DeMarco Murray had one rushing touchdown against the Packers. There could have been more. (Tim Sharp/AP)
In their last four games, the Dallas Cowboys have run for 107, 144, 198 and 134 yards. They've executed the run-blocking scheme established by de facto offensive coordinator Bill Callahan, and that scheme has made the Cowboys a more balanced team than they've been at any other time in the Jason Garrett era. Yes, they're 2-2 in that time, but that can be blamed as much or more on Dallas' horrible defense than anything else.
In the first half of their Sunday game against the Green Bay Packers, Dallas ran for 93 yards on just 11 plays -- all carries from DeMarco Murray. The Packers' defense had no real answer for it, and it was the primary reason the Cowboys were up 26-3 at the half. The run balance allowed Tony Romo to be as efficient as he's ever been, completing 16 of 27 passes for 250 yards and a touchdown in the first half alone. For one dreamy first half, the Cowboys looked every bit like the Super Bowl contender Jerry Jones keeps trying to tell us they are.
Then, the play-calling went sideways. Up by 23 points, Dallas ran the ball a grand total of seven times in the second half, relying on Romo to throw the ball 21 times. The results were as predictable as can be: The Cowboys controlled the ball for more than eight minutes in each of the first two quarters but dropped to 7:43 and 6:30 in the final quarters.
Romo threw two abysmal fourth-quarter interceptions that lost the game if you're into that narrative, but the real problem was the fact that, for whatever reason, the men behind Dallas' offensive game plan abandoned the run. Dallas' defense reverted to form, the Packers went on a charge, and the 37-36 Green Bay win was one of the most ridiculous and painful in the Cowboys' long history.
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If you're surprised by Dallas' reluctance to run the ball in the second half, you're not alone. After the game, several Green Bay defenders wondered aloud just what the heck those guys were thinking.
"Oh, my God," defensive tackle tackle Ryan Pickett said, via Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "It's the best zone scheme in the league. They say it's old, the Wisconsin scheme.
"The last four weeks, nobody could stop it — their zone scheme. And they gave up on it. We're just happy they did. We were, like, 'OK, we'll take it.'"
Cornerback Tramon Williams, who picked off the second Romo duck, was equally shocked. It's become clear that the Cowboys' opponents respect their running game more than the Cowboys seem to.
"That's just who they are," Williams said. "They run the ball really well against everybody they play, but they just never stick with it."
Romo's first fourth-quarter interception came with 2:58 left in the game. The Cowboys had second-and-6 at their own 35-yard line, and Romo threw an errant pass to Miles Austin that was hurried by outside linebacker Clay Matthews' rush outside the left tackle. Romo short-armed the throw, but the real question remained -- why weren't the Cowboys, with a defense made of Swiss cheese, running the ball there? They still had a 36-31 lead at that point.
"Definitely surprised they threw the ball there," Williams said. "I'm glad they did. Obviously, it kept us in the game."
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Of course, when the Packers scored on the corresponding drive to take the lead, the Cowboys had no choice but to try to move the ball downfield with more shot plays. They needed at least a field goal and started from their own 20-yard line. After a nine-yard pass to Cole Beasley, Romo tried to go to Beasley again ... with game-ending results.
Yes, Romo added to his reputation as a "choker" on these last two drives. And yes, Dallas' defense is still on pace to be historically bad. But when one looks at what the Cowboys were doing to Green Bay's defensive line in the running game, there is absolutely no excuse for going away from that. None.
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Garrett's second-half decisions were especially galling because the Packers presented themselves as an easy mark. They went into Sunday's game ranked 24th in Football Outsiders' defensive Adjusted Line Yards metric, they were averaging 4.47 running back yards allowed per carry, 77 percent of all running plays against the Packers resulted in a positive Success Rate and few defenses have been more vulnerable to opposing backs at the second level and in the open field. Against Green Bay, Dallas' rushing attack actually averaged more yards per play (7.4) than did its passing game (6.9).
Moreover, Pickett was absolutely correct when he talked about how the Cowboys were gashing that Packers line with textbook blocking. It happened over and over, but there are few better examples than Murray's 16-yard run with 1:08 left in the first quarter. Dallas had second-and-1 at the Green Bay 41-yard line, and the effort put forth by Dallas' offensive line was singularly impressive.
This was an obvious run set for the Cowboys -- they went max-protect, with a tight end on each side of the formation, and two receivers to the left. Green Bay countered with a single-high safety look in their base personnel, and safety Morgan Burnett (42) in the box as the eighth run-read defender. At the snap, Dallas went with zone slide blocking to the right side and executed just about perfectly. Even before Romo handed the ball to Murray, the hole created for the running back was pretty epic.
Tight end Jason Witten shoved left outside linebacker Mike Neal out of the play using his own momentum, while right tackle Doug Free and right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau bulled left defensive end Josh Boyd to the ground. Center Travis Frederick executed a two-man block, chipping Pickett before he hit the second level to deal with inside linebacker Brad Jones. Left guard Ronald Leary shot over to take Pickett as Frederick moved up, and left tackle Tyron Smith cut right end Mike Daniels out of the play. Linebacker A.J. Hawk (50) cooperated by overrunning the play outside.
Murray had a clear and developing gap read before he got the ball, and he didn't hesitate to work it.
Frederick didn't quite get to Jones, but it didn't matter because Murray shook Jones away and was off to the races, heading out of bounds 16 yards later.
Murray's last run of the game came with 12:04 left in the fourth quarter and Dallas still up, 29-24. It was a 15-yard gain from the Dallas 30-yard line on first-and-10, and though it was negated by a Dez Bryant hold, the play is yet another indicator of how well Dallas' ground game was working. The Packers had coverage to the Cowboys' left side, but this was effectively a nine-in-the-box defense that read run right away. And it was even more telegraphed as a run play when tight end James Hanna (84) motioned from the left side of the formation to left offset-I formation fullback.
This time, the Cowboys didn't go with zone blocking. They pulled the left guard Leary to take care of Neal on the right edge, while Frederick single-blocked Pickett and Bernadeau did the same to mammoth tackle B.J. Raji. Hanna crossed over to block Brad Jones at the second level, and Free dealt with Hawk. Murray slipped through the phalanx of blocks from the line and burst out to the open field.
Sadly, it was easy to see the results of Bryant's creative "blocking" just as Murray was about to bust loose. And just like that, Murray was done for the day as a runner, and nobody seemed to know why.
On Tuesday, Garrett claimed Callahan was calling the plays, which made little sense, as Callahan is the architect of the run game that actually works. He said the Packers were starting to load up against the run and that his team could have found more effective ways to deal with that. Here's the thing: If Garrett actually believed that after watching the tape, he needs a vacation. It was crushingly obvious that Dallas was running well against Green Bay no matter what defense they put out there.
"We're trying to win the football game. DeMarco knows that," the coach said. "We want to give him every opportunity we can. He knows how much we appreciate him and how well he's playing, and we'll continue to give him opportunities if they're worthwhile."
Let's talk about worthwhile opportunities. Murray finished his day with just two negative plays as a runner, and that gave him the highest DYAR (FO's cumulative efficiency metric) of any back in Week 15. As FO's Vince Verhei pointed out on Tuesday, "The average offense this season has run the ball 54 percent of the time when ahead in the second half, and 57 percent of the time when ahead by at least two scores. The Cowboys, meanwhile, had 21 passes and seven runs with a lead in the second half, and nine passes and four runs when ahead by two scores. Did we mention that over the course of the season, Murray is now second in rushing DYAR? This is the kind of guy you want killing the clock and moving the chains. Whomever's to blame, there's clearly something askew in the Dallas game plan."
Clearly, and it had not shown up more obviously in any game in the Garrett era. It leads one to believe that unless the Cowboys manage a hot streak and somehow get into the playoffs, the Garrett era is about to come to an end. And as much as Jerry Jones is responsible for what ails the Cowboys franchise these days, Garrett will have nobody to blame but himself.
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