The Cowboys don't win football games by rushing the ball often. That's still not a consensus statement, but it should be. You'll continue to hear that the 'Boys need to "establish the run" and "maintain balance" to be a dominant offense, but as I explained earlier this year, the Cowboys are a significantly superior team when they pass the ball frequently to open up games. The reason that the team has a poor record when the final box score is pass-heavy (or a good record when it is tilted in favor of the run) is that they're forced to pass late when losing, creating the illusion that rushing the ball leads to victories.
Having said that, the running game is still important. While it's detrimental for the Cowboys to blindly rush the ball to begin contests, it's pivotal that the offense improves their rushing efficiency. If the Cowboys don't get better at running the ball when they do keep it on the ground, they're not going to be playing in January. Here are four ways they can do it.
1. Run in the right situations.
While the team obviously can't come out and drop back to pass on every snap, they shouldn't run the ball just for the sake of running it, either. Looking at historic averages and conversion rates, it's clear that there are times when rushing the ball makes more sense than others. One of those is on third down. Rushing the ball on third-and-short in particular has been much more successful than passing for both the Cowboys and the NFL as a whole. Actually, running is nearly as effective as throwing it all the way up until third-and-five.
The Cowboys could be wise to keep the ball on the ground in other short-yardage situations, too, especially in the red zone. Inside the opponent's 10-yard line, the field shrinks enough that rushing the ball is actually more effective than passing on first down. All four of the Cowboys' offensive draft picks should help the team's red zone efficiency in some manner, but handing it off more frequently near the goal line could aid the offense the most.
2. Pass the ball effectively.
When the Eagles were passing the ball more often than every other NFL team to start the millennium, they were frequently among the league's most efficient rushing teams. Defenses were so worried about defending the Eagles' passing offense that they conceded the run in many situations. There's perhaps no easier way to open up running lanes for DeMarco Murray and Joseph Randle than to hit Dez Bryant deep downfield. Rushing and passing have a synergistic effect; rushing efficiently can set up the pass, but passing the ball with success can also open up the run, creating a cycle that's very difficult to halt.
3. Run the ball with "11" personnel and from spread formations.
It seems obvious at first glance: If you want to pound the rock, bring in the big boys and line them up tight. While that might be the most effective direction to go in isolation, football is a game of competing minds. When the Cowboys go heavy, so does the defense. When they line up tight, so does the defense. Many times, such packages and formations simply increase the number of blocks the offense needs to make for a play to work.
The Cowboys have typically found the most success rushing from "11" personnel – three receivers, one running back, and one tight end. That's probably because 1) they spread the field and 2) defenses bring in smaller nickel personnel. Last year, Dallas averaged 4.35 yards per carry (YPC) with "11" personnel, but only 3.31 YPC on all other rushes. When all is said and done, the rookie who could help the Cowboys' rushing game the most might actually be Terrance Williams. If he can catch some passes and block well enough that the Cowboys feel comfortable using him even when they want to run the ball, the team should be able to improve their rushing efficiency.
4. Use more Shotgun runs.
The Cowboys ran the ball on just 7.2 percent of their Shotgun snaps last year. We'd never expect the run rate to be exorbitantly high from Shotgun since Dallas uses the alignment primary in passing situations, but the team seems to use certain formations for passing purposes only, regardless of the situation. [embedded_ad]
From the four Shotgun formations the Cowboys used with Jason Witten not lined up in-line (meaning he was split out wide or lined up in the backfield), the offense passed the ball 282 times and ran it on five occasions. Most of those plays were in passing situations, such as down late in games or on third-and-long, but some weren't. Since the 'Boys have shown a trend to pass the ball so often from Shotgun, especially with Witten lined up out wide, they could potentially improve their running game by lining up in a formation like Shotgun Spread and rushing the ball right up the gut.