SAN DIEGO -After the Cowboys' 3-0 preseason victory over the Oakland Raiders, it looked like the re-worked, more powerful running game wasn't quite clicking.
The Cowboys' offense, which came into 2012 with the expectation it would have a greater focus on the running game, managed to earn a lackluster 54 yards on the ground. Perhaps even more disconcerting was the fact that the first team offense ran the ball only three times for a total of three yards.
In Saturday night's 28-20 loss to the San Diego Chargers, the Cowboys did not exactly dominate with their ground game (they finished with only 81 rushing yards) but they provided a little taste of what to expect from their starting running back.
Demarco Murray did not stay on the field deep into the game, as he had hoped he might coming into Saturday, but as a consolation the Cowboys gave him the ball early and often in the first series. Tony Romo got the ball to Murray for the first play of the game with a quick pass, which turned into a nine-yard gain. Not to be denied the first down, Murray received a handoff the very next play for a gain of five yards.
Murray touched the ball on five out of the first six plays from scrimmage and finished with 12 yards rushing and 18 yards receiving. He was pulled from the game after the first series but the message was established: the Cowboys were determined to get the ball to their running backs and control the time of possession.
After the game Murray talked about his eagerness to get the ball early in games so that he can get the offense going and move the chains.
"As a running back you always want to have the first couple touches to establish the running game or establish anything, really," Murray said. "Everybody wants the ball first, just to set the tone for the game. We did a great job of that today."
While Murray wants the ball as much as possible he has faith in the play calling of his head coach, Jason Garrett.
"Coach Garrett does a great job of putting us in the right position to make plays," Murray said. "We have a lot of weapons on the offense. He does a great job of spreading the ball around and getting the ball to guys in different situations. Of course, everyone wants the ball."
Less promising was Felix Jones' continued struggles in the preseason. For a player known for his speed, Jones has looked relatively lethargic by his standards in the preseason. He managed 10 yards off of three carries and also dropped a pass that hit both of his hands.
While Jones still holds a valuable place within the offense, converted fullback Jamize Olawale continued to impress in San Diego and is doing all he can to compete with Jones for snaps. Saturday night Olawale ran the ball more times than every other running back combined.
After the game Tony Romo also shared his opinion about the overall running game. A solid running game always makes a quarterback's job easier, but Romo explains that it is not so simple that one can just blame the play calling or the running back when the numbers on the ground are low. He warned against getting caught up in the week-to-week rushing totals.
"The running game, there's going to be a lot of articles written about it," Romo said. "But some weeks you're going to run the ball well, some weeks you're not. Some teams are going to structurally have a defensive game plan to slow that down and in the NFL you really can do that if you decide to commit to certain things."
Romo explains that the running game is not as simple an on/off switch and that there is a lot of strategy that goes into the play-calling. Overall, he was pleased with what he saw from ground game.
"I sometimes think it's kind of silly to say 'we need to get the running game going,'" Romo said. "Well, if you hand it off against seven men and you only have six blockers, it's not good to get the running game going. I think we had good numbers (tonight). A lot of guys blocked well tonight. Some weeks are going to be better than others."
Romo makes valid points about the shortsightedness of overstating the rushing numbers in certain games. The Cowboys' offense involves a fair amount of swing passes and screens to the running backs. Those yards will not show up in the rushing total, but they are executable plays that get the running backs involved and help to control tempo.
For example, Saturday night against San Diego the two leading rushers for the Cowboys were Jamize Olawale and Murray, who combined for 42 rushing yards. However, they were both targeted as receivers during the game and combined for 48 rushing yards. Their all-purpose yards may be a better indication of their effectiveness. Murray, in particular, proved again in the first series of the game that he can carry a very heavy workload and that he is willing to get involved in moving the ball any way that he can. If Murray is able to replicate what he did early in the game for four quarters, the running game will be of little concern.