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Spagnola: Nothing Like Running Into The End Zone


IRVING, Texas – Yep, great that the Cowboys are leading the league in rushing, the first time that's occurred since entering Week 4 of the 2009 season.

In turn, very impressive that DeMarco Murray has led the NFL in rushing in each of these first four weeks of the season, the first time a Cowboys running back has led the NFL in rushing since Emmitt Smith did so entering Week 10 of the 1999 season.

Folks must be dancing in the streets that the Cowboys rank second in rushing attempts heading into Sunday's noon start against the Houston Texans at AT&T Stadium, averaging 32.5 attempts a game, only 1.5 attempts behind Cincinnati's 34.

And how about this? The Cowboys are tied for first with 36 rushing first downs, nearly half as many in just four games as they had all of last year (80).

All for sure positively affecting this 3-1 record fueled by a three-game winning streak that has the Cowboys tied for first in the NFC East with the Philadelphia Eagles and gunning for four straight victories for the first time since 2011.

"Oh, I think we're significantly better controlling the line of scrimmage, there is no question about that," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett says resolutely.

But we haven't even gotten to the best part of the Cowboys suddenly – and finally – being good enough to consistently run the football from week to week so far, which in turn means you will have confidence to continue pounding away even if you happen to not be getting anywhere early:

They are walking that doginto the end zone, as the radio voice of the Cowboys, Brad Sham, loves to say when the Cowboys are able to run the ball for touchdowns virtually untouched, just as Sham did this past Sunday describing Murray's 15-yarder against the New Orleans Saints.

And they'll run a draw … Murray right tackle, 10-yard line, 5, walk the dog, touchdown Cowboys. … Block 'em up big people. I'll just walk right over there.

That's right, the Cowboys are not just rushing for yards, they are rushing for touchdowns. Five already, to be exact. All Murray's, and that, too, is nearly half as many in four games as they had all of last year (12).

See to me, yeah, yeah, it's great to run the ball, to gain yards, but if you are not running the ball into the end zone, who cares? If you are not scoring touchdowns, who cares? Just go ahead and eat up the clock. We're not concerned. But by golly you are not – will not – pass us to death with those big gainers.

And I'll give you an example, and hopefully the pain has somewhat subsided from this game, although Cowboys owner Jerry Jones pointed out this week that this particular game is one of only three since he's owned the Cowboys that tears afterward actually rolled down his cheek.

Sure, you remember it, too, the 21-17 NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the New York Giants at Texas Stadium following that 13-3 season in 2007. You remember what happened in that game?

Why, with wide receiver Terrell Owens playing on a high-ankle sprain he never should have played on – no threat to get down the field – the Cowboys decided to lean on their power running game behind Marion Barber. Barber rushed for 101 yards in the first half on 16 carries, but only one of those yards though produced a touchdown.

And the halftime score was …

Cowboys 14, Giants 14.

Heck, the Giants loved it. Run all you want, fill your belly up with yards, but as long as you aren't running the ball into the end zone on a regular basis, who cares. What the Giants were worried about was stopping Tony Romo, who that season threw for 4,211 yards and 36 touchdowns in his first full season as an NFL starter. They decided, especially the second half, priority No. 1 was to get Romo, pressure him with a defensive front unconcerned with the running game since Barber wasn't going to beat them from afar. He was a plugger, no video-game marvel. They would stomach the 5- to 7-yard runs.

The Giants wound up sacking Romo twice in the second half. Hit him another eight times in the game. And there went the Cowboys meekly into the night, oh wow, with 129 yards rushing yet saddled with a 21-17 loss, the very memory still stinging those that were here seven years ago.

  That's why to me the most impressive part of that 38-17 victory over the New Orleans Saints was Murray's two rushing touchdowns, the 15-yarder and then the 28-yarder to give the Cowboys a somewhat incomprehensible 31-3 third-quarter lead in just 38 minutes, 18 seconds of work.

You bet, running the ball in from virtually afar.

Check this out: Initially the 15-yard touchdown was the Cowboys longest rushing touchdown – and face it, it's not really that long – since Felix Jones had a 22-yarder five games into the 2012 seasons. That had been 31 games ago.

Then the 28-yarder became the longest Cowboys rushing touchdown since his 91-yarder against St. Louis six games into the 2011 season. That had been 46 games ago.

Hallelujah, two from distance in one game, the Cowboys five rushing touchdowns now tying them for second in the NFL, just one behind Washington.

For further perspective, consider this: Of last year's 12 rushing touchdowns, only two were on runs longer than 4 yards, and both Murray from 7 yards out. In 2012, only two of the team's eight rushing touchdowns were from more than 4 yards out, Murray's 11 and the 22-yarder by Jones.

And in 2011, get this, of the meager five rushing touchdowns from that season, setting the franchise record low, only two of those rushing touchdowns were more than 1 yard – Murray's 91-yarder and Phillip Tanner had a 6-yarder, both in that St. Louis game.

But now, with a much-improved offensive line, with tight ends blocking their tails off and wide receivers suddenly believing that helping out in the running game is a badge of honor, the Cowboys and Murray, the NFC's Offensive Player of the Month for September, are actually on pace to rush for 20 touchdowns. That would be the team's highest total since 2006 when they totaled 21, and an individual high since Emmitt rushed for a franchise-record 25 in 1995.

And, get this: In between, Barber's 14 rushing touchdowns in 2006 stand as the 18-year high (1996-2013).

Let that sink in.

"It's hard to do now, those plays are hard to come by," Garrett says of the rushing touchdowns from distance, "and you know, a real tribute to the guys blocking and DeMarco."

Guarantee you, keep that up, especially running the ball in from outside the 10-yard line, defenses will suddenly start crowding the line of scrimmage, significantly opening up the passing game. Dividends will be paid. [embedded_ad]

So we shall see if this past Sunday was the blue moon or a sign of things to come with Murray operating behind a hardy starting offensive line that will only get better as the season progresses since three-fifths of them are in no more than their second season and four-fifths no older than Ron Leary's 25.

On top of that, with Romo seemingly gaining steam, his passer rating and overall performance climbing in each game following the opener, with Terrance Williams showing he's no slouch if team's want to double-up on Dez Bryant, and if they don't, Dez making defenses pay dearly, something just might be brewing with these Cowboys.

Just remember, running the ball well is great. Ah, but running it into the end zone from afar?

"Touchdowns are hard to come across, especially when you run," Murray says, echoing his head coach. But when you can run them in from distance? "I think it definitely fires up the team. … It's hard to run 'em in, oh yeah."

Sure has been. But maybe the worm is turning.

And if so, go ahead Brad Sham, darn it, walk that dog.

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