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Spagnola: A Deeper Meaning For Dramatically Increased Ability To Run The Ball

IRVING, Texas –Not trying to be Mr. Obvious Guy, but this much we truly know:

         The Dallas Cowboys are running the football effectively … efficiently … well. Choose the adjective of your choice.

         But for how well and why, let's use some historical perspective to explain, and figure this is as good a time as any to do so with the Cowboys emerging from their bye at 7-3, tied for first in the NFC East with the Philadelphia Eagles, owning the No. 2 rushing offense in the NFL, while Sunday night's opponent, the New York Giants, are in the midst of a five-game losing streak, having fallen to 3-7 and owners of the No. 32, uh, dead last, rushing defense in the league.

         After 10 games the Cowboys have rushed for 1,532 yards, fueled by the remarkable performance of DeMarco Murray, who owns 1,233 of those rushing yards, having gained more than 100 yards in nine of the 10 games. Only the Seattle Seahawks have run for more yards, incredibly averaging 21 more yards a game than the Cowboys' robust 153.2 average.

         To fully appreciate what the Cowboys have done we must turn back the clocks of time. Think about this: With still six games to play the Cowboys already have rushed for 28 more yards than they did in all of last year (1,504). Same with Murray, the NFL's leading rusher after 10 games, and by 282 yards over Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell (981). He already has eclipsed last year's 1,000-yard season by 111 yards (1,121) And get this, Murray is the first Cowboys' running back, and I'm guessing this is not so surprising, to compile back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons since Emmitt Smith strung together an amazing NFL-record 11 straight from 1991-2001, one more than streaks by Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Curtis Martin.

         So let that sink in.

         Then there is this, and this might illustrate how poorly the Cowboys were running the ball or how little they trusted the running game: Murray, all by himself, and with the six games to go, is 32 yards shy of matching the Cowboys' entire rushing output from 2012, just two years ago, when they embarrassingly set the franchise record for fewest rushing yards in a 16-game season, just 1,265 yards. Heck, by Murray's 2014 standards, averaging 123.3 yards a game, he's one game's production away from doubling the 663 yards he gained that 2012 season.

         The difference between Earth and Moon.

         And this vast difference, or improvement, does not just pertain to yards. Rushing touchdowns also, and let's not lose sight of one of my favorite stats: The Cowboys have never had a winning season when rushing for no more than 10 touchdowns. Well, so far the Cowboys have rushed for eight touchdowns, seven belonging to Murray, the other that recent 40-yard jaunt by Joe Randle in London. That means they are on pace for right at 13 rushing TDs, with Murray headed for a career-high 11, nearly tripling his meager total of four in 2012. And if the Cowboys reach those 13 rushing touchdowns, that would represent five more than the eight in 2012, which were the third fewest in a single season for the team.

         That's what we're talking about.

         And for good measure, let's throw in a few other rushing goodies:

  • Murray's 1,233 rushing yards so far are the most by a Cowboys running back in a single season since Emmitt had 1,397 in 1999, and to think he still has six games to go.
  • With the six games remaining, Murray is on pace to finish with 1,978, which would break Emmitt's single-season club record of 1,774 set in 1995.
  • Should Murray pick up the pace, though having rushed for a more earthy 179 yards in the past two games, he could challenge Eric Dickerson's single-season NFL rushing mark of 2,105 set in 1984.
  • Should Murray stay on pace to finish with 11 rushing touchdowns, he would match the team's most rushing scores in a single season since Emmitt's 11 in 1999.
  • The Cowboys are on pace to finish with 2,451 rushing yards, three short of the third-highest single-season total in club history, accomplished in the 14-game season of 1974, but far short of the record 2,783 set in the Super Bowl season of 1978.

What does all this mean? Well, if the Cowboys can keep up the pace, and there would seem to be a good chance they will, bet they qualify for the playoffs for the first time in five seasons.

But now the why: Why have the Cowboys so dramatically turned around their running game in a mere two years' time, going from the absolute worst to one of the very best?

For that, let's dig deeper than the obvious, meaning Murray is having a great year or the Cowboys offensive line is arguably one of the best in the NFL, and maybe the best if the early Pro Bowl-voting results is any indication, with tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and guard Zack Martin leading at their respective positions.

Offensive play-caller Scott Linehan has two deeper reasons.

First, persistence, the Cowboys developing this mindset that come hell or high water, by golly we're going to run the football. Just because you stack the box with an eight-man front, you're still going to have to deal with Murray running the ball. And oh, we're not opposed to throwing a screen or two at you, either.

And you might stop us for a series or two, maybe even a quarter, but this run game is going to be an all-day sucker.

"I think it's a mindset that we're going to stick with it for the most part, whether we're ahead or not," Linehan says, evidenced by the run-pass ratio after 10 games, passing the ball 51 percent of the time and running it 49 percent. "I think it's real easy, and I've been a culprit of this, it's real easy when a team is lining up to stop the run and you're behind by a score or two, it's real easy to start thinking, 'We've got to catchup up,' and you're general response is you've got to throw it.

"We know that was the plan from the beginning, to be very stubborn about it, very persistent about it. You have to say no matter what's happening we're sticking with it. It's easy to say that, but if it's not working you're not going to continue trying, but our guys are really good battling through it. And seems like if you do that, you get better in the second half because you have kind of a feel for what people are doing, and sometimes if you don't get in those run formations (early) you don't know how they are going to line up and can't make adjustments."

Linehan had another suggestion for the "why" part of this equation.

"The other thing is our first down production," he says. "When you run the ball on first down and you're getting efficient runs on first down, your confidence stays really high, and that allows us to stick with it. And you don't get as frustrated when you're getting four yards on first down."

That is not perception. It's fact, and check this out: The Cowboys are averaging 6.35 yards on 293 first-down plays. Sound impressive? Well it is, and granted runs and passes factor into the average, the Cowboys lead the league on first-down production, only three other teams even averaging 6 yards a first-down play.

And this, too, is somewhat astounding: 48 percent of the Cowboys total yards (3,875) have been gained on first down (1,862). As head coach Jason Garrett said, adding to how impressive this number is, "It's hard to run the ball on first down," for the simple reason defenses normally come out on that down geared toward playing the run.

"Our ability to come out and get four or five on first-down runs is one of the biggest reasons we've been able to stay with it," Linehan says.

The Cowboys have run the ball 198 times on first down, totaling 1,020 yards, meaning averaging 5.2 yards a carry. They have thrown the ball 93 times, plus two quarterback scrambles, totaling 814 yards, or 8.6 per play. So yes, very good on first down, and good enough passing the ball to keep teams honest against the run. That's the hammer over all these defenses trying to stop the run: Devote too much attention to stopping the run, and quarterback Tony Romo will eat you alive.

And here is another reason for the Cowboys' greatly increased ability to run the football:

Zack Martin.

That's right, the addition of the rookie guard, using the 2014 first-round pick on him. He has not only completed this offensive line, but so solidified the middle of the line, where once the Cowboys were quite weak back in 2012.

Back during the offseason workouts I can remember asking Romo what he thought of Martin, and he told me, "This kid's the real deal."

He hasn't changed his mind.

"As smart as I've seen and has this ability to adjust on the fly," Romo says. He would also add his ability to pass block, creating a nice pocket in the middle, "which allows me to step up."[embeddedad0]

So there you go, more than meets the eye in case you were wondering why the Cowboys are running the ball so much better than last year, and especially from two years ago, and so much more. Persistence. Efficiency. First-down production. Zack Martin's addition to what had been a budding offensive line.

Sound good?

Let's run with it.

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