After dodging a bullet that might have been the first shot fired towards head coach Jason Garrett from owner and general manager Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys have found their way back to mediocrity—keep in mind that it was sub-mediocre before.
With six games to play, the Cowboys are positioned to contend for a playoff spot, but the margin for error is quite slim. Just one more loss could limit Dallas to a mere wild-card contender by regular season’s end.
If the Cowboys have serious ambition for postseason play, then a number of things have to change. Pass protection is getting worse, pressure on the quarterback has to improve, and those dang penalties have got to go. In this particular case, it probably means certain players have to go, but that’s another piece.
But above all, the Cowboys are deficient in the most fundamental of football basics. This little necessity is arguably what defined the early success of Jones as owner of the Cowboys.
Whether it was the trade of retired running back Herschel Walker in 1989 or simply the impact of the NFL all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith, there should be no question that running the football is the engine of any championship-caliber offense.
Great passing attacks have won many games in the NFL, both recently and historically, but you’ll find that the teams that take home the Lombardi Trophy have solid running games or a defense that changes games.
Dallas is close to having one of those but certainly not the other.
Quarterback Tony Romo had to pass the football 50 times in Sunday’s narrow escape against the Cleveland Browns at Cowboys Stadium. Closer examination shows that when Romo tosses the ball up this many times in a game, possibly reaching a total of 60 or more, Dallas does not win very often.
The easy thing to do is jump on the play-calling of Head Coach Garrett, who's fancied as a premiere offensive coordinator by Jones, I guess.
But, in all honesty, Garrett can’t exactly get away with very many runs when the Cowboys gain just a couple, as the defense is expecting a run play. Sure, there are times when the Cowboys run against a soft-zone coverage and might let a back break loose for 15-20 yards, but these are usually contained well beyond the red zone and disappear once Dallas gets really close to scoring.
If Dallas had a running game, then yesterday’s overtime win could have actually been won near the end of regulation. But when you can’t get the tough yards, like Smith, Walker and all other great rushing attacks did, you probably end up kicking field goals more often than you'd like.
The Cowboys tallied 63 total yards rushing yesterday, but ten of those belonged to Romo—as he was running for his life most of the afternoon.
Bad things happen when you can’t run the football, and that is just how it is. Too much ends up being asked of your quarterback, and past a certain point, it’s even detrimental to your defense. You can’t wonder why the defense suddenly gives after the offense stops moving the chains in the fourth quarter.
During the first half of the Browns game, the Dallas offense engineered only punts as a result of both ineffective play calling and really poor pass protection. I know that injuries and shuffling along the offensive line were a major factor in Garrett’s conservative calls early on. The offensive flow resembled that of most exhibition games played in August by a bunch of guys you’ve hardly or never heard of.
Regardless of who is playing where up front, one thing is for sure: You have to get more than 10 yards rushing in the first quarter from your running backs.
And would you believe that Dallas earned a total of seven yards rushing on just two carries in the second quarter? Despite getting just two possessions that period, the Cowboys managed one carry per possession to wrap up a scoreless first half.
And while we’re talking about the number seven, that’s also the number of times Romo was sacked by a Cleveland defense that has no defender with more than three sacks on the season—still!
This is what happens when you can’t move the chains and when playing one-dimensional football is not going to translate to long-term success. Don’t expect to be like Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLIII, as the Steelers beat Arizona with a pretty questionable offensive line.
Last week, I discussed some things that Dallas can do to get back on track next season. Among those things was eliminating penalties, which the Cowboys really didn’t do against the Browns.
Improving the pass rush was another, as we can still see that DeMarcus Ware is the only volatile threat to opposing quarterbacks—although I’m keeping my eyes on Anthony Spencer who seems to be getting closer and closer to becoming a routine playmaker.
But down the road is down the road.
What about now?
The Cowboys have to hope that the Cleveland win represented an opportunity for the offensive line to jell a little bit so the ground game can get going. Dallas does have plenty of size in the lineup to get some push but probably not until penalties go down. Flags tend to force more passing than rushing.
Obviously, the return of DeMarco Murray will be key to any real surge the Cowboys might offer down the stretch. But even when Murray returns, the question still remains as to how often Garrett will get the ball in his hands.
But sometimes you have to run the ball just to do it. Rushing attempts fatigue opposing defenses like nothing else, and that number has to rise. Otherwise, Jones may have several more spells of mild shock as he watches the 2012 regular season wind down.