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Cowboys Running Game In 2016: Not Just Yards But Touchdowns?

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Don't just run the ball for yards, run it for touchdowns.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys fanbase has been discussing and debating the team's attempts to go back to old-school, smash-mouth football. There are many ways to examine the move and break apart statistics to divine what it will actually mean for the Cowboys in the upcoming campaign. Our own Jim Scott does an excellent job of breaking down why a strong running game could benefit not only the offense, but the defense. From that, you'll learn that the 2014 Cowboys were able to score points early and put opposing offenses under the gun and forced them to take chances. That, in turn, helped the defense.

That statistical breakdown conveniently plays into the "back to the future" aspect of the Cowboys move towards emphasizing the running game. Scoring on offense helps the defense. Simple enough, but there is also the way you score on offense. And NFL teams are doing that more and more through the air. This morning's MMQB from Peter King reminds of how much that is true.

The NFL’s Incredible Shrinking Stat: touchdown numbers for running backs.

Adrian Peterson has 97, and there’s little doubt he’ll become the 10th back in history to rush for at least 100 touchdowns; in fact, this year, he could catch Jim Brown, number five on the list with 105. But after that, there’s a long fall to the number two active touchdown runner: The Colts’ Frank Gore, 33 years old, enters the season with 70 career rushing touchdowns. Number three on the active list is DeAngelo Williams, with 57. The decline in emphasis on the running game is making the touchdown run passé. Find an offensive category in NFL history with only two of the top 50 players of all-time being active today. That’s the case with rushing touchdowns. Peterson is 10th, Gore 30th, Williams 52nd.

The leading career touchdown receptions list has seven active NFL players  in the Top 50, the passing touchdown leaders has 11 current QBs in the Top 50. Running backs touchdown leaders? Only two active players in the Top 50.

Can the Cowboys start reversing this trend? With a renewed emphasis on running the ball, will they also punch the ball in on the ground? We know they are the top team in terms of rushing yards over the past two years when you filter out yards by running quarterbacks.

In the last two years, only the Seattle Seahawks (5,030) and Carolina Panthers (4,318) have run for more yards than the Cowboys, who have 4,244 yards. However, there is a striking difference between Seattle's and Carolina's running games and the Cowboys'. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has 1,402 rushing yards the last two seasons. The Panthers’ Cam Newton has 1,175. Cowboys’ quarterbacks Tony Romo, Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel and Kellen Moore have combined for 180 yards on the ground.

In 2014 with DeMarco Murray as the main back, the Cowboys rushed for 16 touchdowns (13 from Murray). That ranked them second in the league to only the Seahawks (20 TDs on the ground). The Cowboys also ranked second in total rushing yards to the Seahawks that year. Makes sense.

Move forward to 2015. The Cowboys ranked ninth in total rushing yards, but ranked tied for 21st in rushing touchdowns (8 TDs on the ground). They were still running the ball well, but they weren't scoring in the running game.

Was that a function of play-calling? Or could it be that some backs are just better about getting to the endzone than others? That's hard to say with statistical certainty since play-calling, opportunity, injuries, quality of the offensive line and more all play into a running back's ability to hit paydirt on the ground.

But, let's just leave it with this. If you look at the Top 100 career leaders for rushing touchdowns in the NCAA (since 1956), DeMarco Murray is tied for 31st with 50. Ezekiel Elliott is tied for 95th with 43. In 2015, only one back had more rushing touchdowns than Elliott's 23, and that was Derrick Henry (28) who had over 100 more attempts on the year. So just maybe, in addition to a more grind-it-out, clock-controlling offense that wears down an opponent, the Cowboys will also return to scoring the ball on the ground, perhaps better than ever.