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Improvements in run game could see biggest benefit for Cowboys as contenders in 2024

It just may be this simple for the Dallas offense to take the next step.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

When the Dallas Cowboys became the first team in NFL playoff history to lose to a seven seed on Wild Card weekend against the Green Bay Packers, it all but ensured an offseason full of drama and hard questions - even by Dallas’ standards. While this has already been the case in the weeks following the collapse at AT&T Stadium that ended a 16-game home winning streak for the Cowboys, it’s easy to lose sight of just how much of a microscope every move the Cowboys make is under. As a reminder, last offseason’s drama began in March with a seemingly inconspicuous comment by Mike McCarthy about wanting to “run the damn ball”.

McCarthy said this in reference to a stylistic difference between how the previous offensive coordinator, Kellen Moore, preferred to “light up the scoreboard” but McCarthy wanted to “rest the defense” with a more balanced approach. Now after one season with full reign over the offense, McCarthy will see out the final year of his contract with the team at a crossroads with how far their current core can take them towards the ultimate goal of a championship. Despite seemingly being closer to a reset than they are a conference championship game appearance, Jerry Jones told the media at the Senior Bowl the team will be looking to push all of their chips to the middle of the table with a refreshed “all in” approach to next season.

If the Cowboys are truly going to go all in for the 2024 season, they’ll start by trying to become the first NFC East team to win the division in consecutive years since the 2003-04 Philadelphia Eagles. the final two years of a four-year stretch for Andy Reid’s team. If the Eagles are going to remain the biggest challenger for the Cowboys in the division, it means two high stakes games between play callers McCarthy and Moore - now on Nick Sirianni’s staff as OC after leaving the Chargers.

The Cowboys will also have their third defensive coordinator of the McCarthy era, with the coach hiring cycle nearly coming and going without much change in Dallas until earlier this week when Dan Quinn left his post as defensive coordinator to take the Washington Commanders head coaching job. With four games against Quinn and Moore to look forward to now, any new approach by the Cowboys this season will immediately be put to the test against familiar faces to help the organization uncover the roots of their struggles to be postseason contenders.

NFL: NFC Wild Card Round-Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Despite all of this noise and speculation about the future of the team from all directions, the running back position was due for a reset now no matter the outcome of this season. Tony Pollard and Rico Dowdle are set to enter free agency, leaving just last year’s sixth-round pick Deuce Vaughn as the only other running back with a regular season carry under contract. If McCarthy is going to have a say in how the roster is retooled this offseason, he may get his wish for a bolstered run game at just the right time.

With the Cowboys left watching the rest of the postseason play out much earlier than anticipated, they’ve seen other West Coast offenses like the Packers, Lions, and 49ers find much more efficiency on the ground to complement their passing games. The Cowboys offense was at its best when getting away from the bread-and-butter West Coast concepts that McCarthy came up on, instead letting Dak Prescott air it out and have a career season alongside ascending WR1 CeeDee Lamb. When it came time to pick up tough yards on the ground though, the Cowboys too often asked Pollard to be something he isn’t by running physically between the tackles.

According to NFL’s Next Gen stats, Pollard was one of 22 backs that finished with a negative rushing yards over expected per carry, but is third among these backs in total carries behind only Rachaad White and Travis Etienne. The Cowboys were out-gained on the ground in all but one of their losses this season, the exception being a December loss at the Dolphins where Pollard fumbled at the one-yard line on the opening drive. The potential points proved costly as the Cowboys defense allowed the Dolphins to move the ball patiently downfield over the final 3:27 of game time to kick a game-winning field goal as time expired. The Cowboys lacked the depth in the backfield to make Pollard effective in his role this season, and can learn a lot here from the teams that punched their ticket to the Super Bowl on championship weekend. The Chiefs leaned on Isiah Pacheco setting a new career high in carries, yards, and touchdowns this season to complement Patrick Mahomes en route to the QBs fourth Super Bowl in six seasons, The 49ers turned Brock Purdy into the ultimate point guard in Kyle Shanahan’s system with all-world RB Christian McCaffrey leading the way.

Even the teams that came up just short against the Chiefs and 49ers, the Ravens and Lions, made commitments to their ground game that saw them play much further into the postseason than the Cowboys. The Lions ran for the second most yards on the ground allowed by the 49ers all season with not only David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs getting involved, but receiver Jameson Williams scoring the first points of the game with a 42-yard run.

NFL: NFC Championship-Detroit Lions at San Francisco 49ers Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Ravens inexplicably only ran the ball 18 times at home against the Chiefs, a new season low, down from their previous mark of 24 attempts in week ten against the Browns. Even still, the Ravens led the NFL this season in rushing yards thanks to Lamar Jackson, Gus Edwards, and Justice Hill giving defenses all they could handle in a physical run offense.

This physicality across the board from the teams still playing well after the Cowboys were eliminated was one of the more noticeable differences in how they execute offensively in the biggest moments. These teams looked comfortable testing defenses both sideline-to-sideline and vertically, the former being something the Cowboys struggled mightily to do in an effort to control games. This led Dallas to a narrow path to victory against the best competition, and despite 12 regular-season wins for the third year in a row, when not gifted the opportunity to play from ahead the game script rarely adjusted to allow the Cowboys back in games. The 42-10 loss at the 49ers, 31-10 loss at the Bills, or season-ending 48-32 debacle at the hands of the Packers being examples.

Any opinion airing on the side of supporting Mike McCarthy over the coming months is going to be about as hard of a sell as Jerry’s comment about going all in for Cowboys fans. All of the criticism coming this team’s way is earned given the familiar faces up and down a roster that’s made underachieving the new norm. Drastically improving from year to year without major draft capital or cap room is hard to come by in the NFL, and the Cowboys can’t as easily change faces at the key positions like quarterback or head coach like they can at running back this offseason.

In our free agent profile of Pollard and what his market may look like, it’s noted the Cowboys are believed to be looking at having a more cost-effective backfield moving forward - likely without Pollard ever wearing a star again.

Cowboys Verdict: As good as Pollard was during his time in Dallas, it’s very unlikely he will play another snap for the Cowboys. According to Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News, Dallas plans to adopt a more “cost-conservative approach” at the running back position this spring.

With all their other needs elsewhere on the roster, implementing this strategy and only paying $5-6M for two running backs combined makes lots of sense for the Cowboys. Dallas will likely bring back Rico Dowdle and sign a veteran running back in free agency for $2-3M to pair with him. Or they could go with Dowdle and a draft pick.

With McCarthy proving the Cowboys offense can be dominant (at times) without Kellen Moore calling plays, the 2024 season will put to the test how it can complement a different defense from Dan Quinn’s version. McCarthy’s first hire of Mike Nolan to be his DC in 2020 failed miserably, but early reports are that the team is considering more established names with skins on the wall like Ron Rivera or Mike Zimmer. With a more traditional defensive alignment, the Cowboys can better contend in close games that call on the ground game to be effective. Instead of their best run defense being Dak Prescott dropping back constantly to put pressure on the opponent to keep up, the Cowboys can look to support Prescott in similar ways the Packers did with Jordan Love, Lions with Jared Goff, and ultimately the 49ers with Brock Purdy en route to the conference championship.

Derrick Henry, Devin Singletary, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire are just a few intriguing running back names about to hit free agency, while the Cowboys could also look to reset the position with a controllable rookie contract in the draft. The Cowboys have already been linked to offensive line prospects in the draft that can help them be more physical up front and keep Prescott upright, and pairing their success rate with drafting linemen with a new philosophy in the backfield could pay off the most in the shortest time. By doing so, the Cowboys wouldn’t just be helping McCarthy give this team the best chance to make a run they desperately need, but setting themselves up nicely for the future if that doesn’t happen and more wholesale changes are made around this time next year.

The Cowboys were already mentioned alongside trendy offensive play-caller names like Bobby Slowik and Ben Johnson as potential hires to replace McCarthy and move the offense even further along when the season ended. While neither ended up taking a head coaching job this cycle, they should remain strong candidates while other names with a similar approach to how offense is played in today’s NFL will emerge. Any new coach evaluating the Dallas job could find it intriguing thanks to a youth movement in the backfield and offensive line paired with a star receiver in Lamb, and of course the possibility of having Prescott in place long term coming off a MVP level regular season. Coordinators staying where they are if the right head coaching environment doesn’t present itself is becoming more popular each offseason, meaning the Cowboys would be wise to taper their all in approach with thoughts towards who could lead this group in the future.

NFL: NFC Wild Card Round-Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

If it feels like the time to talk about the actual on-field improvements the Cowboys can tangibly make for next season is incredibly far away, that’s because it is with the Super Bowl still to be played. Like clockwork though, this time will come and plenty of hype for new players being added to the lineup will likely include a running back or two that stands to define one of the most crucial seasons for his franchise in recent memory. After all, if discussing the offseason for a Cowboys team that fell short in the playoffs is nothing new, the running game discourse that is constantly analyzed from every possible angle for Dallas is a logical place to start for a team with a lot of narratives hanging over their head that are here to stay until proven otherwise between the lines.

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