Cowboys' Run Game Has Tried, True Plan: Pt I

In this two-part series, we take a look at the heir apparent to the Cowboys running back throne and why he shouldn't be dismissed as unworthy as he is. Behind that logic? Not only his skillset, but the success of the system he plays in. Part I examines the leading candidate's worthiness.

“He” is likely not getting 1,800 yards this season. “He” doesn’t have to. “He” doesn’t have to be Adrian Peterson, or DeMarco Murray. “He” just has to be Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Justin Fargas or Reuben Droughns. Don’t believe? Just watch.

“He” is the next Cowboys starting running back, and “he” is most likely going to be Joseph Randle. That has yet to be etched in stone, however. In fact, “he” can remain a generic pronoun for as long as the brass deem necessary. For now though, Joe Randle represents that unknown. He sat atop the throne through OTAs and the recently completed minicamp and will enter training camp wearing the crown.

After letting the 2014 Offensive Player of the Year and league-leading rusher escape The Ranch, the Dallas Cowboys have a perceived rabbit hole at the running back position. Murray, a four-year starter, was allowed to leave for the (envy) Green of the Philadelphia Eagles when he asked for far more coin than the Cowboys were willing to pay. Murray was an extremely good runner who had a phenomenal season, no doubt. He was able to play all 16 games for the first time, and was afforded the luxury of running behind a stalwart offensive line. As a result, his rushing numbers were waaaaaaaaay up, and he should feel blessed. The 2014 run game left huge shoes to fill for whomever ends up carrying the load. For now, that appears to be one, Joe Randle.

Nationally, which more and more frequently seems like the absolute worst source to syphon opinions from, the mantra is that there is no way that Randle can fill the void that was left by Murray. When whittled down though, those takes tend to employ very little evaluation below the surface.

What is true is that we have no idea what kind of production Randle will have once his workload increases to that of a lead runner. He only had 51 carries as a second-year player after having 54 as a rookie. However, the difference between his ypc average between the two years exemplifies the physical improvements Randle made that were readily apparent to anyone who was actually looking at the player who came back bigger, stronger and quicker in 2014.

A common argument about Murray’s fantastic season not being “made” by the vaunted Cowboys line is that his ypc remained consistent throughout his career. Well, Randle’s improvement could also be viewed in similar context. If the line didn’t “create” Murray, then Randle’s improvements are his own, as well.

Randle’s skills in 2014 led Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to frequently sing his praises, even while Demarco Murray was breaking all sorts of team records. And why not? Randle might not seek out contact the way Murray did (which exemplifies toughness, but is it smart?), but he doesn’t go down easily, either. Randle also has long speed, one of the criticisms that could be placed on Murray’s game. Most importantly, Randle shows the lateral ability that is a key component to success in the Zone Blocking Scheme, something that will be focused on later in the article. The deciding factor will be whether he can last for 20 carries a game, and over 300 carries on the season.

Still, above and beyond the unknown effect of increased volume, the refrain ring consistent.

Randle’s 6.7 average yards-per-carry is a byproduct of Demarco Murray bludgeoning defenses to soften them up for him.

Yes, it is true that the majority of Randle’s carries came after Murray had run the rock some. This implies Randle received zero carries until Murray was done for the game. The majority of Murray’s own runs came after Murray runs, as well. Did Murray physically punish every defender on the opposition on every play? Does a running game commitment by any other team have that much less impact on wearing down a defense?

The reality is, that Randle has much better split’s in the first and third quarters, the two stanza’s where the defense would be the most rested.

When Randle got double-digit carries in a game, he failed.

This is the most recent and probably the most annoying anecdote as to why people shouldn’t believe in Randle. Randle has double-digit carries in four games as a pro. The results have not been anything to write home about. However, if this is to be used to speak to his ineffectiveness, wouldn’t it make sense to look at the situations surrounding those games?

In 2014, Randle carried the ball 10 or more times just once, Week 16 versus Indianapolis. He toted the rock 13 times for just 37 yards, a 2.85 ypc average. DeMarco Murray also played in that game. His totals? 22 rushes for 58 yards, a 2.64 ypc average. Both Dallas runners struggled mightily and this in no way should be used to characterize Randle’s skills.

Randle also carried the ball double-digit times over a three-game stretch early in 2013.

  • Week 6 vs Washington: 11 carries, 17 yards
  • Week 7 @ Philadelphia: 19 carries, 65 yards
  • Week 8 @ Detroit: 14 carries, 26 yards

Again, it would behoove all involved if context was applied. Randle was nowhere near the physical specimen he was in 2014 and is now. The Cowboys were not a good running team, at all, from 2012 through the majority of 2013. It wan’t until the second-half of center Travis Frederick’s rookie year that the run game began to gel and to be used effectively. Murray himself had some clunkers in the early part of 2012. Week Two vs Kansas City where he rushed 12 times for 25 yards. Week Five vs Denver saw him net 12 carries for 43 yards.

Murray saw great success in the second half of the season in 2013. The only opportunity for a large amount of carries for Randle during that stretch? A 9 carry, 58 yard performance against Chicago in Week 14 (5.89 ypc).

Randle’s collegiate production was nondescript and was boosted by playing alongside Justin Blackmon and Brandon Weeden.

Make no mistake, that Oklahoma State offense in 2010 was something to behold. They ended up ranked second in the nation in scoring. After Blackmon and Weeden moved on to the NFL and left Randle behind, they dropped in the national offensive rankings. To third. Oh.

Yes, Randle’s touchdown total dropped significantly, from 26 to 14 on the year. His rushing average only fell from 5.5 ypc to 5.2 and he gained more yards from scrimmage even though he was now the focal point for defenses. Not sure how some feel this is something to knock Randle over, but again… 2014 Randle was a much different physical specimen than the player at Oklahoma State.

Randle was drafted in the fifth round in 2013. He was selected after Pro Bowlers Le’Veon Bell and Eddie Lacy, and was just the 11th running back taken. Over the past several years, the prevailing conversation about running backs is how interchangeable they’ve become, how there is little reason to draft one high anymore. Yet, when the Cowboys decide they are in tune with that sentiment, suddenly the guy they’ve chosen isn’t “one of those” guys? Why not?

The offensive system of the Cowboys is not only designed to make stars out of running backs with the traits of patience, vision, speed through the hole and lateral ability., it has a long-standing history of such.

In Part 2, we’ll look at the history of Zone Blocking in the NFL and how Joe Randle’s path to a successful season was paved by guys like him.

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