Coming off a disappointing season that saw the Cowboys struggle offensively, the team retooled this offseason, signing Alfred Morris to pair with Darren McFadden and selecting Ezekiel Elliot with the fourth overall pick in the draft. Patrick Conn breaks down what to expect from the Cowboys rushing attack in 2016.
The Dallas Cowboys are going through the early stages of training camp but one thing is evidently clear: The team will need to rely on a heavy dose of the running game.
First-round draft pick Ezekiel “Zeke” Elliott has been taking the bulk of the first-team carries with Darren McFadden rehabbing from an elbow injury he sustained in the offseason. What is uncertain at this time is what the role of newly signed Alfred Morris will be. Morris should get the weight of the carries during Elliott’s absence with a hamstring injury, with the other draft pick Darius Jackson sprinkled in. The team certainly didn’t make Elliott the first running back selected in the top five since Trent Richardson in 2012 to have him take part of the running back by committee that many were trying to sell last season.
In 2013 the Cowboys ran the ball 36 percent of the time, accounting for 28 percent of their total yards (1,504 of 5,458). DeMarco Murray played in 14 games and led Dallas with 1,121 rushing yards.
Dallas pushed that running attack to another level in 2014.
The offense leaned on the running game in 2014 with 508 of the 1,014 total plays from scrimmage – more than 50 percent – calling for a run. These runs made up 2,354 of the 6,138 total yards, meaning the running game accounted for 38 percent of the total offense. The Cowboys obviously had a plan of attack to protect their defense and quarterback Tony Romo, who was coming off back surgery. The team also increased its time of possession from 2013 to 2014 by three minutes per game. In this case, the Cowboys ran the wheels off of Murray to the tune of 392 carries for 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns; his 2014 yardage total was more than his 2012 and 2013 seasons combined.
Following their early exit from the playoffs, the Cowboys decided not to pay Murray and, instead, use Joseph Randle, McFadden, and Lance Dunbar in a running back by committee. Dallas felt as if it could plug in any running back behind its all-world offensive line and the system would work. The Cowboys weren’t entirely wrong. While neither Randle nor Dunbar finished the season, McFadden took the starting role and ran with it. He finished the 2015 season with a 4.6 yards per carry average and finished in the top five in rushing. The offense wasn’t quite the same without Romo, who suffered multiple injuries, but the rushing attack was still there. Run plays were called 42 percent of the time – less than 2014, but still enough to make up 34 percent of the total offense.
Fast forward to 2016.
The offense looks poised to do again what it did in 2014. The hope is that Elliott can reprise the role of the bell cow for this team. Even given how fungible running backs are viewed in this day and age of football, Elliott was highly sought after. In his last two seasons, he averaged more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage and more than 20 touchdowns. What he does best is excel in all three phases, as head coach Jason Garrett would say. The former Ohio State back is dynamic as a runner as well as a pass catcher. One cannot downplay his ability or willingness to take on a block. For those reasons he will be hard to get off the field. Moreover, the 6.7 yards per carry average in college demonstrates his ability to reach the second level effectively; given that he will now run behind one of the best lines in football, expect that to continue.
The season prior to Murray’s breakout season, the Cowboys had one of the worst defenses in NFL history. They ranked 26th in points scored against and 32nd in yards allowed. The team utilized their running back to lessen the load the defense would carry in 2014; that unit improved to 15th in points allowed and 19th in yards allowed. Elliott will try to do the same in 2016.
While one can argue the defense wasn’t the problem a season ago, Elliott would still be helpful. Dallas was unable to sustain drives, which resulted in the defense playing more snaps. With Murray in 2014, the Cowboys offense averaged 5.83 plays per drive for 34.1 yards in 2:56, compared to their opponents who averaged 5.6 plays per drive for 31.7 yards in 2:30. While that doesn’t seem like much of an advantage, their physical style weighed on opposing defenses. A season ago the team was averaging 5.82 plays per drive for 31.1 yards in 2:54, while their opponent’s averaged 5.8 players per drive for 31.5 yards in 2:38.
The Cowboys weren’t able to move the ball with the same efficiency as they did in 2014, which meant scoring less points in 2015. They dropped their average of points per drive a full point from 2.49 to 1.51. Teams were able to play as they wanted as opposed to being one dimensional in 2014 and trying to play catch up.
Given that 2015 was a less than memorable season, Elliott will be relied on to shoulder a large portion of the weight for Romo. The Cowboys were only able to scrounge up one victory in 12 chances without their quarterback. Having Elliott in the backfield will allow for the offense to become what it was before – a two-headed monster.
One would expect that it will have a waterfall effect that Romo, wide receiver Dez Bryant, and tight end Jason Witten will all benefit from. With Elliott’s addition to the roster, opposing coordinators will have to gameplan accordingly. The running back showed in college that he is capable of beating defenses inside, outside, and as a receiver. If teams want to load the box to try to stop him, then Bryant and Witten will have favorable matchups. Both players had lower yards per catch averages in 2015; Bryant, though, of course was dealing with a foot injury that made Witten the focal point of the passing game. Look for both players to get back to their 2014 forms as well.
For that reason the Cowboys should be poised to take back their crown as NFC East champions. Now all that is left is for Elliott to live up to the hype that made his jersey one of the top five best sellers through the first quarter of 2016.