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The Cowboys top priority is re-establishing their running game

A lot of commentators are saying Dallas has to pass the ball better after their debacle in Denver. That may be true, but it is more important for Dallas to re-establish its dominant running game.

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

We’ve already written a few pieces about Sunday’s 42-17 loss to the Denver Broncos. Here’s the Dak and Zeke report. Also see the offensive and defensive snap counts articles.

The problems for Dallas were everywhere. A big part of that loss was the inability of the Dallas defense to do anything to slow down Denver’s balanced attack. Rod Marinelli needs to go back to the drawing board and coach up his young defense. It would also help the defense to get Orlando Scandrick, Damontre Moore, David Irving, Anthony Hitchens, and Chidobe Awuzie back on the field.

Dak Prescott also had one of his worst days at quarterback. He was 30 of 50 for 238 yards, an ANY/A of 3.42, quarterback rating of 68.6, with two TDs and two INTs.

But the real problem on offense was Dallas’s total inability to run the football. Ezekiel Elliott had 8 yards on 9 carries. Dak added 24 yards on three scrambles. And Rod Smith added 8 yards at the end of the game when Dallas was just running out the clock. The total rushing yards were 40 on the game.

With several commentators suggesting the way for Dallas to right the ship is to figure out an improved passing attack, we decided to look back a few seasons to see if Dallas can really win games when it doesn’t run the ball.

What’s a decent demarcation point? You can set the line anywhere, but we decided to set it at 70 yards rushing. Under 70 yards rushing, how many games has Dallas won and lost since 2012? Here’s the chart.

Year Opponent Rush Yds W-L Score DAL Turn
2017 At DEN 40 L 42--17 2
2016 At PHI 69 L 27--13 2
2015 At TAM 42 L 10--6 1
CAR 31 L 33--14 3
2013 At KC 37 L 17--16 2
DEN 52 L 51--48 2
WASH 48 W 31--16 1
At DET 62 L 31--30 0
MIN 36 W 27--23 1
PHI 56 L 24--22 3
2012 At SEA 49 L 27--7 2
TAM 38 W 16--10 3
CHI 41 L 34--18 5
NYG 19 L 29--24 6
At ATL 65 L 19--13 0
WASH 35 L 38--31 3
At CIN 49 W 20--19 1
NO 40 L 34--31 1

We also included Dallas turnovers in those games. We didn’t control for this, but the suspicion is if you can’t run and have to pass all the time, turnovers tend to go up. In all but two of these 18 games, Dallas turned the ball over at least once.

Admittedly, this is not a super-scientific analysis. It’s just designed to get an idea of how successful Dallas has been when they haven’t run the ball very much, or very successfully in games.

In 2016, a 13-3 year, the Cowboys exceeded 70 yards in every game that Ezekiel Elliott played. The only one they didn’t was the meaningless last game at Philadelphia, which the Cowboys lost behind the rather horrible quarterbacking of Mark Sanchez.

In 2015, a 4-12 year, the Cowboys had horrible quarterback play when Tony Romo was out, but they actually committed to the run, missing 70 yards only twice, both of which were losses.

In 2014, a 12-4 year, the lowest rushing total on the year was the 73 yards Dallas got in the playoff win over Detroit. So there were zero games below 70 yards rushing.

In 2013, an 8-8 year, when Dallas finally figured out late in the season that it needed to run the ball more consistently - the team had six games with less than 70 yards rushing, and lost four of them.

In 2012, another 8-8 year, Dallas had 8 games under 70 yards rushing, and lost six of them.

Total won-loss record during this period is 47-38, including playoff games, for a W-L percentage of 55%. When the Cowboys exceed 70 yards rushing, they are 43-24, for a 64% winning percentage. When they don’t reach that number, they are 4-14, or 22%.

Dallas is obviously not perfect when they rush for more than 70 yards. They still need a competent quarterback behind center. But their modus operandi since 2014, when they added Zack Martin to their offensive line, has been to exceed 100 yards on the ground. They did that for 15 of 18 games in 2014, counting the two playoff games. They did it for 12 of 16 games in 2015. And they did it for 16 of 17 games in 2016. So far they are only 1 for 2 games in 2017. That has to change.

Running the ball is the foundation of the Dallas Cowboys offense. You can argue all you want about whether the quarterback play needs to be better - it should and will be. And the defense absolutely must be much better than it was on Sunday. But the bottom line is that Dallas needs to prove that Sunday was an aberration from a rushing standpoint. It doesn’t matter how many defenders teams put in the box, or how they stunt. The Cowboys need to run the ball and do it successfully. When they do, everything else is likely to be better as well.

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