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Good & Bad: The Pros & Cons Of An Improved O-Line


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 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 next edition takes a closer look at the trenches, specifically on the offensive side of the ball. The Cowboys took significant strides forward with their running game in 2013. But, as has been noted, the offense seemed to turn away from the run. And the variety of options in the offensive backfield were not explored.

Promising:You obviously can't forget about Pro Bowl veteran Brian Waters, who went down with a torn triceps around the midpoint of the season.

But in the final stretch of the 2013 season, when the Cowboys' running game began to click, their offensive line was anchored by a Pro Bowl left tackle in Tyron Smith, who just turned 23. Left guard Ronald Leary, who started all 16 games, turns 25 this spring. Rookie center Travis Frederick will be 23 when he reports for offseason workouts.

The right side of the Cowboys' line would have to be considered the veteran side, and even then, right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau and right tackle Doug Free just turned 28 and 30, respectively.

When those five had a chance to gel, the result was pretty phenomenal for the Dallas ground game. The Cowboys ranked among the 10 best teams in the NFL in yards per carry from every position along their offensive line. Smith carried the banner, with the offense running off left tackle 53 times last year for an average of 5.28 yards per carry.

The Cowboys only rushed off left guard a meager 15 times last year, but when they did, it was for an average of 7.07 yards. Even with a rookie at center, on the 51 occasions the Cowboys ran behind Frederick, it resulted in a 5.5 yards per carry average. 

It makes it surprising that, given their success, the Cowboys ranked in the bottom rung of the league in attempts to the interior of their line. Only the 53 attempts in Smith's direction ranked in the top half of the league, while the others finished No. 31, No. 28 and No. 16.

Those numbers help explain why the Cowboys finished 24th in rushing offense last year. But this certainly seems like a solid building block. Bernadeau and Frederick are under contract for the foreseeable future, while Leary and Smith seem like certainties for contract renewal.

Troubling:It's hard to criticize too much, given DeMarco Murray's second half surge in. Murray raced to the Cowboys' first 1,000-yard rushing season since 2006 en route to a Pro Bowl appearance.

That said, it's pretty disconcerting to see the disparity in the Cowboys' rushing stats this past season. For a guy with a documented injury history, the Cowboys leaned on Murray hard down the homestretch of the season.

It's not like the Cowboys rode Murray to an obscene number of touches. His 217 carries tied for just 17th in the NFL – league leader LeSean McCoy carried the ball 97 more times than Murray. [embedded_ad]

So it's not the total, but the overall lack of support that's surprising. Dallas was one of just three clubs in the league to finish the 16-game regular season without multiple 200-yard rushers. The other two were Chicago and Pittsburgh. Almost every other team in the league, even those with dynamic running backs, found some help in their backfields.

Murray went out of the Oct. 13 Washington game with a knee injury. He missed most of that game, as well as the Oct. 20 Philadelphia game and the Oct. 27 Detroit game. Backup Joseph Randle toted the ball 44 times in his absence.

Factoring out his absences due to injury, Murray accounted for about 75 percent of the touches for the Cowboys' running game. Randle, a highly-touted draft pick, got about 10 carries in games where Murray was available.

Diminutive speedster Lance Dunbar, whose shiftiness has made him an intriguing prospect since he joined the team in 2012, managed 30 carries on the year. Roughly 40 percent of those carries came in the win against Oakland, when he rushed for 82 yards on 12 carries before ultimately suffering a season-ending injury.

Even McCoy, with his 314 carries, only accounted for 63 percent of Philadelphia's touches. Given Murray's history with injuries, and the talent behind him, it might be wise to share the wealth.

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