After each of the Cowboys last four games -- all wins, sending the team to 4-1 and its best start since 2008 -- we've heard it: The team is winning because it's running DeMarco Murray early and often. Even in the third game of the season, when the Rams jumped out to a 21-0 lead, Murray got 28 touches and had 131 yards from scrimmage in what ended up being a 34-31 Cowboys victory.
It's true that the team has found what appears to be a sustainable way forward. Leaning on the running game accentuates the Cowboys' best assets -- Murray and the offensive line -- and keeps the defense, which still isn't particularly good, off the field.
Murray has lost fumbles in four of the teams first four games, but when he hangs onto the ball, Scott Linehan's play calling has worked brilliantly. The Cowboys have compressed games, and Murray leads the league in rushing by a wide margin.
Throughout the Cowboys three-season run of perfect mediocrity, the team's offense has never been bad, finishing in the top half of the league, according to Football Outsiders' offensive efficiency metric, each season. Between Murray, Dez Bryant and Tony Romo, there was enough talent to keep the unit from being terrible, but it couldn't find consistency. When Romo couldn't find a rhythm against a team with a good offense, the Cowboys defense was left to fend for itself, facing quick successions of possessions. (The 2013 debacle in New Orleans is the best example of this phenomenon. Romo couldn't keep the offense on the field for any amount of time, so the defense couldn't get off the field, giving up an NFL record 40 first downs). The Cowboys would, as most teams do when they find themselves behind, abandon the running game, exacerbating the problem.
Sunday's overtime win against the Texans reinforced why 2014 is different. Despite a bevy of mistakes -- among others, a first quarter fumble by Murray, a Romo interception and kicker Dan Bailey's first missed field goal after 30 consecutive made attempts -- the Cowboys were always in control of the game. They outgained the Texan 456-330, held the ball for over five more minutes than Houston and only had two three-and-outs. Murray, again, was the star, with 192 yards from scrimmage.
Still, despite all that good, the Cowboys needed overtime to win the game.The Texans scored the last 10 points of regulation, finally capitalizing on a defense that had given up yards, but not points, for most of the day.
The Cowboys' defense is a thin unit. Rolando McClain has been a revelation and Bruce Carter and Henry Melton have played well when healthy, but, from a talent perspective, it's in the bottom third of the league. It hasn't been exposed, yet, because the offense has allowed it extended time on the bench. Any NFL defense can play well for short bursts; consistently keeping opponents off the board when your offense can't do anything is another matter entirely.
The same strategy that keeps the defense serviceable leaves the Cowboys vulnerable to the sort of thing that happened against the Texans. More long drives -- so far, in 2014, the Cowboys are averaging drives of 3:17; in 2013, they averaged 2:36 -- means fewer possessions for both teams, which reduces margin of error. No matter how in control the Cowboys are, games can become competitive again in an instant. It happened Sunday, just like it happened in the second game of the season against the Titans. Up 16-0 at the half and cruising, the Cowboys gave up 10 fluky points -- including a 61-yard touchdown to a tight end, Delanie Walker -- and found themselves in a fight with 20 minutes to go in the game.
It's a situation that will repeat itself multiple times this season. No matter how good Murray and the rebuilt offensive line are, the team is going to play a lot of close games. If the Cowboys continue to execute, they should still make the playoffs at the very least. If Jason Garrett's clock mismanagement or the turnover bug pops up at too many wrong times though, it may be a special season for Murray and Murray only.
Odds and Sods
- Bryant's catch in OT is guaranteed to be one of the best of the year. Romo, as is his wont, just chucked it, and Bryant somehow corralled the ball despite perfect coverage from the Texans' Johnathan Joseph.
- Murray continued to get a ton of yards before contact. Coming into the game, he had 327 yards before anyone touched him, one of the benefits of playing for a team that's drafted an offensive lineman first in three of the last four NFL drafts.
- With his fifth straight 100 yard game to start the season, Murray surpassed Emmitt Smith's 1995 team record four-game streak.
- Shoutout to Jason Witten for joining Shannon Sharpe and Tony Gonzalez as the NFL's only 10,000 yard tight ends. Canton awaits.
- Rolando McClain limped off after re-tweaking his groin. He's been the team's best defensive player, so any extended absence would be an issue.
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