In the black-and-blue NFL world, added muscle often adds intelligence.
An example from the glory days.: in week five of the ’96 campaign, the Cowboys faced an early season washout. Crippled by Michael Irvin’s five-game suspension and Emmitt Smith’s neck injury, the team had started 1-3 and faced a tough game in Philadelphia before regaining Irvin.
The Cowboys quickly fell behind 10-0 that night and offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese and quarterback Troy Aikman were tasked with building a comeback with Deion Sanders, Eric Bjornson and Kevin Martin as the X, Y and Z receiving options. Dallas managed a touchdown and mid-way through the 2nd advanced again into the Eagles red zone, where it faced a critical 3rd-and-goal from the five yard line.
What kind of pass would Zampese call? A fade to Deion? A special for Herschel Walker, ready and able on the Cowboys bench? A rub route combo to get Bjornson open?
How about none of the above?
Ernie set Dallas up in the base 21 formation, with two receivers and two backs, and ran press left, a weak-side, off-tackle run for Smith behind left tackle Mark Tuinei. It’s one of the simplest runs in the Cowboys playbook and Tuinei, left guard Nate Newton and fullback Daryl Johnson rolled the right side of the Eagles front. Emmitt cantered into the end zone untouched, giving Dallas a lead it would never relinquish.
The certainly the Dallas O-line provided in those years made Norv Turner and Zampese look very smart. Any time they faced a 3rd and short, or a 3rd and medium, they always had the option of hammering Smith, to the left or the right, with the expectation the play would work.
How good was the Cowboys’ goal-line attack? Consider that in the peak years ’91 through ’95, Smith scored 84 touchdowns, while Aikman threw for only 78. Emmitt was the fantasy player of his time, while the Hall of Famers Aikman and Irvin were late-round roster fillers. Compare that bully-ball to the current Cowboys. Since 2009, Tony Romo has thrown 120 touchdown passes, which his running backs have found the end zone only 46 times.
The loss of that short-yardage and goal-line power sometimes made Sean Payton and Jason Garrett look inept when they handled the Cowboys play sheets. Think of the numerous close games which ended with Dallas falling just short of the end zone. The ’05 loss in Oakland, where Dallas reached the Raiders three but could not punch through. The ’09 fizzle against San Diego where the Cowboys could not convert 1st-and-goal from the one. The breakdown two weeks later in Washington, where Jason Garrett rolled through his short-yardage playsheet looking in vain for any play to work, running left, right and then the middle.
The running attack which averaged 18 touchdowns per season in the Triplets years dropped to 8 per campaign the last three years. More and more red zone pressure fell upon Romo, and upon Garrett, who had to devise a new set of intricate goal-line passes to complete drives.
The Young Shall Lead Them
The biggest positive from the two game winning streak currently at play has been the unexpected return of goal-line and short-yardage rushing. DeMarco Murray ran into the end zone three times against Oakland and came one yard short of a fourth. The simplicity and the ease with which Murray scored offers the greatest hope for success as the calendar turns to December.
Here are two of Murray’s runs, showing the key roles the big-pick linemen Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick currently play in the run game.
Trailing 21-7, the Cowboys passed their way into the Raiders red zone. A skinny post to Dez Bryant put Dallas at first and goal at the four. Facing 2nd-and-goal one play later, Bill Callahan called a weak-side delay. He spread the field with three receivers and ran DeMarco Murray to the right, behind a combo block by center Travis Frederick and right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau.
Frederick’s ability to get across a tackle’s face and flip his hips is making more and more inside runs go. Watch how he’s able to press off Bernadeau’s inside shoulder, then turn the Raiders’ tackle away from the play. This lets Bernadeau scrape off the initial block and seal inside linebacker Nick Roach (53). Murray cut off of Bernadeau’s outside hip and inside Miles Austin’s slot block for the score.
On first-and-goal from the seven, Callahan put Romo under center, with Murray lining up directly behind his quarterback. Here, he calls the same basic play, a weak-side zone run away from tight end Jason Witten. Again, the interior of the Cowboys line moved the Raiders defensive tackles and the middle linebacker Roach. Look at the combo blocks on each of the DTs in this sequence. On the call-side, Frederick and Bernadeau work a sustained double team block. The goal isn’t to create a cut-back lane, but to move the tackle on the Cowboys right as wide as possible. Frederick is the key here — Bernadeau stands up the tackle and Frederick rides him towards the sideline.
The double-team game occurs on the left, where left tackle Tyron Smith and left guard Ronald Leary run a well-timed combo. Leary uses his left arm to parry the DT over his left shoulder, giving Smith time to pull right and execute a cut block. When Smith drops the tackle, Leary moves up field and cuts off the MLB Roach. The two Cowboys created a cut-back lane for Murray, who runs the alley between Smith and Frederick into the end zone. Former Cowboy Mike Jenkins made a lunging tackle attempt at the one, but he lacked the angle and the ballast to slow down Murray, who rolled Emmitt-style into the end zone.
Cowboys partisans have become accustomed to December meltdowns in recent years. While Tony Romo took much of the blame for the late-season fizzles, the aged offensive line that protected him from ’06 through ’10 was the main culprit. The high-priced line of Flozell Adams, Kyle Kosier, Andre Gurode, Leonard Davis and Marc Colombo would play well for a dozen or so games, then show their age when the new year approached.
Now, the kiddie line may be running the grey-beards script in reverse. The Smith-Leary-Frederick-Bernadeau-Free quintet struggled through much of the season, but may be gaining traction just as the stretch run approaches. Their timing on running plays has improved dramatically since the bye. The blocking by the tight ends and receivers has also improved in that span. The loss of speed back Lance Dunbar hurts, but continued health by Murray should keep the short yardage ground game on track.
The return of ’90s-style bullyball would add about 20 points to Bill Callahan’s play calling IQ, and it may add that vital win or two needed to reach the playoffs.