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Spagnola: Running Mo' Better Is The Answer



IRVING, Texas – If only as many people insisted on outlawing texting while driving as they do the Cowboys to run the football more maybe we could save ourselves from ourselves.


Must we go back to last Friday when many of you were warned about hastily jumping to conclusions after just one game, back when everyone was pulling their hair out over Dez Bryant catching just four passes for all of 22 yards, fretting that all defenses would simply double Dez to take him out of games.

And what? This past Sunday Dez dazzles everyone by catching nine passes for 141 yards and a touchdown, and if not for a drop and a powder-puff football interference call on him, he would have caught 11 balls for maybe 241 yards. [embedded_ad]

Ah, but the Cowboys lost, by the narrowest of margins at Kansas City at that, where they went into the game three-point underdogs, so blame had to be placed. Maybe on the defense, the same unit grabbing six takeaways the first week, getting none the second? Maybe on a run defense that held the Chiefs Jamaal Charles to eight yards on eight carries until the final possession, when the Chiefs basically ran out the clock with their lead back turning his next eight carries into 47 yards? Maybe on the offensive line, one playing not near as well as it did in the opener against the Giants?

But no, un-uh, the reason the Cowboys came up one point (17-16) short in the minds of most is an offense averaging an astounding 2.3 yards on 16 carries – the equivalent of a guy getting to the line of scrimmage and just falling forward head first – didn't runthe dang ball enough.


Heck, if I was calling plays, at that rate I would have called 16 more pass plays, betting on completing at least a quarter of those for at least the 37 yards they gained inching the ball forward on the ground.

Come on, what are we doing here?

This is such a tired reason for losing a game: That they didn't have enough balance. Really? How is this for balance? Until the Chiefs' final possession, when all they were doing is grinding down the clock and sucking the three timeouts away from the Cowboys, they had thrown the ball 35 times and run it 17 times, eight of those by quarterback Alex Smith. And they have Jamaal Charles, right, and up until that final possession, he had eight carries for eight yards – and somehow, someway, they were winning.

Balance, shmalance.

Look, when you are averaging 2.3 yards a carry and the Chiefs are loading down the front, making sure they always had one more defender in the box than you had blockers, why in the world would you continue banging your head against a wall that isn't budging? Makes little sense to me.

The problem is not running the ball more, it's running the ball mo' better, no?

After all, this team showed signs of renewed rushing life during training camp and during the preseason games when the firsts were on the field, and this after rushing for a single-season low of 1,265 yards a year ago.

Again, let's not jump to conclusions based on one game. Remember, the Cowboys were OK running the ball in the first game, going for 88 yards on 22 carries if we're not counting Tony Romo's game-ending minus-1 kneel down, with DeMarco Murray averaging 4.3 a carry on his 20 runs for 86 yards. Not bad.

Let's see what happens Sunday against the Rams, who by the way sport a formidable front. And although only four teams have faced fewer running attempts than the Rams defense, those guys only give up 2.9 yards a carry, a reason why they rank sixth against the run, and have yet to give up a rushing touchdown.

Ah, but they are 27th against the pass, giving up 661 yards and five touchdowns in the two games.

So a logical man would say, wow, looks like you should be able to throw against these guys.

Also, sure, Murray wants to do better than he did against the Chiefs, and he'd probably admit he missed a couple of holes, maybe too anxious to avoid getting hit in the backfield as was the case far too many times during his 12-carry, 25-yard performance this past Sunday. Look, seven of his 12 attempts went for no more than two yards. Two, for gosh sakes.

And on those seven carries, the offensive line was at fault on all seven, either missing a block or blocks, or not getting movement forward. I mean, take the second-and-goal play from the one, where he was stuffed for a one-yard loss. Tyron Smith missed his backside cutoff block on Mike DeVito and Brian Waters tripped over Doug Free's feet pulling to his right. So the outside was clogged, and when Murray tried breaking back inside, ha, there was DeVito gobbling him up.

Yet the cries for more runs rain down.

On new play-caller Bill Callahan's head for sure.

"I've got to do a better job of calling more runs," Callahan said, almost as if to appease the populace. "But we want to take advantage of opportunities."

Yeah, like Bryant getting singled up by the Chiefs' $50 million corner Brandon Flowers, who got toasted shadowing Dez all over the field until the third quarter when the Chiefs decided the safety man was necessary to help double him. So they did take advantage there.

"We want to take advantage of the players we have to try to take advantage of situations," Callahan would say.

Also consider Murray has 13 receptions for 88 yards in two games, catching basically those long handoffs to loosen up defenses from crowding the line and blitzing so much. Hey, that's 6.8 yards a catch, plays Callahan considers just like runs. Add Lance Dunbar's one catch for four yards and Phillip Tanner's one for nine yards, that's 15 catches for 101 yards for the running backs.

That means if you add that total to the meager 125 yards rushing on 34 running back carries, you come up with 49 running back touches for 224 yards, or a 4.6-yard per touch average.

So, let's not panic … yet. It's only Game 3.

"Ultimately, you're trying to win football games, so there is a fine line," Romo says when it comes to this balance. "You're always trying to run the ball effectively – also trying to keep the defense from teeing off on you and attacking the quarterback.

"More than anything, it's about production."

And when asked if you must have a running mentality to be effective, Romo parried the question by saying, "It just makes everyone's job easier if you can run the ball effectively."

Ah-ha, there is that word again, effectively, which is not synonymous with more as some would like to suggest.

Oh, by the way, so far NFL teams have combined for a league record 16,355 passing yards for any two-week period in history, while only six running backs have gained more than 152 yards so far over the first two games. And the teams they run for, three are 1-1 and three are 0-2.

Just saying, if you are sold that runnin' more is the panacea for NFL success.

So come Sunday against the St. Louis Rams, their choice of defensive philosophy will be interesting. Do they sell out to make sure Dez doesn't go off on them and accept what the Cowboys do in the running game, or will they stubbornly clog the line of scrimmage to encourage the Cowboys to abandon the run?

"It'd be silly just to run the ball to where you can't block an extra guy," Romo explained of what the Chiefs mostly did. "That's part of the game. When some people are doing that, they're leaving Dez by himself (one-on-one).

"It's part of what defenses have to decide – what they're going to give up – and sometimes it can be a big benefit."

So by dinner Sunday we'll have a three-game sample of what these Cowboys are or aren't. Whether they can run the ball or absolutely not. Whether Murray is seeing holes or not. That will be closer to a sample size, yet not complete.

Just remember, it's not how much you run, but how far.

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