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Dallas Cowboys coaching spotlight: Running backs coach Gary Brown

Who is the man behind the Cowboys’ impressive rushing attack?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

After the 2017 season ended, Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett decided to make some wholesale changes to the structure of the Dallas Cowboys to avoid another disappointment, if 9-7 can really be called a disappointment. While offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli both remained with the team, much of the staff around them has changed. This series is meant to profile each coach, including the ones who stayed, and analyze how their presence will contribute to the 2018 Dallas Cowboys. Today, we are looking at one of the more overlooked coaches on this staff, Gary Brown. Be sure to check out our other profiles below:

Jason Garrett
Scott Linehan
Kellen Moore

For a team like the Dallas Cowboys, who have been a run-first offense for several years, their running backs coach must be up to the task. Fortunately for them, Gary Brown has consistently been one of the best running backs coaches in the NFL for quite some time.

Brown had himself a solid career as a running back, serving most of his time with the Houston Oilers, before becoming a coach. In 2008, while coaching at Rutgers under Greg Schiano, Brown had three different running backs combine for 1,474 yards and 15 touchdowns. He parlayed that success into coaching running backs for the Cleveland Browns from 2009-2012. In his first year, he used a committee approach, combining Jamal Lewis, Jerome Harrison, and Chris Jennings for 1,582 yards; he also utilized wide receiver Josh Cribbs for 381 rushing yards on just 55 attempts (nearly seven yards per carry), which should have Cowboys fans excited when thinking how Brown might use Tavon Austin.

The next year, Brown pulled off what, in retrospect, can only be considered a miracle. Embracing Peyton Hillis as their workhorse running back, Brown was able to squeeze out 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns from the future Madden 12 cover athlete. This obviously wasn’t a case of Hillis being a star, as evidenced by the fact that he only accumulated 1,258 total yards over the next four years of his career. In 2012, Brown pulled a similar feat with rookie Trent Richardson. The Alabama product recorded 950 yards and 11 touchdowns, looking every bit as good as he did in crimson. Over the next three years - all of which were without the tutelage of Brown - Richardson only had 1,082 total rushing yards and is no longer in the NFL.

In 2013, Brown joined the Cowboys. His predecessor, Skip Peete, had done an adequate job at a running back by committee approach between the likes of Julius Jones, Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice. Bringing in Brown, though, was part of the effort to switch to a feature back style of running game after the emergence of DeMarco Murray in 2012. Brown’s presence immediately yielded an impact, as Murray tallied 1,121 yards for 9 touchdowns in 2013. Brown and Murray took it a step further in 2014, with a league-leading 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Even in 2015, when Murray’s departure resulted in Darren McFadden becoming the starter after a failed experiment with Joseph Randle, Dallas had the ninth best rushing attack in the NFL and McFadden hit 1,000 yards for the first time since 2010. In 2016, Brown inherited Ezekiel Elliott and, well, you know the rest.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

An important facet of the Cowboys’ stellar rushing attack in recent years has been their commitment to a zone-blocking scheme, in which the running back must have good patience and vision, along with the ability to make decisions on the fly and cut to the best spot. In other words, a running back in a zone-blocking scheme must take the handoff and wait until a hole opens, and then burst through the hole. It requires a high IQ and some excellent physical tools in a running back, but Brown has also shown a keen ability at teaching his players patience. Coming out of college, Murray was a physically gifted runner who lacked patience and instead relied too much on his juke moves and stiff arm to get past defenders. McFadden, for most of his career, relied on his otherworldly speed to get around the edge and break into the second level. And Elliott benefited greatly from a widespread offense at Ohio State that rarely asked him to be patient behind the line. All three of these players learned patience from Brown rather quickly, and the results have been outstanding.

Brown is a self described “old school guy” when it comes to running backs, as he prefers the workhorse, feature-back type of player as opposed to the committees many teams have turned towards recently. He has listed Tony Dorsett as his favorite running back in history, as Dorsett came from Pennsylvania like Brown did. Throughout his tenure with the Cowboys, Brown has shown an attention to detail in the drills he puts his players through, though his personality is usually light and he often jokes around with players. You can usually see him on the sidelines of any game talking with Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan, as his expertise in the running game is valued by those two when making in-game decisions.

Brown’s contract was up after last season, and as the rest of the offensive staff went through major changes, it was reported that Brown was being courted by Jon Gruden to join the Oakland Raiders in the same capacity. The Cowboys ultimately managed to retain him, with the presence of Elliott no doubt serving as a great selling point. By my estimation, Brown deserves a shot at being some team’s offensive coordinator, though there is some weird prejudice the NFL has against running backs coaches becoming coordinators (currently the only one is Kansas City’s Eric Bieniemy, who was just promoted after Matt Nagy became the Bears head coach). Either way, the Cowboys have themselves a spectacular coach whose track record speaks for itself. For all the question marks facing this offense in 2018, the running back group is one positive certainty, and Brown is in large part to thank for that.

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