Monday, October 24, 2011

The Morning After: Cowboys 34, Rams 7 (3-3)

The Cowboys were able to play the ultimate "get well" game against a team that is lousy at full strength, but without their own starting QB, the St Louis Rams might as well have saved gas and stayed put on Sunday. Instead, they joined their local baseball team in travels to Arlington, Texas, and also joined the Cardinals in defeat on Sunday afternoon. But, unlike the Cardinals, the nature of the Rams defeat was such that one could certainly call into question the conviction that many of the players - especially on that Rams' defense in the 2nd half - possessed once the game started to get away from them.

Nevertheless, the Cowboys must play the 16 opponents set up in front of them, and thanks to the rotation of the NFL schedule that allows them to play Seattle, Miami, and Arizona in the next little stretch, there should be more of these performances ahead. The type where one must clearly understand the object of the game is not to accumulate style points. Simply to exit the stadium in relatively solid health and most importantly with the win.

There is no question the big discussion about the events at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday revolve around the play of the running game. The running game has stunted the growth of this offense at every turn. Before Sunday, the Cowboys were amongst the very worst teams in the NFL in many rushing categories.

Rushing yards per game? 27th. Rushing plays for 4 yards? 28th. Rushing plays called percentage? 27th. Rushing plays of 10 yards or more? 31st. Rushing plays of 20 yards or more? 24th.

Anyway you slice it, they cannot run the football and that was on full display against the New England Patriots when Dallas could have won if they simply could move the chains on the ground.

Luckily, here comes St Louis. A team who has a defense that so happens to rank 32nd in the NFL when it comes to conceding yards on the ground. While the rest of the NFL averages 111 yards per game on the ground, St Louis allows 161, which is absolute worst in the league.

It was weakness against weakness. A team that cannot run versus a team that cannot stop the run. Something would have to give.

And that is when we saw one of the 9 greatest rushing performances in the history of the sport, and the greatest single game performance in the history of this storied franchise.

DeMarco Murray, the 71st pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, was certainly a workhorse at Oklahoma. This issue is often considered a red flag to some draft gurus, as the premise can sometimes be recited that "a RB can take only so many hits in his career" and if there is too much punishment sustained at the college level then the fear can sometimes be that there is a little tread gone on his tires. The life span of a professional RB is always under huge debate, and somehow the workload debate can be twisted to where many carries and proving endurance can actually be used against a player. It truly makes no sense.

Murray carried the ball 759 times at Oklahoma and caught another 157 passes. That total equals 916 touches at the big time level in 4 years at Oklahoma. Compare that to Felix Jones (the 22nd pick of the 2008 draft), who the Cowboys knew was a part-time back at Arkansas. As a Razorback who backed up Darren McFadden, Jones totaled 425 touches at Arkansas, or 46% of the workload of Murray. Jones' busiest year was 2006 with 169 touches. Murray eclipsed that total every year in Norman except for his freshman year.

Clearly stated, Felix Jones has always seemed miscast as a full-time back that could take 20 touches and remain healthy. He has never been asked to do it until the NFL, a place where your durability and resolve will be tested at the ultimate level. Murray had a rap for being banged up at Norman quite a bit, but his workload reveals that he played enough to have nearly 1,000 touches. His predecessor at Oklahoma had that same rap, and Adrian Peterson has survived pretty well in the NFL, too.

Back to yesterday - a day where he ran the ball 25 times for 253 yards - that gave us a look at his ability to take the ball again and again. The yardage will likely prove to be an anomaly. Historic yardage totals on that level are seldom accomplished, let alone repeated. But, what I liked were the sequences where he would take the ball on 4 consecutive snaps and appear up for the beating. Save for the large run in which he inexplicably fell down 2 yards short of Emmitt Smith's record, he seemed ready to take the ball anytime Jason Garrett wanted to give it to him.

And that might be a conclusion that can be drawn. When Felix Jones is back to full strength, one can surmise that Murray is the full time back and Felix is properly cast as the 3rd Down back and the change of pace option in the offense - not the other way around.

Beyond that, did Murray have a magical idea that Jones did not when it came to rushing the ball? A great football mind once told me that rushing the ball is about 33% on the RB and about 67% on the blocking and timing of the play - something a RB has very little do say about.

So, let's look at that 67% and speculate why the running game worked against the Rams when it has been such an achilles heel elsewhere in the season.

Aside from playing the worst rushing defense in the NFL, there were 2 other differences on Sunday from the rest of the sample that should be considered. The first is the reemergence of Tony Fiammetta at the Fullback position. Fiammetta is a rather anonymous NFL fullback, but it is not lost on the coaching staff that the two games he was available (Washington and St Louis), the Cowboys ran the ball with great effectiveness and ease. The four games he was unavailable, the Cowboys tried John Phillips at fullback, and were unable to run at all. Nobody is suggesting that Fiammetta is great and Phillips is awful. It may be a sample size coincidence, but it was clear on the 91-yard Touchdown that Fiammetta knew how to lock up a LB with a lead block. And the evidence is on the paper through 6 games. Fix your eyes on these:

In 2011, the Cowboys have run the ball from under center 137 times. 87 times they had either no FB or a TE trying to play Fullback. On those 87 carries, the Cowboys gained 235 yards, or a paltry 2.7 yards per carry. But, on the 50 occasions the Cowboys attempted to run the ball behind Fiammetta, they have gained 414 yards. 8.28 per carry! I am not foolish enough to suggest that those sample sizes could endure, but I also think it would be foolish to not draw some conclusions. And I guarantee the coaching staff is working on that right now.

The other difference is the re-signing of Montrae Holland to play Left Guard. Surely, nobody thought Holland was Steve Hutchinson or Alan Faneca in their primes, but he is also no Bill Nagy. He is a serviceable NFL veteran who can at least play near the league average. Is he in great shape? No. Is he the long-term answer? No. But, he is better than a rookie who hardly started in college. And that was evident yesterday as they pulled big #64 a number of times to open holes with the Cowboys "G-Power" routine and got back to man blocking more, rather than their new zone blocking schemes that have yet to pay dividends.

So, add the Rams to DeMarco Murray to Tony Fiammetta to Montrae Holland and perhaps the sum total is that the Cowboys have found a running game.


The true test will be to prove it was not a anomaly that emerged for 1 game like the big rushing day in Indianapolis last year (215 yards) against another sorry run defense. After that day, similar conclusions were drawn about the progress of the running game before we saw that it was never duplicated. The Eagles will look at the film and make their plans for Sunday night.

It will be interesting to see if Murray behind Fiammetta is as heavily featured as it should be.

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