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DeMarco Murray makes the Cowboys worth watching

The Dallas Cowboys rode DeMarco Murray and a more balanced offensive approach to a 3-1 start. Can the Cowboys keep winning like this?

After a turnover-riddled opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers, the Dallas Cowboys have quietly rattled off three wins in a row, now positioning themselves as contenders in the NFC. There are, of course, many factors at play, but if I had to distill the 2014 version of this Cowboys team down to one play, it's this one from last Sunday night's win over the Saints -- a 15-yard touchdown run by DeMarco Murray off the right side:


So, why does this play stand out? In many ways, it's a visual representation of a team that has drastically altered their identity from last season. After finishing 8-8 in 2013, Dallas shook things during the offseason, demoting offensive play caller Bill Callahan and replacing him with passing game coordinator Scott Linehan. They drafted yet another offensive lineman with their first pick, the highly regarded Zach Martin. They went back to the drawing board, focused on the trenches, and re-designed a blueprint for what they wanted to do.

Last season, the Cowboys ran the ball an average of 21 times a game, second-to-last in the NFL. Only the Falcons ran the ball less. Dallas leaned heavily on Tony Romo and his arm, throwing on 65 percent of their offensive plays, and while the signal caller's numbers were still strong relative to most quarterbacks in the league, his completion percentage and yards-per-attempt dipped. He was sacked 35 times.

Through four games this year, Dallas is throwing the ball 50.8 percent of their plays, a remarkably balanced approach in this pass-happy NFL. Instead of spreading things out and throwing the ball all over the park, Dallas is averaging 29.5 passes per game, right around the frequency that you see the Seahawks, Bengals, and Niners throw per game. Smashmouth.

The Cowboys are averaging 165 yards per game on the ground, 14 yards per game more than the second-place team in the Jets. Their 5.1 yards per carry is only bettered by the Saints and Steelers. The underrated DeMarco Murray is bearing the load for Dallas -- not Tony Romo's finicky back -- and has become the first thing that opposing defenses must worry about.

Just ask Junior Gallette. "If you run the ball," he said prior to Sunday's game, somewhat prophetically, "now you've got guys loading the box up because you want to stop the run. That's when a good quarterback turns into an elite quarterback, because of the running game."

Saints head coach Sean Payton echoed this thought. "I think it's a fact that the balance makes it more challenging," he said. "I think that it complements the defense and sets up the down-the-field play-action pass opportunities. Anytime a team is two-dimensional rather than one dimensional, I think it makes it more challenging."

Dallas went on to rush for 190 yards against New Orleans - including 148 and two scores for Murray, and when Rob Ryan's group turned their focus to stopping the dynamic runner, Tony Romo picked them apart with incredible efficiency -- 22-of-26 for 226 yards and three touchdowns. He was only sacked once. As they say, best way to beat the pass rush is to run right past it.

For perspective into Murray's fast start this season, consider this: Only three other running backs in NFL history have started out a season with four consecutive games with both 100+ yards and a touchdown. Those three? Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson and Emmitt Smith. Uh, holy f--k. Murray is currently on pace to break the single season rushing record. So, yeah. That's context.

Now, I'm not going to go out and buy a jump to conclusions mat. There's a lot of season left, and I'm not ready to proclaim that the Cowboys can keep this up. But, what I will say is that you can, for the time being, appreciate the plan and it's execution. That's not always the case with a mercurial guy like Jerry Jones in pulling the strings.

"I think you always look at your personnel and make the decision what you want to be," said offensive coordinator Bill Callahan recently. "What you want to be is based on what you have and what they can do."

That's true. And what Dallas does have, in addition to the powerful downhill runner in DeMarco Murray, is three of their last four first round picks hunching down into their stance pre-snap on the offensive line. And what they can do, is block the s--t out of people. I mean, I really do enjoy watching Murray run the ball, but let's be honest, this stat is pretty telling:
That are some good ass running lanes there there.

Tyron Smith, selected in 2011 out of USC, is one of the best left tackles in the game right now. Maybe the best. Dallas' 2013 first round selection of Travis Frederick was lampooned somewhat as a reach, but he's turned out to be a high quality player, especially as a run blocker, at an underrated important position. Zach Martin, a tackle/guard out of Notre Dame, was the Cowboys' first round pick this past year. He's played well. Keep in mind, the Cowboys hadn't picked an offensive lineman in the first round since 1981.

Ok, so you've got three recent first round picks on the offensive line. That's a pretty clear path to making the decision of "what you want to be."

Which brings me full circle, and back to the play shown above in GIF form. Actually, hold that thought, this play, the penultimate play of the first quarter, was important to set up the play shown above in GIF form:


It's a delayed inside handoff from Tony Romo to DeMarco Murray. Note the pulling left guard, and all-world tight end Jason Witten following behind him. Ronald Leary pummels the Saints' inside linebacker (#53) that looks to fit in on the run defense, and Witten is close behind to take Curtis Lofton on face-to-face. Murray does what he does and presses the line of scrimmage (and doesn't give away which gap he's going to hit until the last second), and then cuts violently and decisively off of Witten's block. Murray gets downhill and makes another cut to avoid safety Jairus Byrd, picking up an extra seven yards or so.

The Saints would see this look again, at least at the start, but the Cowboys would add a little tweak to change things up. It worked beautifully. 4:09 second quarter, Cowboys up 10-0.

The play is essentially a power-O blocking scheme where the backside guard pulls while his cohorts pin/seal in the opposite direction. The play here is that Witten acts as a de facto fullback, slicing across the formation. Above, Witten blocked inside of the right tackle, but on this play below, as the play-side defensive end carries the right tackle in toward the ball, Witten goes all the way outside, maneuvers himself with outside leverage on the outside linebacker that comes up to fill, and seals him -- this is Junior Gallette. This is not an easy block.


For a guy that's caught 183 passes in the last two years, he doesn't seem too worried that he's only at 15 receptions through four games this season. "He doesn't care that he's not getting the ball." Zack Martin said recently. "He's out there blocking like an offensive linemen. It's really like having six offensive linemen on the field."

The wily vet concurs.

"To be able to have a really good running game, especially when you run the wide-zone scheme like we do, you have to be able to set the edges, because those are where the one-on-one matchups are." Witten noted. "If that never gets secure, then the run game never gets off the ground. I've always tried to take a lot of pride in that."

This play isn't wide zone -- it's a power-O type of scheme -- but the block on the edge is absolutely key. Witten's ability out there on the edge to run block is a big part of why the Cowboys have been having so much success this season.


The other thing that makes this a good representation of the Cowboys' newfound balance and congruity on offense is that Dez Bryant's seal on the outside is another major factor toward springing Murray.

Bryant and Witten, normally two of Tony Romo's most deadly receiving weapons, are integral parts in run blocking on this touchdown play.



Keep an eye on the Cowboys. They've got the NFL's best run game right now behind one of the NFL's best offensive lines, and the beauty in that is that they've still got their passing offense. Tony Romo still has his arm. He still has Dez Bryant, he's still got Jason Witten. He has a developing weapon in Terrance Williams. Dallas has used a stronger threat of the run to better utilize play action to throw downfield. They're getting more one-on-one's outside because teams are focused on the middle of the field. Balance has been a big reason Dallas is 3-1.