Monday, November 07, 2011

The Morning After: Cowboys 23, Seahawks 13 (4-4)

There are Sundays every season that come to symbolize the full tapestry of a campaign and rise above all other game as those rare moments to savor.

Yesterday's win over the Seattle Seahawks will not be one of those.

Rather, if it is remembered at all, it will only serve to strengthen the debates of those that consider the Dallas Cowboys to simply be a middle-of-the-road squad that can beat bad teams without style points and struggle against league heavyweights. After being humiliated in Philadelphia one week before, the Cowboys faithful were anticipating a show of strength that would quiet those pessimists.

But, that flexing of the muscles never fully materialized as the Cowboys struggled to string a full drive together with a punctuating score at the end. And while the offense was wasting large amounts of yardage, the defense was allowing Seattle - a squad that doesn't run the football - to pound the ball down the field with rather surprising ease. Without the real threat of a passing attack, the Seahawks were able to ask questions of a Cowboys front 7 that were attempting to carry on in the absence of their run stopper, Sean Lee. And Dallas did not have all of the answers. Marshawn Lynch and Seattle matched everything the Cowboys rushing attack could produce down to nearly the very last yard. On the ground, Dallas yielded 163 yards on 29 attempts and Seattle rolled up 162 yards on 30 attempts. Every rushing play for either team averaged out to 5.5 yards per carry.

3 times in the 1st half alone, the Cowboys offense put together an outstanding drive that threatened to take the game by the scruff of the neck. But, all 3 drives hit a wall right outside the goal-line and instead of racking up 21 points to compliment their 300 yards of 1st half offense, the team was stuck in a 6-6 tie.

The drives stalled for different reasons, but mostly the first two again demonstrated that the Cowboys are one of the least efficient offenses in the NFL when it comes to sticking in Touchdowns from the "red zone". Entering the game, they were in the bottom handful, and their 1-3 performance on Sunday isn't going to help. And technically, one could suggest they were 1-4, but the Dez Bryant fumble at the 1 will not count as a red zone failure since the play started at the 24 yard line. The fans took notice, however, that those final 36 inches on the field are serving as a real issue for this offense to find its true potential.

In the end, the Cowboys won a game that offered a drama-free 4th Quarter for the 3rd straight week. That, of course, is a welcome change for hearts everywhere from the last second results in each of the first 5 games of the year. But, the alternating of wins and losses must halt in November for this team to seriously challenge for post-season participation.

So what has been learned from the 1st half of the 2011 campaign? It would be difficult to fully summarize, really. Wins over Washington, St Louis, and Seattle would indicate that the Cowboys can beat bad teams. A win over San Francisco looks better each week that the 49ers continue to beat every opponent they face. Losses to the Jets, Lions, Patriots, and Eagles would reveal that against playoff teams, the Cowboys have yet to put it all together against teams equal or superior in talent.

Which leads one to the obvious beacon of hope for the 2011 Cowboys and beyond. DeMarco Murray. If there is a reason to feel that the Dallas Cowboys could get on a run of form that could vault them above the mediocrity of 4-4 at the halfway mark, adding a running back that can offer a contribution that is a level or two above what they have received for the last several years would be just what the football doctor ordered.

He may not be as good as he has shown in the last 3 weeks, but even if he is close to that level, the Cowboys have their RB of the present and the future. Jerry Jones indicated yesterday in the locker-room that talk of Murray being the starter over a healthy Felix Jones moving forward is premature. That sentiment further illustrates Jones' general lack of recognition on many football matters, despite his insistence on being the decision maker at most turns.

Murray has just finished a 3-game stretch where he has carried the ball 55 times for 466 yards. 8.5 yards per carry! Behind the exact same offensive line that hasn't been able to run the ball all season? 11 carries of 10 yards or more? 18 carries for 1st downs and another for a 91 yard touchdown. Add in 45 more yards receiving (which was said to be his strength on draft day) and you have a player who has generated 500 yards of offense in 3 games.

What makes Murray most impressive is his ability to make runs out of very little. The Cowboys offensive line remains lacking in many categories - especially along the interior where much of the running game's success is generated. But with Murray carrying the mail - and fullback Tony Fiammetta's excellent work - the Cowboys are seeing runs with no hole yielding a handful of yards, and runs with a slight hole are being seized by Murray for 8 or 12. In effect, he is accomplishing what every team so badly desires, a decisive runner who can at times generate something out of nothing.

He plants his foot, makes a cut, and goes. He does not dance and wait. He seems to already know that at the NFL level, a gap is there for but a split-second and then it disappears and the runner will be engulfed in a sea of humanity. But, Murray is showing a level of instinct and execution from the running game that has not been seen in Dallas for years.

That pace is superhuman and should not be projected moving forward, but to compare it to the work of Felix Jones, Tashard Choice, or Marion Barber is simply no-contest. If a rookie does it once, it can be considered a fluke. When he has a 55-carry sample, then a team has a starter moving forward unless the injured starter was a dominant All-Pro. Felix Jones was certainly a player who had his opportunities and will get more. But, if Jerry has serious reservations about moving Murray into the full-time role, then one would have to seriously question his attention to the last 3 games.

The historical ramifications of the last 3 weeks with Murray are quite clear. This chart shows the 5 best 3-game stretches by a RB in Cowboys' history:

RBYear3 Game Total Yards
D Murray2011466
E Smith1993446
J Jones2004436
E Smith1994434
E Smith1993433

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Julius Jones had a similar run in 2004 and then was never close to replicating it again. What made Emmitt Smith one of the best runners of all-time was consistency and durability. The search for another Emmitt Smith seems like a pointless endeavor, but that doesn't mean that jobs shouldn't be challenged and regardless of tenure or salary, the better man should get the nod. Felix's best 3 game stretch of his career was 228 yards in 2010. Barber had a 3 game stretch of 285 in 2008. Troy Hambrick even had 300 yards over 3 games in 2003.

But, this rookie looks to be above the quality level of any Cowboys runner since Emmitt. Time will tell as durability and game-planning are his next proving grounds, but there should be no question who holds the job moving forward.

Fox's Tim Ryan astutely pointed out that Tony Romo has never had a reliable and complete back at his disposal in the offense. There has never been a reason to bring a safety down in the box on a consistent basis to respect the runner. That might be changing.

And if it is changing, the Cowboys may be getting ready to go on a run.


The Beerleys said...

Jerry depresses me

Brian said...

Murray sure seems great, but he's had the benefit of a real FB and a LG that does a passable attempt at blocking the man in front of him, something that Felix hasn't had all year (and the one time that Felix did have a FB, he went for over 100 against Washington). Let's see what he can do with the same blockers as Murray before declaring the competition over.