As our own Dave Halprin noted (and thanks for the shout-out, Dave), the Dallas Cowboys are attempting to re-introduce the concept of power football, with a potent running game that can exploit the way NFL rosters have evolved to smaller, faster defensive units to try and counter the clear reliance on the passing game. With the 2014 season serving effectively as a test run for what they are trying to do, the Cowboys feel they have a good chance of finding success with this, as apparently do the Los Angeles Rams and Tennessee Titans, the two teams cited along with Dallas in the article Dave and I both referenced. But the Cowboys have a different element in their approach. It is the key to why they have the best chance of success with this idea. It is more important than the drafting of Ezekiel Elliott. It is more important than the talent-loaded offensive line. It is why the Cowboys may well be able to have their cake and eat it, too, when they are on offense.
It is one Antonio Ramiro Romo.
Make no mistake. One thing that has not changed about the prospects of the Cowboys is that they are still more dependent on the health and performance of Tony Romo than any other one player. Just as he is the reason the passing game works so well when he is playing, he is also the reason the running game may become dominant in the NFL. Dallas did not move towards a power running attack to make up for deficiencies in the passing game. They did so because, when Romo and Dez Bryant are healthy, and with the rest of the receiving corps Dallas has, they have an aerial attack that is able to go toe-to-toe with any other in the league. By drafting Elliott, they are not moving away from the pass at all. They are making it more of a problem for the other teams. For the most part, other teams focus on the pass because they do a poor job of running the ball, or simply find they cannot keep up on the scoreboard with the ground game. With Romo returning from injury, the Cowboys have taken a different tack. They are planning to have a true two-pronged attack. With most of the rest of the NFL using a single-barreled approach to moving the ball, where the running game is very much the lesser, Dallas is coming with two barrels, both loaded with double-aught buckshot. And no one else in the NFL is as well-equipped to deal the hurt as they are.
It is all about the synergy. More running will open up the passing game. Effective passing keeps defenses from stacking the box against the run. The offensive line is good in both phases of the game, and benefits from the defense having to avoid over-committing to stopping one or the other.
It also is another way in which Dallas went against the conventional approach. Much ado has been made of how they neglected the defense this year, first eschewing big-money free agents, then waiting until the third round to take a defender that is actually likely to play when the season begins. With the issues they had in rushing the passer and giving up back-breaking long plays late in games, it seems obvious that they needed to do more to shore up the defense. Instead, the Cowboys elected to make the strongest side of the ball even stronger. They used their most valuable asset (the fourth-overall pick) there rather than spending it on defense. And Elliott may have more impact on the team than any one defensive rookie or free agent could.
There is a risk, of course. As the Great Debacle of 2015 showed, if Romo is not healthy, the team is likely to flounder. Although he was talking about Peyton Manning, longtime NFL assistant Tom Moore perfectly and succinctly summed things up when he said if the quarterback goes down, we're screwed (his remark is linked to because of site standards, but you'll see how it fits if you click it). However, the same holds true for almost any team with a true franchise QB. If he goes down, the prospects for a big season go right down with him. For better or worse, Dallas is using a more patient, incremental plan to upgrade the defense. A dominant defense can carry a team with a "game manager" at quarterback, but that is not as frequently successful as having a truly effective NFL-caliber passer.
That is exactly what a healthy Romo is, and even his many critics seem to be admitting it lately. Bringing Elliott on board is not an attempt to force him away from his strengths, as the Forbes article Dave linked in his piece claims. It thinks the Cowboys are trying to force Romo to be more like Troy Aikman was. For all his greatness, Aikman's biggest strength was not going deep. Romo can do that. But what the writer at Forbes seems to ignore is that Romo can also do everything Aikman could. True, Aikman also had one of the league's top defenses helping him in each of the Super Bowl years. Those were also the days before the salary cap, and Jerry Jones spent prodigiously to build both the offense and defense. That is no longer possible. Today's NFL teams will normally be noticeably stronger on one side of the ball. And the Forbes critique ignores just how close the Cowboys got in 2014 using the same approach they are taking this year, with a running back who had what should prove to be a lesser skill set than Elliott, and a defense that was arguably less competent than the one they will field this season. Just look at who was on that defensive roster and see if you can find anyplace it was noticeably stronger than the likely edition they will field this fall.
Of course, all the eggs are most definitely in the Romo basket. While the addition of Elliott means that the team could likely do much better with a fill-in quarterback, the ceiling there is staying competitive in most games, not being able to make a serious playoff run. But if Romo remains healthy and plays like he did two years ago, this team may be one of the most dominant and implacable in the league. Stop or slow them on the ground, and they will burn you through the air. Blanket the receivers and get after Romo, and they will gash you on the ground. Hopefully most of the time, they will use both parts of the attack to just roll up the points and give the defense time to rest.
In recent years, there has been talk of building a "Romo friendly" team. With the offensive line in place and some very good receivers, including Jason Witten and Cole Beasley as well as Bryant, the drafting of Elliott was the biggest step in making the team even better for Romo. That was the way they went because he is, after all, the most significant part of the plan this year.