We're taking a look back at the 2012 season by analyzing the work done by all of the Cowboys position groups by themselves. The running backs are up next.
The Players: DeMarco Murray was the starter any time he was healthy enough to play. Felix Jones was the starter when he wasn't. Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar both saw time at tailback and Lawrence Vickers was the fullback.
2012 Performance: For much of the season, the lack of a consistent running attack was seen as a major problem. Whether the problem was Jason Garrett's play calling, the offensive line's blocking efforts, Murray's foot injury or something else entirely, the Cowboys struggled to establish the run early in games and then abandoned it as they played catchup. The result was the lowest rushing yardage of any Cowboys team in a 16-game season.
Since we're talking about just the running backs here, though, we'll keep our focus there. Murray had moments after his return when he showed he was capable of providing that missing balance to the offense, although he also showed a propensity for fumbling that erodes some of the positives.
Jones flopped again and this should be it for him in Dallas. Dunbar and Tanner failed to impress in their limited action and Vickers, like most fullbacks in today's NFL, didn't have a particularly big role.
Room for Improvement: The Cowboys obviously see a lot of room to improve because they fired running backs coach Skip Peete after the end of the season. It's an odd choice given the injuries and the offensive line woes, but it was hardly an egregious decision. With or without Murray, the Cowboys have to find a way to get more out of the backs so that every game doesn't come down to Tony Romo.
One thing that will help is bringing in complementary backs who can do a better job in that role. A bruising back and a pass catcher, perhaps, to round out the roles and give the team more options offensively.
Chances of Improvement: The nice thing about being totally awful on the ground is that there's nowhere to go but up. The Cowboys almost certainly will be a better running team next year, but the magnitude is what's going to be important. And that's going to come down to Murray's health and improvement on the offensive line.
Long-Term Outlook: Murray is the latest in a long line of the sports archetype of the player who would be great if he could just remain healthy. The injuries Murray suffered don't show signs of anything other than a dark cloud over his head, but it doesn't take much more than that to derail the short prime of professional running backs.
At any rate, running back isn't a long-term planning position anymore. You find guys, use them up and then find some more. The Cowboys have one right now, but the pipeline needs some refreshment.
Conclusion: It all comes back to Murray. If he's in the lineup, the Cowboys are in good shape in the backfield. If not, all bets are off because all the pressure's back on Romo.