Spagnola: Don't You Dare Forget About The Running Game

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IRVING, Texas – There has been all this talk about Tony Romo being more involved in the structure of this year's offense.

Great, because as Bill Parcells used to say, if I've got to cook the meal, you might as well let me buy the groceries. Just don't get hung up on the spending more time here thing. Not sure he can, anyway, but he definitely has some ideas of how the Cowboys from a schematic standpoint can improve their offensive production.

There also is this on-going discussion on just who will call the plays. Me, I don't care if Jason Garrett calls the plays or not. Good either way he decides. Same with Bill Callahan, who seemed to be handing off most of the plays to the quarterbacks during this week's OTA practice we witnessed and the rookie minicamp workouts. If Garrett thinks this helps the total operation, great.

The only right decision, reverting back to another Bill-ism, is if however they decide to call the plays – Garrett, Callahan, Romo himself some of the time, a combination of all three – works. If the Cowboys don't have a winning season then whatever way they went will be dead wrong. Just the way it is.

There also has been unlimited discussion on doing a better job of protecting Romo, knowing he suffered a career-high 36 sacks last year, thus using a first-round pick for the second time in three years on an offensive lineman, center Travis Frederick.

And, of course, making sure Romo has the necessary weapons, using the second-round pick on tight end Gavin Escobar and the third-rounder picked up in the first-round trade-down on wide receiver Terrance Williams.


Again, great, I'm for all of it – as long as the game plan, the play-caller, the revamped O-line, the "12 personnel" toy and adding yet another wide receiver somehow helps the Cowboys run the football more efficiently. Yeah, that again, sounding like a broken record I'm sure.

But I'm right, aren't I?

Because as a reminder, and seemingly lost in the never-ending discussion of just "how horrible" the Cowboys were last year, finishing 8-8 and all of one victory from winning the NFC East – my gosh, what would have been said had they gone 5-11 – the Cowboys set a 16-game season-record low for yards rushing, 1,265, and a franchise-record low for average yards rushing per game in any length of season, be it nine games, 12, 14, 15 or 16 – only 79 yards, eight fewer than the previous record low.

If history tells us anything, the Cowboys better pay attention to this facet of the game if their two-year rut of 8-8 is to finally improve to at least 9-7 or 10-6 or better since rarely have the Cowboys been successful without running the football effectively.

And I'm not talking about running the ball more, necessarily. Hey, if you can throw for nearly 5,000 yards in a season, wonderful. But you can't throw the ball every down, and the Cowboys found out how difficult playing winning football in the red zone can be when you can't run the ball into the end zone with any amount of regularity.

Oh, hush my mouth. Did I mention* running the ball into the end zone *again?

Yep, that again, because for the third consecutive season the Cowboys finished with no more than 10 rushing touchdowns, this time a mere eight after setting the franchise record low at a paltry five in 2011. And if you've been paying attention, you know the refrain:


The Cowboys have never finished with a winning record when rushing for no more than 10 touchdowns in a single season, and the evidence is growing, now up to 12 seasons. The best they've finished without rushing for more than 10 touchdowns is the 8-8 of these past two years and 7-7 in 1965. That's it.

And I'm not trying to be some old-school fogey here, like pounding the podium to insist leaning more heavily on the run. I like the passing game as much as the next guy. But sometimes these numbers are meaningful, and just what I found when expanding this running research.

See, usually the offensive benchmark is to rush for 2,000 yards, and in a 16-game season, that means averaging 125 yards a game. Well, the Cowboys have gone for 2,000 yards on the ground just once over the past 11 seasons, that being the 2,103 yards they rushed for in 2009 … uh, the last time they've finished with a winning record (11-5).

Now, this is not to suggest you can't have a winning season without rushing for at least 2,000 yards. Absolutely not. But guess what? Again, if history means anything, your odds for finishing with a winning record certainly increase if you do.

Remember that streak the Cowboys had of 19 consecutive winning seasons, from 1966-1984? Well, and not counting the 1982 strike-shortened, nine-game season, only twice during that span (1967 and 1984) did the Cowboys fail to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, and remember, until 1978, those were 14-game schedules to boot.

Let's expand a little more. Of the 51, non-strike-shortened seasons the Cowboys have played (1987 was 15 games, including three played with replacement players) they have finished with fewer than 2,000 yards rushing 27 times. Only 10 of those seasons produced a winning record. Meaning, from a Cowboys historical standpoint, you finish with a winning record only 36 percent of the time when rushing for fewer than 2,000 yards.

Here is another one. The Cowboys have suffered only 20 non-winning seasons in their 53-year history, which is rather remarkable when you consider six of those were the first six in franchise history. Well, they rushed for fewer than 2,000 yards in 17 of those 20 seasons, including the 7-8 campaign of 1987, and in five of the franchise's first six seasons. That means they finish with a non-winning record 85 percent of the time when failing to rush for 2,000 yards. And not to belabor the point, this also means only eight times have the Cowboys finished with no more than 10 rushing touchdowns and compiled a winning record. The fewest yards the Cowboys have rushed for in a winning season were the 1,641 of 1996 when they went 10-6. The next year they rushed for four fewer yards and just six touchdowns in what turned out to be Barry Switzer's final season of 6-10.

Hmmmm. Meaningful, you think? [embedded_ad]

Now then, the Cowboys have had 32 winning seasons in their 53-year history if you exclude the 6-3 of 1982 (1,313 yards rushing). Well, only10 of those 32 seasons ended with fewer than 2,000 yards, and of those 10, just six ended with fewer than 1,900 yards, so four more were at least close to 2,000.

Wow, that's pretty eye-opening, don't you think?

So yep, go ahead, talk all you want about Romo's increased input, or just who is calling the plays or the new offensive additions. Fine.

But as important, if not more so if these historical numbers are honored, is just who is doing the blocking up front, and will they block considerably better in the running game than the last three seasons? Also, who stays healthy enough to run the football, and will the addition of fifth-round pick Joseph Randle, and who knows, maybe even rookie free agent Kendial Lawrence enhance the running back stable behind DeMarco Murray? And just how do the Cowboys simply improve their running game overall?

Otherwise, all this other stuff creating offseason hullabaloo will be for naught.

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