Look to the Past: The Cowboys' Focus Should Be on the Ground

Bob RepassContributor IJuly 30, 2009

DALLAS - SEPTEMBER 15:  Running back Marion Barber #24 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates a touchdown with Jason Witten #82 against the Philadelphia Eagles in the fourth quarter at Texas Stadium on September 15, 2008 in Irving, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Back in the early 1990s, when the Cowboys were the most dominating team in the NFL, the offense was led by the "triplets"—Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, and Emmitt Smith.

While all three contributed much to the success the Cowboys enjoyed, the driving factor behind the team’s three Super Bowl victories was the running attack led by Smith—if the Cowboys are going to make a run this season at getting back to the Super Bowl, then they are going to have to return to the philosophy of running the football.

As hard as it is to believe with Tony Romo and Jason Witten on the offensive side of the ball, the strength of the Cowboys’ offensive unit is at the running back position.

The Cowboys have a new set of "triplets"—three running backs 26 years old or younger Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice.

Last season this trio combined for over 1,600 yards and a 4.5 yard per carry average while scoring 12 touchdowns.  Yet they only carried the ball 360 times compared to 578 passing attempts.

Doesn’t one of the deepest and most talented groups of running backs in the game deserve more than 37 percent of the offensive snaps?

In 2008, the Cowboys ranked 21st in the NFL in rushing offense.  Their 401 rushing attempts ranked 25th in the league and last in the NFC East.

Last year, seven teams rushed the ball more than 500 times, led by the Baltimore Ravens with 592 attempts.  These seven teams had a combined won-lost record of 80-32; that’s a .714 winning percentage.

Of the 12 teams that made the playoffs, only Indianapolis with Peyton Manning and Arizona with Kurt Warner, ran the ball fewer times than the Cowboys.  In addition, the Cowboys only rushed for 12 touchdowns last season, ranking 22nd in the league.

But there are signs of promise in the Cowboys' ground game.

Last year, they had 12 runs of 20 yards or more, which ranked 10th in the league, demonstrating the team has playmakers at the position.  Over 25 percent of their rushing attempts—102 of the 401—resulted in first downs.

The Cowboys can run the ball, they just choose not to.

The Cowboys must change their offensive mindset and make a concerted effort to balance the offense and make the running attack a more important focus of their game plans.

The talent is there starting with Marion Barber III; Barber, entering his fifth season, is coming off a dislocated toe on his right foot that he hobbled on during the last four games of the season.

Prior to his injury, Barber had three 100 yard games including a season high 142-yard performance in week three against Green Bay.  He then finished the year with 885 yards on 238 carries and rushed for seven touchdowns.

After Barber got hurt, Tashard Choice stepped in to more than adequately fill his shoes.  Choice, who will be in his second season out of Georgia Tech, rushed for 472 yards on just 92 carries.

To put in perspective just how effective Choice was, in four games against teams with outstanding run defenses—Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and the New York Giants—he ran for 325 yards averaging 5.2 yards a carry.

Also early in the season, before the wheels started to fall off of the Cowboys offense, the third cog in the running machine, Felix Jones, was showing why he was the team’s No. 1 draft choice in 2008.

Jones played in only five games before tearing his hamstring, but in those games he ran for 266 yards while averaging a remarkable 8.9 yards per carry and scoring three rushing touchdowns.

So how does Offensive Coordinator Jason Garrett find a way to get all three of these weapons involved in the ground game?

Increase the number of rushing attempts in the game plan for one and be creative for another.

The Cowboys should look to run a minimum of 30 times a game.  That would amount to 480 attempts over the 16-week season, an increase of almost 80 attempts over last year.

Get creative and come out with formations that have Choice and Barber on the field at the same time.  Or put Jones in the slot and run some misdirection plays with him.

The idea is to get as many of these playmakers on the field as possible.  The Cowboys should roll out their version of the "wildcat" formation and make it a part of their regular offensive game plans.

Do not forget this package first became popular a couple seasons ago at the University of Arkansas when they used it in order to get both their top running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones on the field at the same time—yes, the same Felix Jones now residing in the Cowboys backfield.

The Cowboys also have two wide receivers on their roster that saw significant amount of time at the quarterback position in college: Both Patrick Crayton and Isaiah Stanback would be natural fits for the wildcat package.

As a 10-year Cowboys season ticket-holder, I have sat and endured far too many games that look the same.  Try to run once, maybe twice and when that doesn’t work have Romo drop back to pass.

The Cowboys cannot abandon the ground game so quickly.  They have the offensive weapons to be one of the most dangerous running teams to match up against in the league.

Oh and in case you have not heard, the new "triplets" have rolled out a nickname of their own—Tash, Dash, and Smash.


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