Cowboys must get running game back in sync, or losses will pile up

Are the Cowboys done?

ESPN NFL analyst and former Cowboys S Darren Woodson joins First Take to explain why he believes Dallas still has a shot to take the NFC East.

IRVING, Texas -- These days, the Dallas Cowboys have no offensive identity. Until they find one, they will continue to struggle.

This is an unexpected issue.

Last season, the Cowboys won 12 games and captured the NFC East, in part, because they could run the ball whenever they wanted.

They ran it successfully on first-and-10, third-and-short and anywhere inside the red zone.

They ran against eight-man fronts and run blitzes. DeMarco Murray and the offensive line were in perfect sync, which is why he set single-season franchise records with 1,845 yards and 392 carries.

But Murray plays these days in Philadelphia, where the holes are nonexistent and the yards are few. Murray's primary replacements in Dallas -- Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden -- have combined for 342 yards on 91 carries, a 3.8 average.

"Every year in this league you have to replace players who go to other teams," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said of Murray. "It's the nature of the business. You can't keep them all.

"Contracts come up and some players stay and some players leave. We're in a quest to find out what our next answer is going to be from a consistent standpoint in the running game or as a football team."

Blame the lack of an identity on injuries to Tony Romo (collarbone) and Dez Bryant (foot). Or blame it on an inconsistent offensive line. Or blame it on the runners, who haven't always hit the hole when it's there.

The Cowboys have spent three first-round draft picks in the past five years on offensive lineman. It's supposed to be the best unit in the NFL, but it hasn't played like it.

"They're really an important part of our team," coach Jason Garrett said. "The identity of our football team is to be physical, and those guys need to control the line of scrimmage and when they do, typically, good things happen for our offense and our football team."

But Garrett enters Sunday's game against New England just as he's entered the past four games: with no idea whether the Cowboys will be able to run the ball.

Understand, there's no quick fix to the running game. It's not a cause-and-effect issue.

It's not a matter of replacing guard Ronald Leary with rookie La'el Collins. It won't be magically repaired when Bryant returns, because the Cowboys will still see eight-man fronts on first down.

On offense, the plays tend to fit together. Run it well on first down and the offense gets a manageable second-down situation. Run it well again, or complete a short pass, and the offense winds up with an easy-to-convert third-and-short.

Well, the Cowboys were among the best in the league at running on first down last season. They had a successful run -- four yards or more -- 48 percent of the time on a league-high 320 carries on first down.

This season, they're still among the leaders in first-down runs, but they've had a successful run only 28 times in 70 carries (40 percent). More important, they have had so many negative runs on first or second downs that they're in third-and-long way too often.

The solution? Repetition and execution. It's all the little things that separate good offenses from average units.

"We fight and we play until the last drive of the game, OK? We're short-handed," Linehan said. "There's never been a game we haven't put ourselves in a great position, and our guys fight.

"On the last drive of the last game we played probably everybody was saying this game was over, but it wasn't. To me, that's our identity."

Really? It sounds like a nice way of saying the Cowboys don't do anything well on offense.