IRVING, Texas – As with all 8-8 seasons, the good goes hand in hand with the bad.
The Cowboys fixed some of their past problems from their previous two 8-8 seasons, while new ones popped up in the latest .500 finish in 2013.
This DallasCowboys.com series takes a look at both the good and the bad, analyzing some of the positive, more promising aspects of the 2013 season alongside the negative, more troubling traits as the team prepares for a new year.
Our third edition focuses on the emergence of the Cowboys' running game, which sprang to life in the second half of the 2013 season. However, that surge was coupled with a surprising drop in production from Tony Romo and the typically explosive passing game.
Promising:It sure looked like DeMarco Murray was heading toward a disappointing season when the Week 9 win against Minnesota drew to a close. Murray had missed the two previous games with a minor knee injury, and his four carries for 31 yards against the Vikings were both among his career lows.
Aside from missing two games with injury, the Cowboys also seemed to forget about Murray at times. The third-year running back only rushed for more than 70 yards twice in the first half of the season – one of those being his massive 175-yard day against St. Louis. Heading into the Nov. 10 game against New Orleans, he had a grand total of 103 rushing yards since Oct. 6.
That's what made Murray's outstanding second half all the more exciting. Though the Cowboys stumbled to a 3-4 record down the stretch, Murray ripped off the best string of games in his career en route to a Pro Bowl nod. In the last two months of the season, the Oklahoma product tallied 665 rushing yards – an average of 95 yards per game.
He scored six of his nine rushing touchdowns in that span, and he added 158 receiving yards – including his first-ever receiving touchdown to beat Washington on fourth down.
Plenty of credit should go to the Cowboys' offensive line, which didn't miss a beat when Mackenzy Bernadeau stepped in for the injured Brian Waters. Tyron Smith arrived on the scene as a Pro Bowl player himself, and the additions of Travis Frederick and Ronald Leary bolstered what had been a leaky unit the year before.
Behind Murray, the Cowboys' first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006, the ground game became good enough that it was actually a strength of the team – so much so that many questioned why the Cowboys didn't run the ball more in losses to Chicago and Green Bay.
If the Cowboys can take Murray's performance from the end of 2013 and build on it – perhaps by incorporating Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar into the offense more – the running game could be a team strength for the first time in quite a while.
Troubling:It feels hard to praise the running game, and then turn around and criticize the lack of success downfield – but the passing game just wasn't as explosive as has been customary.
You have to admit Tony Romo protected the ball in 2013, as he said he would. He threw 31 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions, which ties his 2011 campaign as the best margin of his career. He also threw for 3,828 yards – a total that fell well below his 4,900 yards in 2012, though the Cowboys weren't facing nearly as many deficits this go around.
All of that said, the passing game just wasn't very dynamic last season. With a few exceptions – Kansas City, Denver, Detroit – Romo did not test the field deep too often. His average yardage per attempt was 7.2, which was the lowest of his career, as the Cowboys used slants and short routes often. [embedded_ad]
Several of the longest gains of the season – such as Terrance Williams' and Dez Bryant's touchdowns against Detroit – were short routes with long runs after them. All told, Romo averaged 255 yards per game in 15 contests, which is his second-lowest average and his lowest since 2006, when he took over as the starter.
And it's not as if a more conservative approach led to greater efficiency. Romo's completion percentage was just 63.9 percent, which is the third-lowest percentage of his career and his lowest since 2009. His quarterback rating was above average, but his rating of 96.7 was just the fourth-best of his career.
It seems harsh to criticize, given the improvement of the running game – and again, Romo's 3,800 yards and 31 touchdowns are nothing to scoff at. But the Cowboys had a top-10 passing game during every year of Jason Garrett's time in Dallas, and they fell to the middle of the league this year.
That has to be something Garrett wants to improve, especially given the decision to hire Scott Linehan to oversee the passing attack.