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Back To The Future? How The Cowboys May Be Exploiting NFL Trends With The Running Game

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A lot of questions have been raised by Dallas drafting Ezekiel Elliott. Maybe this is one answer as to why they did so.

Are the Cowboys building a machine the rest of the league is unprepared to counter?
Are the Cowboys building a machine the rest of the league is unprepared to counter?
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

It was a subject of much debate before the draft and continues to be so. Why spend a high first-round pick on Ezekiel Elliott when the running back position is so devalued in the pass-addicted NFL? Since the Dallas Cowboys were able to mount a successful running game with Darren McFadden, whose skill set is not a good fit for what the team prefers to do, couldn't they have gotten a good running back later in the draft and better spent the draft capital elsewhere? Why would they buck the trend and go against the flow of the league?

While of course the staff of the Cowboys don't share all the innermost details of their strategy, all this does raise another question: What if going in the opposite direction of the league is the whole idea?

Some of these thoughts have been circulating around sort of half-formed for a time (at least in my often chaotic brain), but they were really crystallized by an article on offensive linemen and the challenges they face in today's NFL written by Pete Prisco at CBSSports.com. (Hat tip to Landon McCool who saw this first and drew my attention to it with a tweet.) It was a missing piece of the puzzle that speaks to some significant differences in the way the Cowboys are doing things as opposed to what seems to be happening with many other teams.

The basic logic is something that is common in business: Find something that no one else is doing and exploit it. It also has a military counterpart: Figure out where a significant weakness is and hit it as hard as you can.

With the running game in apparent decline in the league, it may now be just that kind of vulnerability that can be taken advantage of. Most teams are trying to figure out how to win games through the air. The idea that a team without a franchise quarterback is largely impotent is well known. Dallas is fortunate that it has such a QB in Tony Romo, and he also has the receivers to make it work, with Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and Cole Beasley being the three most consistent. And he has very good pass protection from the offensive line. But the Cowboys are hardly the only team that can boast similar combinations of talent. Meanwhile, defenses are focused more and more on stopping the pass, because teams just do not feel the run can beat you.

But with Elliott, the Cowboys look to be trying to develop a second avenue of attack. Almost no one else in the NFL is using the run with great effectiveness. The Minnesota Vikings may be the only team that has used it as their primary focus over an extended period of time, and that seems to grow out of the incredible talent of Adrian Peterson than from a pre-determined strategy. Other teams that rush well may use it because they have a less than top-notch passing attack, like the Buffalo Bills, or they employ a quarterback that is a real threat to run, as is the case with the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks. And in the case of the latter two, they still are arguably pass first offenses.

All indications are that Dallas has decided to return to the run-first approach that brought success in 2014, only with the ante upped by the addition of Elliott. That may make them unique in the league in marrying that to a very potent air attack. And that goes back to that article by Prisco. The Cowboys have, partly by intention and partly through the way the draft has fallen in recent years, been building the perfect machine for this for several years. They have three first-round draft picks on the offensive line, and a fourth player in La'el Collins who should have been a first-rounder. However intentional or not this was, they now have something almost no one else does. It is a combination of talent and continuity that is becoming increasingly rare in the league. Look at this excerpt from the article (the offensive linemen Prisco is interviewing are Chance Warmack, Kyle Long, Bobbie Massie, and Weston Richburg).

Lines also stayed together back in the day. There wasn't as much movement with no free agency. Has that made it tougher to be good up front?

Massie: You have to get used to play besides somebody else all the time. You have to jell together quickly.

Warmack: You can't sign a guy on Tuesday and expect continuity on Sunday.

Long: He (the new guy) may know what inside zone is, and he might know the play, but he won't know how Chance will block a backside scoop or the pace of the block. That stuff.

Warmack: You have to know who is working next to you and complement each other's games. That's a must to play good on the line. Teams are getting away from that.

Another note: The "back in the day" refers, in part, to old game film of the Cowboys' offensive line from the early nineties, which the group watched together during the writing of that article.

Dallas has committed to continuity on their line. Tyron Smith is on a long-term contract, and the team has just exercised its fifth-year option with Travis Frederick, with the likely intent of working out a long-term deal that will be followed in a year or so by one with Zack Martin.

The Cowboys also bring another element to the table that is reportedly lacking with many other teams.

Is technique taught in the NFL?

Richburg: There isn't much teaching going on at all. It's kind of sink or swim. That's why I am here.

Warmack: What is good technique? Even if you have coaches who want to implement the techniques, it's not the right way. You do the same thing 1,000 times and it's wrong. Then you get in the game and they want me to block an All-Pro three-technique and you've been doing the same thing that's wrong since April. And it's October, and you get torn out the frame (on film). It's your fault. Not his fault. It's our fault.

There is also mention of an O-line coach whose background was playing linebacker at a D-III school. Contrast this to what the Cowboys have (this is from a Twitter discussion of the article).

Add in that Dallas focuses on fundamentals rather than exotic blocking combinations, and the overall scheme seems to be a bit of a throwback - to something that worked superbly well.

It is also no coincidence that Jason Garrett was a part of the team in the days of that great nineties line. There is no doubt that he has always been an astute observer of the game. This direction for the team is almost certainly something he is driving. And it helps explain why he was one of the leaders, if not the main organizer, of the lean towards taking Elliott at four. If your identity is going to be a smash-mouth running game that beats opposing defenses into submission, then you want to equip it with the absolute best running back, especially if he is well-versed in the zone blocking scheme Dallas prefers the way Zeke is.

A lot has been made of how a revitalized running attack will help the defense by keeping them off the field, but we probably should not discount the value it has in and of itself. If the other team is faced with having to choose between stopping the run or defending the pass, the Cowboys will be able to exploit the opposite. And with Zeke added to the mix (and Alfred Morris as well), they are more than able to take advantage of whichever is more vulnerable. When it gets down to the most basic level, football is about scoring the most points in a game. No matter how you look at it, being able to score a lot is going to help. That is what the running game is being built for.

Last year, the best running attack in the league (Buffalo) only amassed 152 yards a game. That is the target to try and surpass. With the constant focus on the aerial arms race, the Cowboys may be able to use the run to hit opponents where they are least able to counter them, while still keeping heavy pressure through the air. That at least seems to be the plan. So far, they have certainly invested heavily in it. And they know from two seasons ago that it can work, with less firepower than they look to be bringing to the fight now.

Run, Zeke, run.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB