A Blueprint for a Dallas Cowboys Playoff Run Without Tony Romo

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistDecember 27, 2013

The Cowboys will have to lean more heavily on DeMarco Murray.
The Cowboys will have to lean more heavily on DeMarco Murray.Jeff Gross/Getty Images

This is a blueprint that may not actually exist.

In the 21st-century NFL, Lombardi Trophies aren't handed out to teams without super-elite or super-hot quarterbacks, and unless Kyle Orton pulls off one of the most unlikely five-game hot streaks in the history of sports out of his hat, this Dallas Cowboys franchise won't be winning its record-tying sixth championship in early February. 

However, the fact remains that Dallas needs only to win its next five games in order to do so. The Cowboys are one of 14 teams that currently "control their own" destiny all the way to the Super Bowl, and champions like the 2001 Patriots, 2011 Giants and 2012 Ravens prove why you can't rule anybody out so long as they're alive in January.

So what do the Kyle Orton-led Cowboys have to do in order to beat the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday night and then make a playoff run? They can start by praying, but here are some more secular suggestions...

Focus on DeMarco

DeMarco Murray just became your most important offensive player. Murray, whose 5.4 yards per carry lead all NFL backs with at least 150 attempts, is one of the league's hottest backs. Hot backs don't often lead teams to Super Bowls, but the Cowboys have no choice but to ride Murray and hope they can be the exception to said rule. 

NFL Yards-Per-Carry Leaders, 2013
PlayerYPARushing yards
1. DeMarco Murray5.41,073
2. LeSean McCoy5.11,476
3. Jamaal Charles5.01,287
4. Alfred Morris4.71,213
Min. 150 carries (Pro Football Reference)

Working in Dallas' favor here: Chicago, New Orleans and Green Bay are all giving up more than 4.5 yards per carry on D, ranking in the league's bottom 10.

The 49ers aren't easy to run on, but it's easier now than it was in recent years. The Seahawks are tough on the ground but even tougher through the air. Carolina's run defense is above average, but the Panthers have given up nearly 300 rushing yards the last two weeks, struggling against guys like Chris Ivory and Mark Ingram. There's a vulnerability there. 

Philadelphia is one of seven NFL teams giving up fewer than 3.9 yards per carry on defense, so the task won't be easy from the start. But it's not as though the Cowboys have to be completely one-dimensional. 

I know, this isn't easy. Dallas runs less often than everyone else in football except Atlanta, and in the Falcons' defense, they haven't held a lead since, like, last year. Head coach Jason Garrett is a former quarterback who likes to throw the ball regardless of what the scoreboard or logic might suggest. 

But with Orton running the show, the Cowboys simply can't afford to be one-dimensional on either side of the coin. Orton has won 35 games in this league and can hold it down, but he's not sporting a howitzer. The guy completed only eight 20-yard passes in eight starts in 2011, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and has a career yards-per-attempt rate of just 6.6. 

Plus, the more you run, the more the clock runs. The more you control the ball on offense, the less your bottom-ranked defense has to be on the field. The Cowboys have to shorten games with Murray and hope to hang on with efficient play from everyone else. 

Kyle Meet Jason, Jason Meet Kyle

I'm certain you've met Jason Witten, though, Kyle. You must have. You've been throwing to him in practice for two years. This past offseason, with Romo sidelined, you ran the Cowboys' first-team offense. Witten was in those huddles! No. 82. The big freak who catches everything. 

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 23:  Jason Witten #82 of the Dallas Cowboys at Cowboys Stadium on December 23, 2012 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Yeah, that guy. You guys should become BFFs right here and right now, because Dez Bryant is hampered by a back problem, Terrance Williams is a rookie who may or may not be completely trustworthy and Miles Austin entered the Witness Protection Program back in September. (Apparently, he's now playing baseball.)

The point is that the Cowboys have to adopt the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) mantra here. Witten can't just be the safety valve in the passing game, but instead, he should become the centerpiece. 

Or, re-become the centerpiece. That was once the case. Like in 2012, when the 31-year-old tight end caught 18 passes for 167 yards against the Giants and went on to break the single-season reception record at that position. 

Witten hasn't had more than four catches since Week 10 and hasn't been targeted more than eight times since Week 9. For Dallas to survive sans Romo, that'll have to change. 

Gamble on Defense

Dallas has done one thing—and only one thingwell on defense this season, and that's forcing turnovers. Thirteen weeks into the season, the Cowboys were ranked fourth in football with 25 takeaways. They've had just two since, but Monte Kiffin's depleted unit might have been approaching things in a more conservative fashion due to all the injuries. 

Most Takeaways, First 12 Games of 2013
1. Seattle Seahawks2711-1
2. Carolina Panthers269-3
2. Kansas City Chiefs269-3
4. Dallas Cowboys257-5
Pro Football Reference

Not a lot has changed on the injury front, but the Cowboys have less to lose now. Even without Sean Lee, Justin Durant, Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff, Kiffin's D has to be extremely aggressive Sunday night and beyond (if beyond exists). 

That's how they beat Nick Foles and the Eagles last time out. They got in Foles' face immediately, hitting him twice on the first drive. The flustered virtual rookie of a quarterback couldn't handle the pressure and struggled the rest of the day. 

Beyond that, look at Seattle's offensive line. It isn't pretty. That group was rocked by the Cardinals in Week 16, and now left tackle Russell Okung is hurt again.

The lines in Green Bay and Chicago aren't in much better shape, and those teams aren't immune to turnovers. 

In San Francisco, quarterback Colin Kaepernick is the league's second-least accurate qualifying quarterback while under pressure, per PFF. 

In New Orleans, Drew Brees has thrown 13 pressured interceptions the last two seasons. Twelve of the Saints' 19 turnovers this year have come on the road, which is likely where they'd be if they face the Cowboys in January. 

Opportunities will be there, and Orton needs as much help as possible. This D is going to give up a lot of yards and points anyway, so it might as well swing for the fences and try to create some itself. 


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