Commentary

Cowboys running in right direction

Garrett's commitment to ground game has coincided with back-to-back victories

Updated: November 23, 2010, 3:33 PM ET
By Calvin Watkins | ESPNDallas.com

If there is one criticism of Dallas Cowboys interim coach Jason Garrett's abilities as an offensive playcaller, it's how he uses the running game.

In theory, the Cowboys start Marion Barber then take him out after a handful of snaps and insert Felix Jones.

On short-yardage situations, Barber checks in.

[+] EnlargeMarion Barber
Matthew Emmons/US Presswire Marion Barber is the starter and the closer for the Cowboys' running game.

The way the Cowboys' season went in the first 2 1/2 months of 2010, the running game turned into a lost art.

But the Cowboys have run off a two-game win streak, their first of the season, and the running attack has fueled it in some ways.

"We want to be able to be balanced throughout the football game," Garrett said. "To get to that point and then hopefully we've worn the opposing defense down enough where you can kind of end it that way. That's what happened a couple of weeks ago when we played the Giants."

During the win streak, the Cowboys have run the ball more than they've thrown it.

Garrett wants to run the football, but if the offensive line struggles and the running backs fail to produce, he goes to what he knows best, which is passing the ball.

The past two weeks, the Cowboys have averaged 117 rushing yards per game. And while they haven't had any individual player rush for more than 100 yards in the win streak, there have been some positives.

Barber has been able to close out games again, which is what the Cowboys have always wanted out of him. He totaled 73 yards in the fourth quarters of the two wins.

On short-yardage plays -- third- and fourth-and-1 -- Barber has gained nine first downs on 13 carries, tied for second in the league.

Jones, meanwhile, who leads the team with 404 rushing yards, is making the most of his opportunities both running the ball and catching it out of the backfield.

"Well, when you rush for over 100 yards, it's pretty well documented that your chances [to win go way up]," quarterback Jon Kitna said. "Those numbers can be very skewed because if you get behind in a game and you got to catch up, yeah you can run for 100 yards, but is that going to help you catch up?"

[+] EnlargeFelix Jones
Tim Heitman/US PresswireFelix Jones leads the Cowboys with 404 rushing yards and has another 277 yards receiving.

In the past, the Cowboys' excuse regarding the running game is that they've been behind in games and needed to play catch-up.

You wonder if the Cowboys could have slowed the pace of those games down by sticking with the run.

In a 45-7 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 7, before Wade Phillips was fired and Garrett was the offensive coordinator, the Cowboys trailed 28-7 at halftime. On the Cowboys' first possession of the second half, Garrett called three passing plays, resulting in two incompletions and a sack.

On Oct. 31, a 35-17 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Cowboys were down 21-3 before their first possession of the second half. Garrett called for a pass that went incomplete then called for run in which Jones made two defenders miss to gain 7 yards. Dallas threw on third-and-short to get a first down, but on the following play Kitna threw an interception that bounced off the fingertips of Roy Williams.

In contrast, the New York Giants didn't abandon their commitment to the run after falling behind the Cowboys, 20-7, in the second quarter on Oct. 25. The Giants started their next drive by calling three consecutive running plays before attempting a pass. The Giants wound up rallying for a 41-35 victory and rushing for 200 yards.

There is no direct science to say a team should run X amount of times. In the Cowboys' case, the offensive line and the running backs have been inconsistent at times, making it difficult to run the ball.

Offensive line coach Hudson Houck has preached the need to do the little things: hand placement, proper footwork, getting out of the stance faster.

"Much improved," guard Leonard Davis said of the run game. "Everybody is executing a lot better. We've been focused on the [fundamentals], the details. That's all part of execution. You have to know all the little things that it takes to execute different blocks."

Running backs coach Skip Peete is also preaching fundamentals, such as keeping his feet moving when going through a pile, looking for a hole if nothing is there and running with a burst.

"We're improving every week, getting better," Jones said. "The improvement we've been doing, just the execution of things, that's pretty much what we've been doing. Doing things the right way."

The Cowboys still rank near the bottom of the league in rushing, 29th at 83.9 yards per game. That's vastly different from last season, when they ranked eighth at 132.3 yards per game.

If the past two weeks are an indication, maybe the Cowboys' run game is looking up.

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

Calvin Watkins joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He's covered the Cowboys since 2006 and also has covered colleges, boxing and high school sports.

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