IRVING, Texas – Even the most accredited and acclaimed passing attacks around the league know the importance of an effective, timely rushing attack.
Take the Broncos and Peyton Manning, who ran 34 times and passed 36 in their most recent playoff win. Or take the Saints when they beat the Eagles in their first playoff game by running 36 times and passing 30.
These teams, despite their preference to throw and their preponderance of passing weapons, understand that a running game is not a hindrance or a burden to moving the ball if it's used the right way. Handing the ball off is not always a give-up play or a tactic to appease the masses. Even Manning, who has as much responsibility as any quarterback, will check to runs without second thought.
That thought process didn't exist in Dallas in 2013 despite their newfound rushing success toward the end of the year, and their third down struggles were at least partly a result of that.
Despite never trailing by more than four points against the Vikings, the Cowboys passed 51 times and ran it nine times that day. After taking a 23-point lead against the Packers into halftime, it was actually Green Bay that ran 19 second-half running plays to the Cowboys' seven, as the Packers eventually worked their way into the lead and a win.
"I think when you step back and look at it again, you probably would have wanted a little bit more balance and run the ball a little bit more," head coach Jason Garrett said after that loss. "We were effective running the ball. That's why we look at it in hindsight and say, we probably should have run the ball more."
That type of comment from Garrett, stressing the need to run it more and run it better, was common throughout the year but infrequently acted upon. He stressed the importance of the running game in conferences throughout the week or in a post-game setting, but the performances and calls would typically suggest otherwise.
It's not all about balance, per se. The trick is knowing when to put the ball on the ground, and if the Cowboys are to keep the majority of the same offensive coaching staff in place they need to hope those same coaches are capable of adapting their in-game plans in the coming years.
The Saints and Broncos are two teams that continually pop up as owning the most lethal passing attacks in the game, but their consistency in that regard has at least something to do with keeping defenses off balance.
The Cowboys ran just 32 rushing plays on second-and-4 or fewer in 2013, converting the first down at least 50 percent of the time. That's exactly half the amount of rushing plays as the "pass-heavy" Broncos on those downs and distances.
Garrett talks at length about getting "manageable third downs," but the Cowboys ran the ball fewer than 24 percent of the time on second-and-8. Those subsequent incompletions tended to result in more passing plays on third-and-long.
When it came to third-and-2 or third-and-3 or third-and-4, teams could practically play the pass every time. The Cowboys ran just two plays apiece all year on those specific downs and distances and ran a total of 17 rushing plays all season on third-and-4 or fewer. To put that in perspective, on third-and-2 they ran the ball 11 percent of time and on third-and-3 they ran 15 percent of the time. [embedded_ad]
For further perspective, the Saints ran 22 percent of the time on third-and-2, doubling the Cowboys' total. The Broncos ran 25 percent of the time on third-and-2 and even ran 14 percent of the time on third-and-5. Despite boasting some of the league's best passers, they understand what the running game can do for their passing attack.
For a Cowboys team that averaged 4.5 yards per carry as a team and featured a top running back who averaged 5.2 yards per carry, their resistance to run in tight quarters is somewhat unexplainable. It signified a lack of belief by either the play-caller or the signal caller switching the plays that a run can move the sticks.
The Cowboys converted at least half the time when running the ball on third-and-1 and third-and-2. Meanwhile, they converted at or less than 50 percent of the time via the pass on those same downs and distances.
This doesn't mean the Cowboys should run when it's not working or abandon the pass. They have Dez Bryant and Tony Romo and Jason Witten and those players need to be involved, particularly considering the Cowboys' inability in recent years to break off long touchdown runs. But it does mean they need to be more cognizant that running the ball isn't always surrendering.
Teams could gear up on what was coming on short yardage situations in 2013, which makes sense considering the Cowboys finished three percent worse than the rest of the league on third down conversions.
The Dallas coaches need to adapt to their newfound rushing success and demonstrate some belief in it for the offense to find its form in 2014. Or, if they truly don't believe in that, they've got to admit their reliance on the passing game and provide the team with more weapons on the outside in the draft.