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

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 II examines that system.

This is a continuation of Part 1, a look at Joseph Randle’s potential. That article is available by clicking here. Part Two now looks at the system that will give him, or any other back in Dallas employment, the opportunities for success.

Zone Blocking has been in football forever; the concept is nothing new. It’s current version has grown from when it was used in Seattle in the 1970’s to Howard Mudd in Cleveland, to Cincinnati in the 1980s (read: Anthony Munoz) and over to Denver in the 1990’s where Alex Gibbs, Mike Shanahan and Gary Kubiak used it to finally earn John Elway two Super Bowl Champhionships.

The idea behind it?

An excerpt from Tim Layden’s Blood, Sweat & Chalk, available via and other retailers

Truncated, zone blocking wants the offensive linemen to work in unison in moving the defenders horizontally, opening up lanes for the running back to explode through. Frontside linemen work in two-man combinations in order to get the defensive lineman started in the desired direction, before one of the blockers releases to the second level to knock off linebackers and/or safeties. Backside linemen seal off their defenders so they can’t chase a play down from behind. The running back receives the ball on his third step and has two reads to determine which gap to attack.

As CowboysHQ’s Joey Ickes will explain in greater detail in his upcoming E-book “Nuts & Bolts“ the Cowboys often employed facets of a power running game, likely to better suit the skillset of Demarco Murray. They might be even more of a ZBS team in 2015.

Combined with the “Air Coryell” passing game system employed by Jason Garrett, the offense should be a handful for the league’s defenses to corral. Dallas’ wide receivers stretch a defense vertically, as the reads for Tony Romo will primarily look at the deepest levels first, before moving to underneath and checkdown options. If the ZBS running game could thrive with non-descript backs when augmented with a side-to-side passing game of the West Coast offense, bigger gains might be achievable when the defense is stretched vertically and the back has the ability to avoid downfield defenders. And that circles the conversation back to Joe Randle and his pedigree. The ZBS has long made stars out of both pedigreed and non-descript backs that have the skillset necessary to flourish in this scheme.

Most recently, Washington’s Alfred Morris became an instant star when he ran in the Zone-Read Option offense in Washington. A sixth-round pick in 2012 out of Florida Atlantic gained almost 2900 yards and scored 20 touchdowns in his two years as a ZBS back under the Shanahans.

Marshawn Lynch going from a bust in Buffalo to Beast Mode in Seattle? Pete Carroll brought Alex Gibbs in to run his ZBS system in 2010, but he promptly retired. So Carroll hired Tom Cable to run it; Lynch has prospered ever since joining Seattle.

In 2007 with Oakland, Cable was able to get a 1,000 yard season out of Justin Fargas’ seven starts; a runner with a straight up-and-down running style similar to Randle’s when he came into the league. Contrary to popular belief (including this author’s before this piece) Darren McFadden’s early career was spent in the ZBS system and his one year of health in 2010 led to an 1,100 yard season and a 5.2 yard per carry average.

In Houston, Arian Foster was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Tenneesee. In Gary Kubiak’s ZBS system, Foster amassed over 4,200 yards and totaled 41 TDs on the ground in his first three full seasons (fill disclosure, Foster ran for over 1200 yards and 8 TDs in Bill O’Briens offense in 2014).

With Michael Vick as a running option, the Atlanta Falcons ZBS offense ranked first in the league in rushing yardage for three straight years with Alex Gibbs as the OL coach/Consultant.

While all this is compelling evidence, one just has to look to when Shanahan, Kubiak and Gibbs were all together in Denver to see the template for what Dallas hopes to achieve with their running game. The Broncos of the late 90’s, early 00’s were serial in their ability to plug nondescript running backs into the ZBS system and make legitimate running game stars out of them.

  • In 2005, the last year Gary Kubiak was the OC for Mike Shanahan, Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell rushed for just under 2,000 yards total and a 4.8 ypc average with 20 touchdowns. Bell was a second round pick, but Anderson was a sixth rounder and was the one who topped 1,000 yards that season.
  • In 2004, Reuben Droughns ran for over 1,200 yards (4.5 ypc) in the system. Droughns was a 3rd round pick, but despite being active for 40 games over his first three years, had just 40 carries prior to this season.
  • Prior to those years, the Broncos had the one elite back with pedigree in their system, Clinton Portis. Portis ran for just under 1,600 yards in 2003, following 1,500 yards in ’02. The staff traded him away prior to the next season, showing their faith in the system over the back running in it.
  • In 2000, rookie Mike Anderson was the back of choice. He ran for 1,487 yards and 15 touchdowns on the season. Sixth round pick. Olandis Gary ran for over 1,100 yards in 1999. Fourth rounder.

And of course, the crown jewel of the nondescript runner that fit like a glove in the ZBS scheme? Terrell Davis.

Davis was a sixth round pick out of Georgia in 1995. From ’96-’98, before injuries derailed his career, Davis ran for 1,528, then 1,750, then 2,008 yards respectively. He totaled 49 touchdowns over that span. The ZBS running game is largely credited for putting Hall-of-Fame quarterback John Elway over the top and allowing them to win two Super Bowls at the end of his career. That’s not a bad formula to try and emulate for Dallas and it’s 35 year old signal caller.

Suffice to say, the ZBS has worked well for players of all pedigrees and of all sizes. James Brooks and Ickey Woods ran it in Cincinnati when they were championship contenders. Brooks was 5’10 and 180 pounds; Woods 6’2” and 230. Various running styles from the compact to the upright have found success, as long as the runner is patient and has an inane ability to make his key reads and attack the hole with the right timing.

In an excerpt from a Field Gulls article, here’s what Tom Cable said in 2012 about Marshawn Lynch and running in the ZBS: "We made a deal [shortly after he arrived in Seattle]: You have to do it the way I tell you to do it, I ask you to do it. And he's done it. So a lot of credit goes to him because he was willing to kind of maybe push his ego or push own beliefs, to some extent, aside and then embrace something new."

"Because this is a system that asks backs to do things a certain way. Once you get in and through the line of scrimmage, then do your thing. You can do all the craziness you want then. But you've got to do it this way from A to B. And he bought in from A to B. And after that, what you do from C on is you."

From the same article, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell takes it one step further in his description of how they apply the ZBS to a downfield passing game, similar to what Dallas looks to do.

"That's what we want to do, it's what we want to be," Bevell explained. "It gives us opportunities to throw it, not just the little, you know, West-Coast Offense style where you're going five or six yards, we want to be able to get big chunks. If you're going to drive the length of the field, you're going to have to do that..”

When Seahawks afficianados responded to the Cowboys victory in Seattle last year by stating that Dallas beat them at their own game, it wasn’t solely about the physicality. This video of Randle’s 38 yard run is a perfect example. By the way, that was in the first quarter and was surrounded by Murray runs of 4 and 3 yards prior, and 3 and 3 yards after.

It’s not known whether or not Randle will be able to handle the weight of a starter’s workload. It’s not even known if any of the Cowboys runners will be asked to carry it more than 200 times on the season. What is known, is that the system they employ, combined with stellar offensive line play and a top-notch quarterback, should give Dallas plenty of opportunity to be successful in the running game regardless of who is in the backfield.

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