proved that he is a viable offensive weapon. Now it is time to figure out how to put it all together into something that can compete for a full game. Doing that will make the performance of the backs better. The concept is sound, but it is not the whole answer. There has to be more.
We can critique this game to death, and we will, but I will leave you with a parting thought attributed to the late Cowboys quarterback, Don Meredith.
If "ifs" and "buts" were candy and nuts, we'd all have a merry Christmas. - 'Dandy' Don Meredith