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The Cowboys are “focusing on the run” in an intriguing way

The Cowboys run game is not going to be like it was in the Ezekiel Elliott era.

Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Chargers
How will Tony Pollard’s usage change?
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Head coach Mike McCarthy has made some very clear statements about how he wants to run the ball as the play caller for the Dallas Cowboys. He said this earlier in the year while talking about how the offense might change with Kellen Moore gone to the Los Angeles Chargers.

But I want to run the damn ball so I can rest my defense.

At first glance, this seems to be a contrarian approach in the pass-happy NFL. However, in context, he wants to focus on controlling the ball and not turn it over. Still, it seems that he does plan to commit to the run whether we like it or not.

What is happening with the roster doesn’t seem to match, however. The team released Ezekiel Elliott, which was widely expected given his lack of production last year. Part of that was due to injuries. This has become an issue the past couple of seasons, making his departure a bit of a necessity, while also freeing up some needed cap space after the transaction officially hits the book on June 1. The new answer as the starting running back is Tony Pollard, who was franchise tagged this offseason. Prior to this year, he served as the “change of pace” back. He was used to relieve Elliott, but was sent outside the tackles on runs more than Elliott. He is also a more effective receiver, although the perception is that he is underutilized. Pollard is about fifteen pounds lighter, and the same height. It raises the question of his durability if he is carrying the workload of the starter. The Cowboys have Malik Davis and Rico Dowdle returning as well. Neither have seen much playing time, with Dowdle fighting injuries since joining the team. Davis is a bit lighter than Pollard, while Dowdle is closer to Elliott’s size. They will be competing for backup jobs, but neither can be counted on as real answers.

After Elliott’s release, it was thought by many that getting more RB talent would be a priority. They didn’t put a lot of emphasis on that in free agency. Ronald Jones was signed. He is very similar to Pollard in size. His career has not been overly impressive, with totals of 2,244 yards rushing and 593 receiving over five seasons, and last year he mostly rode the bench with the Kansas City Chiefs. It was another low-cost acquisition, more of a hole plug for the roster than anything.

Going into the draft, the anticipation was that Dallas would most likely take a running back in the third or fourth round. They didn’t. They waited until late in the sixth to take Deuce Vaughn, who looks much more like a change-of-pace back than Pollard. He is quite small at 5’6”. In college, he was incredibly productive. A large part of that was elusiveness, but his athletic measurements are not very impressive. It is an open question of how that will carry into the NFL. Another one is just how McCarthy and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer plan to use him. Vaughn as an integral part of the running game seems hard to envision.

One thing Elliott did do well last season was get those tough one- and two-yard gains to move the sticks or crash into the end zone. Outside of Dowdle, none of the current backs seem to fit that role well.

However, there was one other player acquisition that might be an attempt to fix that. They signed UDFA fullback Hunter Luepke. At 236 pounds, he certainly has the size for those short yardage situations. But he was more than just that, rushing for 1,665 yards and adding 494 as a receiver in his four-year career. He averaged a very good six yards a carry. Most impressively, he scored a total of 33 touchdowns. His skill set is suited for far more than a traditional fullback role, which is a dying breed in football. From a physical standpoint, he appears a good option for a short-yardage back, and should have the ability to pass protect or lead block as well.

That looks great on paper, but he is a small school prospect who didn’t face a lot of FBS teams, although in a game against the Arizona Wildcats he had a combined 180 yards and three touchdowns. Still, this is also no guarantee he will be effective in the league.

This seems an odd way to “focus on the run” given the lack of resources the Cowboys have invested in it. Pollard, Vaughn, and Luepke all could be very valuable in the passing game as well, another thing that makes the proposition a bit odd.

When discussing the running game, the offensive line has to be included. More and more indications point to the starting line being Tyron Smith-Tyler Smith-Tyler Biadasz-Zack Martin-Terrence Steele, from left to right. Those are very good players, if their health holds up. That was a concern for both Tyron and Steele last year. The team did little to shore the depth up, signing another low-cost free agent in Chuma Edoga and drafting Asim Richards. Run blocking should be very good as long as the starters are on the field, however, and could demonstrate how you don’t need superstar talent at RB to get the job done.

With so many questions involved, any emphasis on the run looks to be heavily dependent on how the game is planned and called by the coaches. That may be the real key here. Running backs don’t matter is a meme. But it has a large component of truth in it. Play design and execution are just as, if not more. important than the players actually carrying the ball. Play sequencing also is big. A run when the defense is expecting a pass can sometimes break for big yards, just as early down passes can loosen the defense up.

The post-Zeke era is truly going to look different. Emphasizing the run will require more creativity. That falls directly on McCarthy’s shoulders. One of the interesting stories to watch all year is just how well he pulls it off.

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