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.
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