For much of its history, the NFL has been a running-oriented league. The running game had to be established to set up the pass, and running backs garnered as much praise as their quarterbacks. But the rules and culture of the game changed — first gradually, then more rapidly with the extra emphasis on protecting the passer — transforming passing into the dominant mode of attack.
In 1999, former St. Louis Rams Offensive Coordinator Mike Martz began the passing revolution with “The Greatest Show on Turf,” taking his talented skill-position players and flipping the script by using the pass to set up the run. The Rams won the Super Bowl behind quarterback Kurt Warner and changed the trajectory of the sport.
Interestingly, the 6-1 Dallas Cowboys have risen to the top of the league this year by pushing things in the other direction; they are running the ball more than they have in previous years, dominating time of possession to slowly wear down their opponents. Some might take this as a sign that the air attack is just a fad and that decades of conventional wisdom regarding running the ball are correct. But in truth, what this really shows is just how poorly the Cowboys have strategized over the past decade.
The running back position, which was a prized position a few years ago, is now rightfully seen as best done by committee and dependent on schemes — the top dollars spent on running backs now go toward the offensive linemen that make and break plays. Although tailback Demarco Murray gets the headlines for his historic start to the season, the real stars are the big men laying out the holes for him.
It is true that Murray is especially talented and shoulders a record workload for a modern-day running back at nearly 27 carries per game. But the Cowboys also do not split their carries as evenly as most teams, so while their total rushing attempts do not outpace the rest of the NFL, Murray’s rushing attempts far outpace his contemporaries.
It may seem like the commitment to giving Murray his touches shows the Cowboys favoring the run to the pass, but really, Dallas is just restoring a massive systemic imbalance in their offense. In years past, the Cowboys would rely on Tony Romo to air the ball out, and to his credit he did a very good job given the play-calling imbalance and the shoddy offensive line protection he received. Romo’s numerous late-game “meltdowns” have been well documented, but few people remember that he has led the league in fourth-quarter comebacks over the last several years and that his career passer rating rivals those of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Also, statistically, Romo is better in tight games and later in the games. He has been associated with throwing the ball so much that even though he has many commendable achievements, the likelihood of committing mistakes is inevitably raised.
The general nature of sports is that we remember the bad longer than we remember the good, which has caused some to have looked at recent Cowboys teams and blame Romo when they should have been looking at the ways in which the imbalanced plan of attack worked against the team.
The pass-happy approach leads to many explosive plays for star receiver Dez Bryant and a generally high-scoring output, but it also tends to result in more opportunities for the defense to attain a game-changing turnover.
Worse still, constant passing has drawbacks even when it works because, as much as it puts pressure on the opposing offense, it also puts tremendous pressure on your own defense that has to stay on the field longer. Running the ball keeps the clock ticking and tires out the opposing defense while keeping your own defense rested on the sideline. The old Cowboys would go entire series without a run in the mix, leading to quick scores and three-and-outs that took no time off the clock and left their defense on the field far too long.
The 2014 Cowboys are dominating time of possession, and suddenly a defense that most thought would be among the worst in the NFL is in the top half of the league. As for Romo, he may not put up the astonishing total numbers he did when he was throwing the ball all over the field, but he is still on pace for over 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns — certainly not the numbers of a quarterback in a run-first offense.
The change from pass-heavy to balanced has come in just one year for Dallas. In 2013, when the Cowboys finished 8-8, they ran the ball just 36.2 percent of the time, whereas in this year’s 6-1 start, America’s Team has switched over to running on 52.6 percent of their plays. The results speak for themselves.
This is what makes these Cowboys so dangerous; they are not run-first, they are not pass-first — they are both. They stretch the field with big plays in the passing game and shrink the clock with a commitment to the run in equal measures. Both of these are made possible by one of the finest offensive lines in the NFL and strong skill-position talent.
All of these components cooperate to support the defense, culminating in a finely tuned team working in perfect cohesion — something that seemed most improbable in Dallas since the end of its mid-’90s dynasty.
Darius Majd is a senior in the College. The Sporting Life appears every Tuesday.