IRVING, Texas — There are certain sounds that are evocative enough to promise trouble is upon you.
It’s when you hear the squealing of tires braking on pavement, when you hear a chorus of children singing hauntingly in a scary movie, when you hear your wife say, “We need to talk.”
The noise that causes those same sort of chills to run up the spines of Dallas Cowboys fans?
“We have to re-commit to the running game.”
That is the solemn pledge of coach Jason Garrett. It comes in the wake of a 17-16 loss at Kansas City in which:
*Starting running back DeMarco Murray carries just 12 times for a paltry 25 yards.
*The team totaled 13 run plays in 55 snaps.
*There were no designated run plays in the fourth quarter.
*The final 19 plays run were all passes.
“We have to re-commit to the running game.”
This should be the mantra after a two-game opening to the season that has featured 34 running plays and 91 passing plays. The ineffectiveness of the former leads to the overreliance on the latter … and next thing you know, the Cowboys find themselves in third-and-too-long situations. In the two games, the 1-1 Cowboys are 8-of-26 in converting third downs.
The ground-game drought is not a new phenomenon in these parts. Dallas hasn’t employed a 1,000-yard rusher since 2006 – and remember, in a 16-game season, it only requires a back to average 62.5 yards per game to reach the milestone. This is a team that, no matter who is calling the plays – Garrett before, offensive coordinator Bill Callahan now, and increased authority for quarterback Tony Romo, too – tends to gravitate back to the thing is undeniably does well: Throw the football between the 20’s.
If it threw the football effectively enough in the red zone, the lack of a running game wouldn’t be the issue of the day. The NFL has indisputably become a throwing league. But even more than that, it’s a scoring league. And if you can’t run, you can’t set up convert-able third downs, you can’t protect leads, you can’t maintain the balance necessary to keep a defense wobbly and you can’t win.
The Cowboys spent considerable time Monday in self-evaluation. Is the running-game problem a matter of Murray being ineffective? Is it a matter of offensive-line woes? Is it a matter of play-calling philosophy?
In a word … yes.
There is justification in questioning Murray’s decision-making and lack of explosiveness on Sunday. He’s been accused of “leaving yards on the field” and that accusation is fair as it relates to the visit to Kansas City. There were holes to be hit, cuts to be made, successes to be had. Murray failed there.
“DeMarco’s a good football player,” Garrett said, noting that the club’s best offensive work over the last few years has included a healthy Murray. “We got to get him more chances.”
Dallas is likely to give more chances to six-time Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters, too. He played a handful of series in his Cowboys debut on Sunday. But allowing him to win the right-guard job ahead of Mackenzy Bernadeau is a snap-of-the-finger solution to a personnel upgrade. “Waters will be in there,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said on Tuesday morning, suggesting a coming change.
And finally, there is the questioning of play-calling. This is the anguished rallying cry in 16 NFL cities every week … because 16 teams lost and their audiences can easily finger-point any decision that was unsuccessful.
But in the case of the Cowboys, failing to stick with the fundamental concept of running the football is worthy of analysis. Callahan’s involvement was designed in part to add some “muscular thinking” to the offense. The organization’s commitment to the talent to achieve this is often overlooked; first-round picks play left tackle and center and a perennial Pro Bowler is about to take over at right guard. Meanwhile, this playbook contains a fine collection of “clever” running plays that allow Dallas to take advantage of a combination of brawn and brain. But in Kansas City, the Cowboys didn’t return to the same running-game well that may have shown hints of effectiveness. Instead, maybe fueled by the on-field decision-changing power of Romo, Dallas gravitated back to the thing a quarterback habitually likes to do: Throw the football.
And maybe the QB finds justification in seeing that the running play netted just two yards while that last pass to Dez Bryant netted 15, so … the play becomes a pass.
“When the plays don’t work, I understand why people don’t like those calls, but we’re trying to get into the best plays,” Garrett said. “Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.”
Ah, but as I said to Garrett on Monday, all of this isn’t a second-guess; it’s a first-guess. In terms of touchdowns, rushing yardage, rushing attempts and total offense, Dallas is in the bottom-third of the NFL. That status can be altered with improved play by Murray, with upgraded personnel featuring Waters and with a play-calling infrastructure that recognizes that the phrase, “We have to re-commit to the running game” should cause Cowboys fans to do something besides shudder.