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Can The Cowboys Fix Their Running Game?

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DeMarco Murray is a franchise talent and essential piece of the offense, but he and his men aren't getting it done on the ground. Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images.
DeMarco Murray is a franchise talent and essential piece of the offense, but he and his men aren't getting it done on the ground. Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images.

Heading into something of a must-win game against St. Louis, the Dallas Cowboys offense looks about as balanced as a diet of fast food and soft drinks.

The ground game just isn’t there. After two weeks of action, the ‘Boys (1-1) have done nothing to substantiate Jerry Jones’ decree of change from 2012, or to validate fans’ belief that Bill Callahan’s play-calling would lead not only to more rushing attempts, but to more rushing proficiency. Who’s to blame?

First, some numbers. As Jean-Jacques Taylor of espndallas.com points out, the Cowboy running backs have 34 carries to 91 passes, despite the fact the team’s led nearly 70 percent of the time. Dallas has 30 points in seven red-zone trips, but has ran the ball just three times in that area for 14 yards, 12 on a single run by Lance Dunbar. In five third-down scenarios requiring three yards or fewer, the ‘Boys have yet to call a running play.

They seem to be shying away from running the ball when it’s most needed.

Sounds like a play-calling problem, but it really isn’t. You could see the Cowboys trying to facilitate the run against the Giants; they handed off to DeMarco Murray on 11 of 27 first downs. There was no creativity in terms of introducing variety based on down-and-distance, no move to experiment with Dunbar’s physicality, but Murray got 20 carries and plenty of touches besides. Against the Chiefs, the passing game was clicking early; Dez Bryant was drawing single coverage and winning every time, so why change it? Why bash the injury-prone Murray into the wall when the vertical passing game had already opened up?

It’s the execution. It’s the inability to get it going early; out of 28 third-down plays, 16 have needed seven yards or more to move the chains. It’s the reluctance to punch the ball into the end zone and to power through the front on third-and-short. It’s an overall lack of confidence in the run. As Jason Garrett told The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the problem encompasses receivers and tight ends as much as it does backs and linemen. But it’s a technical concern, and it can be fixed.

St. Louis has a capable defense that’s especially dangerous up front. The Chargers aren’t a defensive threat, but they score a lot and can put the Cowboys behind early, forcing them to pass, and, more often than not, settle for field goals. With a Week 5 matchup against Denver and two divisional games against Washington and Philadelphia to kick off October, the Cowboys could use some breathing room. One loss against the Rams or Chargers won’t end them, but it sure won’t provide that.

They’ve been able to skate by on defensive playmaking thus far. But if the Cowboys don’t start running the ball more effectively, the early stretch of winnable bouts could quickly devolve into a stint of blown opportunities that cripples the team as it moves toward tougher and more crucial games.