Dallas must commit to the run, not a runner

June, 2, 2011
6/02/11
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Jones, Choice & BarberBob Levey/Getty ImagesDallas had more success last season when it spread the carries among its top-three running backs.
So Tony Romo got married last weekend, which means there's at least one person in this world who'd prefer to see him hand the ball off as much as possible. Whether coach Jason Garrett agrees with the new Mrs. Romo could determine a lot about the Dallas Cowboys' 2011 season (assuming there is one).

The Cowboys had decent success under Garrett once he became head coach at the midway point of the 2010 season. They went 5-3 to help Garrett keep the job full time. They did it all without Romo, who got hurt in Week 7, but their second-half success had less to do with the job Jon Kitna did in Romo's place than with a rather dramatic philosophical shift in the offensive game plan.

In the first eight games of the 2010 season, with Wade Phillips as their head coach, the Cowboys ran the ball 169 times and threw 326 passes. In Garrett's eight games as head coach, the Cowboys had 259 rush attempts and 250 pass attempts. Because Romo wasn't there? Sure, maybe. But it worked. They were 4-0 in games in which they had more run plays than pass plays (all four under Garrett). You don't need me to do the math to tell you that means they were 2-10 when they passed more than they ran.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireTony Romo's injury in 2010 forced the Cowboys to run more.
If Garrett was paying attention (which I must assume he was), the Romo injury may have shown him the way back to consistent offensive success. Just because Romo returns in 2011 doesn't mean they should put the ball in his hands and let him air it out to Miles Austin and Dez Bryant anytime he wants. Romo's talent has been a toxic temptation for Dallas in recent years. When he's on, it's easy for the Cowboys to forget that their strength is in their running game, and that they're at their best when they commit to keeping it on the ground.

The question, you say, then becomes one of specifics. Who from the Cowboys' stable of talented running backs should get the ball the most? Who's the "starter?" Who's the "lead running back?" It's a popular question that results either from long-held formulaic preconceptions, fantasy roster concerns or both. But if I were Garrett, my very easy answer would be: "Who cares?"

Felix Jones got most of the carries over the final eight games of 2010, but there were only two games in which he got more than 15. Tashard Choice had his moments, and there were times when Marion Barber looked healthy and useful again as well. The point, as it has been for the past couple of seasons with the Cowboys, is that all of the backs are good. Each brings a different skill set to the position and the offense functions best when Garrett and the coaching staff are rotating them in and out of situations where they fit best.

The bell cow running back is an endangered species. Only seven NFL running backs averaged 20 carries per game in 2010, and only six in each of the previous two seasons. None of the backs on the Cowboys' roster is Adrian Peterson or Steven Jackson or Michael Turner. None is going to hold up physically under that kind of workload, and frankly none will attain peak effectiveness if worked too hard.

So if you're Garrett, whenever you're allowed to talk to your players again, you sit down with Jones, Choice, DeMarco Murray and Barber (if he's still on the roster), and you tell them how it's going to be. You tell them they're all going to play, but none is going to play as much as Chris Johnson plays. You tell them to trust you -- that you believe in each of them, and that you're determined to make sure each gets his time in the spotlight.

You get them to buy into the idea that this is the way the NFL works now -- that running back is becoming a more specialized position, where different backs with different skills make different kinds of plays depending on the situation. You sell them on the idea that this is a way to make their careers last longer. You tell them the Cowboys are a running team now, but that there's no lead back and they're all in this together, as teammates and equals. Heck, you make up T-shirts if you like, with a catchy slogan they can use as a rallying cry.

And then, if you're Garrett, you go out and make it work. You take the opportunity to set the tone for the way the ball is run in the new NFL. You take that creative offensive mind we've all been hearing about for so many years and design creative ways to utilize the varied talents of your running backs. Romo and Austin and Bryant will still make their highlight-reel plays, but if the plan works, and the Cowboys are winning games, the midseason stories will all be about the run game and the way the coaches are making it happen.

It happened two years ago in New Orleans, remember? Drew Brees got the headlines, but the Super Bowl-winning Saints had the sixth-most rushing yards in the league without a single back reaching 800. That team could be Garrett's model, but he doesn't even need to look back that far. The offense he ran for the final eight games of the 2010 season will work just fine. And that offense ran the ball more than it threw it.

Dan Graziano

ESPN New York Giants reporter

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