FRISCO, Texas — Run the ball. Stop the run.
Those two phrases have been uttered by just about every head coach, before every football game, on just about every level, for years and years.
No matter the era of football, the running game is always a vital part to success and failure and for the Cowboys, they didn't meet the standard this past season, on any side of the ball.
The Cowboys struggled to run the ball efficiently on offense and allowed too many rushing yards on defense, which was glaring in the losses throughout the season.
On Thursday, head coach Mike McCarthy met with the media for the first time in the offseason and was asked specifically to address the run, both on offense and defense.
"I think just big picture-wise, over the course of the year, we need to be better in both areas," McCarthy said. "I think it's something that we were talking about … Those are the things with the training and how you do it and how you can improve there. We're not where we need to be in both areas."
Where the Cowboys were – was pretty much right in the middle of the pack in both categories. On offense, they ranked 14th out of 32 teams in rushing yards per game, averaging 112.9 yards per game. And on defense, they were exactly in the middle, ranking 16th by allowing 112.4 yards per game.
But again, that's based off regular season stats. In the playoffs, the importance of running the football is always escalated, whether it's because of colder weather in some cases, or just to shorten the game, or to establish a ball-control mentality. Either way, running the football is different animal in the postseason.
The Cowboys were in the middle during the regular season, but even in the playoff loss to the Packers, they had major issues on both sides of the ball. Just a quick look at the stats, the Packers rushed for 143 yards and the Cowboys went for 123 on the ground.
But a closer look suggests the Cowboys' rushing numbers are misleading, considering that Dak Prescott rushed for 45 yards, mostly on designed passes that turned into scramble runs out of the pocket. Just looking at the two starting running backs – Tony Pollard had 15 attempts for 56 yards and a 3.7 yard average. On the other side, Green Bay's Aaron Jones had 21 carries for 118 yards with a 5.6 yard average and three touchdowns.
It was clear, the Packers were able to load up and run the ball with effectiveness and the Cowboys relied more on the pass, which of course was a byproduct of being down for the entire game.
And that proved to be a theme all season long. The Cowboys allowed 222 rushing yards in a Week 3 loss to Arizona, where they also trailed the entire game. They allowed 170 yards to the 49ers in Week 5 in a game they never led. And the biggest rushing total against them occurred in Buffalo, where the Bills went for 266 yards to torch the Cowboys – also a game in which Dallas trailed for the entire game.
So as McCarthy said in his press conference, the Cowboys must get better in both areas. That will be tested by free agency, considering the Cowboys have both of their top running backs – Tony Pollard and Rico Dowdle as unrestricted free agents.
On defense, defensive tackles Johnathan Hankins and Neville Gallimore are free agents, as well as defensive ends Dorance Armstrong and Dante Fowler. Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is also a UFA but will need to make a decision regarding a neck injury that kept him out for the final 13 games of the season.
While the personnel is set to change on both sides of the ball, regarding the running game, the Cowboys must make sure the results also change – for the better.