For the Cowboys, Thug Ball is Smart Ball

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.

Touchdown 2

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.

Touchdown 3
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.

Rafael Vela

Rafael Vela

Senior Analyst Cowboys at Sports Talk Line
Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for
Rafael Vela

Enjoyed this post? Share it!

  • jarhead

    Vegas must know cutler is out Monday night. the lines flipped and dallas is now favored by 1.

  • Jon B.

    Seattle is where visiting teams playoff dreams will come to die in January. Perhaps for the next decade…………

    I haven’t seen a team that talented and young since the Dallas Cowboys in the early 90s. They have a coach who has a california cool and a cockiness about him. They have a team stacked with young talent and a sophomore QB who might be the league MVP.

    Dallas got a BEAT DOWN from NO in NO. NO just got a BEAT DOWN from Seattle in Seattle. I don’t think we are in either of their leagues. If Seattle has homefield advantage in the playoffs they are going to the Super Bowl………….and they might just win it.

    Glad to see Dallas improve their run game……… game and defense win games in Dec and Jan. We haven’t had much of either………….hopefully Sean Lee and our O LINE will change some of that.

    • Michael

      The way Seattle handled the 49ers and Saints should put the rest of the league on notice. You are right, the Seahawks look like the 92 Cowboys.

      Wilson has come a long way since he debuted last season. The way he beat Ryan’s all out blitz with both arm and leg was impressive. He looked like Steve Young.

      I am curious to see if the 49ers can slow them down next week in SF. They were powerless to slow them when they met in Seattle.

    • Football Mensa

      We aren’t even close to the Sea Hawks . Anyone who thinks so is delusional. The Hawks are one of those teams who made a coaching change and it has been a windfall for them. That never happens in Dallas. We get the same ol bs about process and blah blah blah. They draft better than Dallas and they are stacked.
      But Jerry wants you all to know it’s to the Cowboys advantage the way he runs things in Dallas.

      • oskieoskie

        Dallas needs to draft a good young QB ASAP to get to where we can beat the good teams. Sooner = Better.

      • jarhead

        Hold up on that car wash gentlemen.
        Lets see what happens with the sea hawks in the long run before we call them the next 90s cowboys.
        They have drafted well, no doubt, and they took apart the saints; but I remain skeptical.
        I think a team with a strong d-line (like the lions) would give them trouble, in Seattle or not.
        I also think ryan stupidly blitzed them thinking the young QB would fold. the kid simply side-stepped the blitz or hit his hot route. I believe the key is keeping him in the pocket. I don’t think they can sustain multiple long drives, and they were getting yards in chunks last night. their defense looks for real though…..
        lets see how they play in SF after being “anointed” this week.

        • Michael

          They destroyed the 49ers the last two times they met. Their only loss was to the Colts. And Luck can beat anyone on a good day.

          Also, Wilson can pass from the pocket without problem. He is calm and accurate under pressure. He isn’t a running wonder.

          I think the more interesting trend is that the 49ers, Panthers and Seahawks are all running teams. Rushing is back in the NFL…and you can add the Eagles into the middle of that mix.

          The good NFC teams have a young, cheap QB, strong running games and premium defenses. Back to the future….

          • jarhead

            they may make me eat my words, but we’ll see.

  • joey2zs

    How do you remember anything from the game? Is wine not drunk during Thanksgiving in y’all’s homes?

  • Another Brad

    Play 2, still 2. Isn’t that an illegal block? You’re not allowed to go low while the defender is engaged, right?

    • Jim Scott

      you are if you are adjacent linemen, I think (IOW, if Smith was doing it to Fred’s guy instead of Leary’s), but Leary has also released by the time Smith is on the man. I think that would make it legal even if they were coming across the formation.

  • Mandmeisterx

    It’s been amazing to watch the way Smith has been able to just cave his side of the line in, this season. Free got all of the early season hype at OT, but Smith has started to dominate as the season has worn on.

    • Michael

      I read somewhere (forget now) that the Cowboys are averaging 6.6 or so YPC carry along the left side, behind Smith, Leary and Frederick.

      I hate to say this to the commenting crowd here, but give JJ some credit for snatching up Leary. He has been very good for a 2nd year UDFA. He plays with power and his feet and pretty good.

      But, also, I like the traps and wham blocks I see every so often now. Something other than the inside or outside zone. I especially enjoyed seeing a TE wham which is a feature of the 49er and Colts running attack this season.

      • Lee1936

        I know what a trap block is, but what’s a wham block?

        • Michael

          A variation of the trap where the blocker comes from the outside to inside rather than moving inside to outside.

          The 49ers do it all the time, as do the Stanford Cardinals. It is very clever as the interior OL can release to the second level while the TE cleans up the playside DT. Your big guy on their small guys and your small guy on their big guy.

      • Mandmeisterx

        Noticed Witten being very effective at the wham the other night. Smoked Sims on one play, in particular.

      • Football Mensa

        Michael and there is the crux of the problem with the o line. Don’t get me wrong. I love Leary. I was thrilled he won the starting job. I think he will be good for many years.

        BUT the fact he is working out is why Jerry hates using premium picks on o linemen. He thinks he can find them as udfa or lower round picks. That is why the line has struggled for so long. Waiting for garbage like Arkin et al to pan out.

        I contend that Leary is the exception to the rule rather than the rule.

        That said if we have a shot at Cyril Richardson I would run to the podium and turn the pick in.

        • Michael

          I hear you, but there he is playing well. I like that they rolled the dice and offered Leary money as an UDFA. I do do not like that having him pan out and start was a gamble JJ was willing to make with the OL. The problem is the when JJ rolls the dice and wins he seems to think he can do it every time.

          I am all for investing in the LOS. And I am looking for DT early and often next draft.

        • jazzbo251

          Two first round picks in the last 3 years does not suggest that the Cowboys hate drafting o-linemen early.

  • Michael

    Great post. There is no doubt that the addition of muscle inside, in the persons of Frederick and Leary, has made the offense and the entire team look and play better.

    Thursday was the first time in years I remember the Cowboys dictating the tempo of a game. It was great to see them in control for once instead of struggling for a miracle as the clock ran down.

    I would still like some more strength at RT, but so far so good.

  • R.L.B.

    I think Bernie’s play, and the line as a whole, is helped by having a legit center in Frederick. There’s also some continuity building with this group of linemen since Waters went down. Four games left and I’m hoping these guys can get their heads right staying disciplined for the last quarter run for the division. Also, looking forward to the NFL Networks “The Great Wall of Dallas” on Tuesday. What an awesome O-line that was.

    • Jim Scott

      Bernie, in particular, had a very good game Thursday, to my eye.