The Dallas Cowboys running game can sometimes be described as a riddle wrapped in an enigma.
They have talented guys to run the ball in Felix Jones, DeMarco Murray, Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar. This group of running backs just can’t seem to find much success as the team averages 3.5 yards per carry.
That is good enough for dead last in the NFL.
What’s worse is that the Cowboy have just 866 total rushing yards this season, also good enough for last in the league. To add insult to a myriad of injuries, potential star and starting running back DeMarco Murray’s status is a “mystery” and Felix Jones seems to limp off the field at least once a game.
Then there is the offensive line. They are 13th in the league in most holding penalties and second in most false starts. They lead the NFL in total flags thrown against them and average a healthy two penalty first downs per game.
There are injuries as well. Left tackle Tyron Smith has ankle problems, centers Phil Costa and Ryan Cook have been down with separate injuries and right tackle Doug Free is too busy counting stolen money from his Cowboys paycheck to provide ample protection for Romo or open running lanes for Dallas backs.
So, where do the Cowboys create a running game when some of their top rushers are injured and their offensive line cannot stay healthy? I’ll explore by breaking down a couple of plays from recent Cowboy games.
Cowboys vs. Giants: Murray Runs For Nine Yards in Second Quarter
This run wasn't the best of the year for the Cowboys, but it illustrates the vision and quickness of Mr. Murray.
On 1st-and-10, the Cowboys were knocking on the 50-yard line, hoping to score before the half ended.
On the previous two plays, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett dialed up passes: one to receiver Dez Bryant for 13 yards and the next to tight end Jason Witten for three yards and a first down.
On first down with just about two minutes and thirty seconds remaining in the second quarter, Garrett called a draw play that kept the defense on its toes. Keep in my mind, Dallas had center Ryan Cook, a healthy Tyron Smith and a fresh Doug Free.
The Dallas offensive line did a nice job of holding back the Giants defensive front at the snap, but Murray's vision and attentiveness is what made this play go for Dallas. He maneuvered his way through the maze of big offensive and defensive bodies for a nine-yard gain, leaving Dallas with a 2nd-and-short.
One of the interesting parts about this play is Murray's ability to cut away from defenders and use his ample vision to see new lanes being created.
Also, on this play, Giants defensive lineman Linval Joseph overpursued, opening a new hole for Murray. He was able to recognize where the new lane would be once Joseph fully committed himself to penetrating into the Cowboys backfield.
More than anything, the Cowboys need a disciplined offensive line that will follow strict blocking patterns, stay away from mental errors and sustain their blocks long enough without holding.
This play was a quick example of what Dallas can do on the ground.
Cowboys vs. Giants: Murray Runs For 48 Yards in Third Quarter
Late in the third quarter, the Cowboys were up on the Giants 14-10. Dallas was driving and was just one big play away from busting the game in their favor.
Garrett turns to Murray again to try for a quick first down on a toss play.
Murray takes the toss around the right side of the Cowboys line and is given a terrific lead block by fullback Lawrence Vickers.
He locks up with Giants hybrid defender Justin Tuck and takes him out of the play. This gives Murray more room to work on the right side as receiver Dez Bryant has engaged his player as well.
But what started as a promising play quickly deteriorated. As Murray is working his way toward the first-down marker, he runs head first into a Giants defender, bounces off of him, bangs into fullback Lawrence Vickers, quickly looks toward the right sideline and takes off.
Where this play goes right for Dallas is with Murray's unwillingness to give up. He continued to move his legs and turned a play that was going nowhere into a 48-yard gain.
As he skated up the sideline, he had Dez Bryant as his lead or "vision" blocker to direct him toward his longest gain of the season.
One of the missing elements for the Cowboys is DeMarco Murray. He has one of the best set of eyes among all running backs, and his motor runs just as high as Adrian Peterson's. If he could only stay healthy, he could single-handedly add more balance and variety to the Cowboys offense.
The only way, in my eyes and as the team is currently constructed, for the Cowboys to manufacture a rushing attack is to make sure that Murray stays healthy.
Since that is impossible to do, Dallas may just have to blow up their interior and start from scratch.