Commentary

Cowboys' success is in the balance

Offensive production in win shows that a proper mix of run, pass makes difference

Updated: September 30, 2010, 12:44 AM ET
By Tim MacMahon | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- Right guard Leonard Davis, usually a friendly fellow off the field, really lights up when discussing his favorite football subject.

As far as the largest member of a massive offensive line is concerned, the Dallas Cowboys can't run the ball often enough.

"We know how good we can be," Davis said. "When we're running the ball, it's like a little kid getting a treat. You just hope that you get a whole lot of them."

Of course, there's a reason right guards rarely get consulted when it comes to play-calling. The 355-pounder would probably tip the run-pass scales way too much toward the ground.

But offensive coordinator Jason Garrett often gets blamed for being too pass-happy. That was the case after both of the Cowboys' losses this season, when quarterback Tony Romo threw the ball more than twice as often as he handed it off.

[+] EnlargeAndre Gurode
AP Photo/James D SmithAndre Gurode and the Cowboys' offensive line were able to get into a rhythm in the win over Houston.

The result: The Cowboys scored only one offensive touchdown per game despite racking up a ton of yards. And Romo practically begged for balance the next week.

Garrett responded with a beautifully balanced game plan as the Cowboys snapped out of their scoring slump. The convincing win over the Houston Texans provided a glimpse of the Cowboys' offensive potential when the running game isn't just a rumor.

The Cowboys threw the ball 30 times and ran it 26 more, not including a victory-formation kneeldown. The Cowboys scored 27 points, matching their combined total from the two loses.

It's not like the Texans were overpowered by the Cowboys' rushing attack.

Tailbacks Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice combined for 102 yards on 26 carries, but that was effective enough. It's no coincidence that Romo had by far his most efficient performance so far this season, completing 23 of 30 passes for 284 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions or sacks.

"When you run the ball and run successfully," Romo said, "it makes everything a lot easier."

The onus for establishing the run isn't only on the offensive coordinator. The offensive linemen and running backs have to give Garrett faith to keep pounding away on the ground.

Garrett gets the blame for abandoning the run in the season opener against the Washington Redskins, when the Cowboys averaged 4.7 yards per carry but threw the ball more than two-thirds of the time. The backs and offensive linemen gave Garrett good reason to abandon the run the next week against the Chicago Bears, when the Cowboys averaged only 1.8 yards per carry and lost yardage on one-fourth of their running plays.

Recent history, however, indicates that the Cowboys can rely on their running game. The Tennessee Titans, featuring 2,000-yard rusher Chris Johnson, is the only team that averaged more yards per carry than the Cowboys (4.8) last season.

It's not necessarily about the number of runs compared to passes. Garrett defines balance as spreading the ball around to the Cowboys' variety of threats, including backs, receivers and tight ends. But the Cowboys just have to run the ball often enough to make the defenses respect the ground game and allow the backs and offensive line to get in a rhythm.

"Not give the defense a chance to expect what's coming next," center Andre Gurode said.

That puts the Dallas passing game, with its arsenal of explosive weapons, in position to reach its potential.

Defensive linemen get worn down when guys like Gurode and Davis lean on them on a regular basis. They also can't pin their ears back and rush Romo when they have to worry about plugging gaps. Pass protection suddenly becomes a lot easier, especially if the Cowboys can consistently get in good down-and-distance situations.

Linebackers and safeties bite on play-action if Barber is consistently bursting for four or five yards and Jones mixes in the occasional big gain. Romo is most effective on play-action passes, completing 17 of 22 for 186 yards and two touchdowns this season, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

Those defenders can't cheat on their coverages, which sometimes results in slants turning into 63-yard touchdowns, as we saw Sunday with Roy Williams when Houston's Eugene Wilson was too slow to stop the receiver after he torched man coverage.

Garrett gets to dictate matchups when he knows the defense has to react to an effective running game. Good things are destined to happen when the Cowboys can create one-on-one matchups for Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten.

"It goes back to that idea of attacking the defense in different ways," Garrett said. "You can break the huddle and say, 'We can run it, we can throw it, we can throw it to this guy, we can hand it to this guy and better cover this guy.' When you're doing that, you're really dictating to the defense. So you want to be balanced for that reason. You want to be able to get the ball to different people effectively for that reason."

Then the Cowboys' offense can be a treat to watch.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his mailbag.

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