The Dallas Cowboys are still in control of their NFC East title hopes despite a 45-28 loss to the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. Even in defeat, however, Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray again proved that he, not quarterback Tony Romo, is the key to Dallas’ playoff aspirations.
The common narrative throughout this season has been that the Cowboys can’t run the football, but that simply isn’t true. An accurate assessment of Dallas’ offense would highlight the fact that the team actually runs the football quite well; they just don’t do it enough.
The Cowboys are 24th in the NFL in rushing yards per game at 93.8. But Dallas is ninth in yards per attempt (4.4) and Murray leads the league in individual yards per carry (5.3) among all running backs with at least 100 carries.
He is also tied for sixth in the NFL with seven rushing touchdowns despite missing road games against the Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions with a sprained MCL.
As effective as Murray has been, it’s a mystery why the Cowboys don’t commit to using him more frequently.
After receiving 20-plus carries in two of Dallas’ first three games (both victories), Murray has yet to carry the ball more than 18 times in any game since. Only once were the Cowboys trailing to the point where they needed to abandon the run early, a 49-17 Week-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints.
The Cowboys could be forgiven for monitoring Murray’s workload given his injury history, but it’s not like they’ve been distributing the workload amongst other backs. Only the 3-10 Atlanta Falcons have fewer rushing attempts than Dallas’ 277 this season, and the Falcons have been playing from behind a lot this year.
It’s a popular theme among sports media and football fans alike to declare that Romo must bare the brunt of the responsibility for changing Dallas’ recent history of late-season collapses. That storyline may create better message board banter and increase Internet page views, but it’s simply a bad football argument, particularly this season.
Dallas’ defensive woes have been well documented–their ineptitude on that side of the ball was on full display against the Bears–fielding perhaps the worst unit in the franchise’s storied history.
The Cowboys rank 32nd in the NFL in yards per game allowed (426.8) and have already twice eclipsed the franchise record for most yards allowed in a game. They surrendered an NFL-record 40 first downs against the Saints, have allowed four different quarterbacks to throw for 400-plus yards against them (Drew Brees nearly became the fifth with 392 yards in Week 10), and failed to force a team to punt for the second time this year during Monday night’s loss, during which Chicago scored on eight straight possessions.
Yes, the defense has been crippled by injuries to key players such as Anthony Spencer, DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee and former Cowboy Jay Ratliff. But it’s clear at this point in the season that the only way the defense is going to improve is by not being on the field, which is why relying on Murray is so critical.
Despite the presence of Romo, wide receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten on offense, Dallas has proven incapable of winning shootouts against other potent offenses. With critical games against the Green Bay Packers (albeit without Aaron Rodgers at QB) and the Eagles still remaining–two teams also in the thick of the NFC playoff race–the Cowboys must rely on a ball control offense to reduce the chance of their defense being exposed.
The Packers are 25th in the NFL against the run, and Dallas’ Week-16 opponent, the Washington Redskins, have surrendered an NFL-worst 19 rushing touchdowns this season. With dangerous backup running back Lance Dunbar out for the season and Joseph Randle proving to be little more than a change-of-pace back, the Cowboys need to lean heavily on Murray and take full advantage of these favorable matchups.
If Dallas can resist the urge to let Romo play hero ball, the Cowboys have an excellent chance of reaching Week 17’s matchup against Philadelphia with a 9-6 record and a chance to clinch the NFC East title in front of their home crowd. With home-field advantage on their side this year, perhaps Dallas can win the division during the season’s final week for the first time in the last three years.