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Sullivan: Run, Run & Run Some More; After That, Run It Again
The author of “America’s Team: The Official History of the Dallas Cowboys,” Sullivan also writes a new column in each issue of Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.
Know the guy 20, 30 pounds overweight who spends three hours every New Year’s Day on his long-term exercise plan? Then heads to the gym the following day, stretches as if he’s going to be one of those dudes in the circus car, maybe does 10 minutes on the bike, a set of dumbbells and then heads home until the following year?
That’s the Dallas Cowboys when it comes to running the football. And training camp is their New Year’s Day. Lots of resolutions and promises for change, only to fall back into the same pattern once the season starts.
The No. 1 key to success for the 2014 Cowboys is quite simple: Run, run and run some more. After that, run again. Throw in some play-action, and then, you guessed it, run that pigskin. Cloud of FieldTurf doesn’t have quite the same gridiron romanticism as Cloud of Dust, but whatever.
There was a time when that wasn’t a big deal because, well, running the ball with success wasn’t really an option. Heck, that was the case as recently as 2012, when the Cowboys finished 30th or worse in rushing attempts, rushing yards and yards per attempt. The low probably came when Jason Garrett admitted to calling for passing plays on third- and fourth-and-short because he didn’t have faith they could gain a few feet running the ball.
Those days are behind us, though, at least in terms of not being able to run the ball with success. Whether or not the Cowboys will fully commit to the run from Week 1 right on through the end of the season, however, remains to be seen. And honestly, let’s be blunt, if they don’t, there will be no one to blame for another mediocre, disappointing season than those calling the plays.
Run, run and run some more. After that, run again.
This makes sense on so many levels that it seems almost too easy. No Cowboys team since those of “The Great Wall of Dallas,” Emmitt Smith and Daryl “Moose” Johnston in the 1990s have been in a better situation to ground-and-pound than this one. Also, never mind the plethora of advantages in running the ball early and often offensively. This would also alleviate significant pressure from what appears to be an overmatched defense. Now, if that unit is on the field for 28, 29 minutes, rather than the 32 from a season ago, that’s a huge difference, and maybe one more appreciated with number of plays/snaps rather than time of possession.
In 2013, the Cowboys ran the fewest offensive plays in the NFL at 957, which was 199 fewer than the Denver Broncos. And Dallas ran the ball the second-fewest times, this despite finishing eighth in yards per rushing attempt. For a team that was bringing guys off the street to play defensive line on a weekly basis, this doesn’t make a ton of sense to me. And not to bring this up again, but the Green Bay and Detroit games should have been easy wins with those leads, except for the fact that they didn’t …
Run, run and run some more. After that, run again.
This also helps protect asset No. 1 in Tony Romo. Fewer drop-backs means fewer opportunities for sacks and the like. Not saying the offense should revolve around keeping Romo healthy. Just saying it’s a nice byproduct of running the ball more. Troy Aikman’s single-season high for passing attempts was 518. Romo has thrown more passes in each of the five seasons in which he has played at least 15 games.
Next up is the fact that the Cowboys have the personnel to be one of the league’s premier rushing teams. The offensive line is loaded. One could argue that center Travis Frederick was the top run-blocking center in the league as a rookie and Zack Martin is one of those guys who would enjoy nothing more than eternal one-on-one blocking drills in a phone booth. They also possess two legit fullbacks in Tyler Clotts and J.C. Copeland (might just keep both if it were me), and Jason Witten is still a top-tier blocking tight end.
They also have an underappreciated, Pro Bowl tailback in DeMarco Murray. In just 14 games last season Murray rushed for 1,120 yards at 5.2 yards per carry, caught 53 passes and scored 10 touchdowns. Know how many backs have done that in NFL history? As in forever and ever? Five. Their names are Marshall Faulk, LaDainian Tomlinson, Emmitt Smith, Tiki Barber and Murray. Yeah, he’s on that list.
Don’t want to hear about the injuries. In three NFL seasons, he’s averaging 13-plus games per year. Let’s not make him out to be Mr. Glass here. And he’s in a contract year, which can sometimes lead to career numbers. The Cowboys should shoot for 20 touches every week, which would be 320 for the season. Murray finished with 270 last season in 14 games, so really not much more. Just a nice balance, if he’s having a big game, hand him that rock 25 times.
Four teams cracked 500 rushing attempts last season: Buffalo, Seattle, San Francisco and Philadelphia. They finished a combined 41-23 with the Seahawks, of course, winning the Super Bowl. That’s not a coincidence.
That should be the goal for the Cowboys this season. No, not winning the Lombardi Trophy, calm down. The goal should be 500 rushing attempts. Sure, some of the games might not be exciting, but I don’t recall much complaining in the 1990s when the Cowboys were winning. And we’ve had enough excitement the last four years, with seemingly every game coming down to the final drive.
Now, Murray and a few of the offensive linemen have been asked about this at camp, and have been careful with their words, more or less saying, we’ll believe it when we see it. We’re all in favor of this, but been there, done that. Let’s talk about the weight loss in the spring, not the first week of January. Ditto for this commitment to the run.
The pieces are in place, though. Another season of 600 passes and 350 rushes would be senseless.
Run, run and run some more. After that, run again. Please.
P.S. – This might sound a little hypocritical considering the column I just wrote, but I’m still 100 percent, couldn’t feel stronger, against any and all delayed handoffs. Write them out of the playbook. The only thing they delay is sustained drives and success. Thanks.