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Over their last three seasons, the Dallas Cowboys have thrown the football 1,814 times in differential to 1,099 times they’ve elected to utilize the ground game. That’s a separation of 715 of relying on the passing game to sustain drives, move the chains and punch the football in the endzone.
The chit-chatting around “Big D” has been the importance of establishing the run, but we’ve yet to see the results or anything that will shed some light to make us believe the team will commit to the run as much as they should. So…in steps Scott Linehan, an offensive coordinator of the Cowboys that’s known for using his vertical passing attack, who in his previous five seasons coordinating the Detroit Lions’ offense, threw the ball more than any team. The Lions averaged 40.7 pass attempts per game during Linehan’s 80 games of running the offense. The Cowboys have averaged only four less attempts during that span.
Surely, the league has opened up the gates on using the vertical game by attacking defenses with spread alignments and multiple exotic formations, but the perception of the running game evaporating by the talking heads is something that’s misleading spectators of the game.
Let’s take a look at your last 14 Super Bowl winners on team rushing attempts, Yards, Yards per carry and Touchdowns:
2000 Ravens – 511 ATTs, 2,199 YDs, Y/A 4.3, 9 TDs
2001 Patriots – 473 ATTs, 1,793 YDs, Y/A 3.8, 15 TDs
2002 Buccaneers – 414 ATTs, 1,557 YDs, Y/A 3.8, 6 TDs
2003 Patriots – 473 ATTs, 1,607 YDs, Y/A 3.4, 9 TDs
2004 Patriots – 524 ATTs, 2,134 YDs, Y/A 4.1, 15 TDs
2005 Steelers – 549 ATTs, 2,223 YDs, Y/A 4.0, 21 TDs
2006 Colts – 439 ATTs, 1,762 YDs, Y/A 4.0, 17 TDs
2007 N.Y. Giants – 469 ATTs, 2,148 YDs, Y/A 4.6, 15 TDs
2008 Steelers – 460 ATTs, 1,690 YDs, Y/A 3.7, 16 TDs
2009 Saints – 468 ATTs, 2,106 YDs, Y/A 4.5, 21 TDs
2010 Packers – 421 ATTs, 1,606 YDs, Y/A 3.8, 11 TDs
2011 N.Y. Giants – 411 ATTs, 1,427 YDs, Y/A 3.5, 17 TDs
2012 Ravens – 444 ATTs, 1,901 YDs, Y/A 4.3, 17 TDs
2013 Seahawks – 509 ATTs, 2,188 YDs, Y/A 4.3, 14 TDs
As you can see, your last 14 Super Bowl winners have actually used the running game enough, some were great, some average, but even when not averaging a staggering number in the avenue of yards per carry or scoring in double digits on the ground, they didn’t shy away from the run and let opposing defenses know they won’t abandon that element of the game. This is a prime example of not being one-dimensional and formulating a stabled level of balance on offense to control the tempo.
The Cowboys’ recent highest rushing attempt total was in 2011 (408), mostly between DeMarco Murray (rookie season) and Felix Jones combined in 15 starts. Here’s where things have gone in way over Jason Garrett and Bill Callahan’s heads on running the offense: In 2012 they dialed up 658 pass attempts (648 from Romo) and fed the football to the backs only 355 times. Throwing the football 303 times more than running the football isn’t going to bring home the bacon for you in this league, and not much changed last season. The only bright spot was witnessing the healthiest version of DeMarco Murray, who had his best season yet, rushing for 1,121 yards on 217 carries, averaging 5.2 yards per carry and 9 rushing touchdowns, 1 receiving for a total of 10 touchdowns in 14 games. Still, in the midst of changing play-callers from Callahan to Garrett, the Cowboys went aerial 250 more times (586-to-336) than having Tony Romo or Kyle Orton hand off the ball.
The Dallas defense improved last season in the area of generating turnovers (27), 11 up from the previous season and were only 4 away from Philadelphia and Tampa Bay (31), who were second behind Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” defense that led the league with 39. But, when you don’t control time of possession and are putting your quarterback in third and longs, the results will likely end up with a good chunk of non-sustained drives, three and outs and putting your defense back on the field, regardless if you’re taking the football away from the opposition. For example; Week 15, a game the Cowboys blew a 26-3 halftime lead against the Packers on Dec. 15, the Cowboys threw the running game in the trash and Jason Garrett had Romo throw the ball for most of the second half. Well, one of the throws that resulted in an interception apparently was on the lone will of his quarterback switching out of the run.
Anyhow, this isn’t organized football, and when you’re not an organized team, everything that sparks mistakes in situational football and the most critical moments awaits at your doorstep. The same when committing “Football Suicide” against the Lions in 2011 when up 27-3 with the ball in the second half and still gun-slinging it with Romo, who ended up throwing two pick-sixes that put Detroit back in the game, and the result ended in a 34-30 loss. You can never have a comfortable lead when you can’t close things out by controlling the clock. You need to have some faith in your running game and have your five “Big Nasty’s” upfront on the O-line go full-steam ahead and lay the smack-down at the line of scrimmage. And with an offensive line that looks primed to be a solid unit for the Cowboys’ offense after going offensive line (Tyron Smith in 11, Travis Frederick in 13, Zack Martin this year) in three of their last four drafts in the first round, the question still remains, will a coordinator like Scott Linehan, whose track-record has proven to be mostly through the air on play-selection, call upon the backfield’s number to do the work?
With the naked-eye, it’s hard to believe that a man that coordinated Detroit’s offense that set a record for most pass attempts (740) in a single season in 2012 will get out of his pass-happy ways. Not so fast people. In 2006, when Linehan took over the St. Louis Rams at head coach and had a capable workhorse back like Steven Jackson, he managed to get Jackson the ball 346 times on handoffs for 1,528 yards rushing and 90 times through the air for 806 yards receiving, giving him a grand total of 436 touches and 2,334 yards from scrimmage. Most importantly, in his rookie season as a head coach, he brought a balanced attack to the St. Louis offense by establishing the run and still managing ways to get the football to receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, two well-polished and respected receivers at the time that both finished the season with over 1,000 yards receiving. And this was all done after Linehan replaced Mike Martz’ “Greatest Show on Turf” system, a system in the previous season that went 599/380 between the pass and run.
So…let’s not be sold on Linehan going overboard with the weapons the Cowboys have on offense, particularly within the pass. History does show since 2002 when Linehan started running NFL offenses with the Minnesota Vikings, when he has capable backs, he utilizes them on the ground and in the screen-game. The Cowboys’ offense features some top marque players ranging from receiver Dez Bryant to tight end Jason Witten all the way down to running back DeMarco Murray. The bottom line is head coach Jason Garrett and his assistants Bill Callahan and Scott Linehan need to change the way things have been done offensively if this team wants to get past finishing 8-8 and make the playoffs, especially when you have a defense with holes that’ll be missing Sean Lee (ACL) this season. Feed Murray the ball and maybe, just maybe, the Cowboys will start becoming a disciplined, well-organized team that can control football games.
You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and SilverandBlueReport.com @SilverBlueRpt