The Cowboys typically win football games by throwing the football efficiently on offense and effectively stopping the pass on defense. Perhaps the biggest value in the running game comes in its ability to set up the pass; effective rushing can set up big plays through the air.
Rushing effectively does not necessarily mean running often, however. The benefits of playaction and other passing plays come because an offense is having success when they run the football, not necessarily because they continue to hand off the ball. Many of the most efficient rushing teams over the past five years have been those with the most potent passing attacks.
Thus, I don’t think the popular notions that the Cowboys “need to stick to the run” or they “have to believe in their running game” are necessarily true. Instead, the ‘Boys need to find a way to run the ball more efficiently. That will hold back pass-rushers and set up their playaction passing game so that they can really gash defenses.
I think there are a number of ways for the Cowboys to improve their rushing attack, the easiest and most important of which may be to run when the defense isn’t expecting it. Specifically, the Cowboys have historically had success when they run the ball out of spread formations and “11” personnel—one running back, one tight end, and three receivers. By “surprising” the defense by using pass-oriented personnel and formations, I think DeMarco Murray will be able to find more success on the ground.
On the season, Jason Garrett has called for a run on 68 plays (note that this includes only designed runs, not quarterback scrambles or kneel-downs). Only 18 of those rushes (26.5 percent) have been from spread formations such as “Tight End Spread” or “Shotgun Trips.” The rest have been from run-heavy personnel groupings and formations like “Double Tight Strong” or simple “I Right.”
On their 18 spread runs, the Cowboys have gained 78 total yards (4.33 yards-per-carry). That’s not outstanding, but it’s certainly superior to the 3.34 YPC the ‘Boys are averaging out of tight formations. Of course, the offense generally lines up in tight formations in short-yardage situations, but the disparity in game situations isn’t as vast as you might think for tight runs versus spread runs. The average distance-to-go for a first down on tight runs has been 8.7. For spread runs, it’s just barely higher at 9.3. Thus, it appears as though Dallas is repeating their history of rushing most effectively out of spread formations.
By calling more runs when utilizing “11” personnel, I think the Cowboys should be able to increase their efficiency in a major way. In turn, a superior running game will make things a whole lot easier on Tony Romo and the ‘Boys’ passing attack.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.
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