Three yards and a cloud of dust. Run, run, run, punt. Dinosaur-style offense. That’s the perception of the running game in the modern NFL. It’s sometimes used as an insult. No forward-thinking offensive coordinator/head coach would rely on it to win football games.
But that’s exactly what the Dallas Cowboys are doing so far in 2021. The fact is, based on how modern offenses work in the NFL, the Cowboys through four games are what you would term a running offense. The stats speak for themselves.
The Cowboys have 133 passing attempts and 124 rushing attempts in 2021. That’s pretty close to a 50/50 split, and in the modern NFL, that even of a split between running and passing means you are a running team.
Obviously, before we get too much further, there are some caveats here. One is that when you are winning games big in the second half you are going to run more. The Cowboys have had big second-half leads in their past two games, which inflates the rushing attempts.
And secondly, which we’ll touch on more a little later, the Cowboys aren’t married to the idea of running the ball. Kellen Moore is just doing what is working. This isn’t the traditional “we’re going to establish the run even if we’re picking up one yard per play” type of thinking. This is “taking advantage of what is there, and continuing to do it as long as it is working” type thinking.
The prime example of that is the first game, when the Cowboys basically eschewed the run and had Dak Prescott throw it 58 times. Since then, Prescott has attempted 27, 26, and 22 passes in the last three game respectively.
Here are the Cowboys passing/rushing splits in yards for the first four games.
Too illustrate how much the Cowboys are relying on the run through these first four games, and how successfully it’s working, we’ll look at some traditional volume stats. (All stats are before the Monday night game between the Raiders and Chargers)
The Cowboys rank sixth in the league in rushing attempts and 21st in passing attempts. What’s impressive about the Cowboys offense is they are more efficient in both categories than other teams. Even though they are sixth in rushing attempts, they are second in rushing yards per game with 165.8. Similarly, they’re 21st in passing attempts, but 14th in passing yards per game with 255.
But the key number for our purposes is they are second in the league in rushing yards, and that is without even trying to run in their first game of the season. This is true even though Dak Prescott is killing it as a passing quarterback. He is second in the league for completion percentage (75.2%), he’s tied for third in passing touchdowns (10) and is fourth in passer rating (116.9).
The running game is also pretty successful compared to the rest of the league as the team is tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns (five) and is second in average yards per rushing attempt (5.3).
Looking at it from an individual player’s perspective, we can also see how much the Cowboys rely on the run compared to the rest of the league. Even though Dak Prescott is very efficient passing the ball, he ranks only 12th in overall passing yards. The Cowboys don’t even have a receiver in the top 20 of receiving yards. CeeDee Lamb leads the Cowboys and is 21st overall, while Amari Cooper is 23rd overall.
Meanwhile, on the ground, Ezekiel Elliott is fourth overall in rushing yards, and Tony Pollard is 13th overall. The Cowboys reserve running back is still in the top 15 of rushing yards. That’s pretty amazing.
Before we just write this off as the Cowboys taking only what the defense gives, we have to acknowledge that in the Panthers game, the Cowboys somewhat imposed their will on the defense. Carolina came into the game with the top-ranked run defense in the league, only allowing 45 yard per game. Yes, their competition had been suspect, but they had played Alvin Kamara and the Saints, and held him to five yards on eight attempts.
And why wouldn’t the Cowboys turn to the run more often? Just look at what the right side of the line, mainly Zack Martin and Terence Steele, do on this 47-yard run from Elliott against the Panthers. They drive their men so far to the other side of the field that it’s comical.
Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott rips off 47-yard carry. Longest rush since rookie year. Against a D that arrived allowing 45 rushing yards per game.pic.twitter.com/QrNH5Ksz4e— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) October 3, 2021
When your line can block like that, and the tight ends too, you’re going to run the ball a lot. The Cowboys have also added a new wrinkle to their running game, and that’s fullback Connor McGovern. Kudos to Kellen Moore for figuring out a way to get McGovern involved more in the offense, and his blocks from the fullback position have been devastating at times.
It’s time to declare the Cowboys’ fullback experiment with backup guard Connor McGovern a success. In past two games, he’s played six snaps there. Both goal-line chances were touchdowns. Other four runs gained 28 yards.— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) October 4, 2021
One way the Cowboys are keeping the 308-pounder involved. pic.twitter.com/vB7waUtBre
The Cowboys are crushing it on the ground. Still, if they need to, they can switch it up on you. With the way Prescott is playing, if they wanted to go volume passing like they did in Week 1 versus Tampa Bay, they could do that, and they could do it successfully.
Hidden away in all this discussion is the offensive line. Even with La’el Collins out, they are just humming along. They are the ones that are allowing this offense to prosper. They allow Dak Prescott to say things like this: