All week -- well, all training camp -- well, actually all off-season, the question has been who's going to start at running back for Dallas? When the notion of a running back by committee is offered, it has been summarily dismissed by pundits and fans alike who remain adamant that a specific rusher must replace the departed DeMarco Murray.
Yes, according to the game book come Sunday night, someone will start officially for the Cowboys at running back, but in terms of who is carrying the load, it is entirely a 16-week group effort, just as it was meant to be last season.
Don't believe me? Here is the owner of the Cowboys on Oct. 4th with our 105.3 The Fan compatriots, "G-Bag Nation," talking about how Murray should be getting less carries, and this is while he was in the midst of his historic 100-game plus one-touchdown streak that eventually surpassed Jim Brown's:
"The threat probably to DeMarco's stats is ... Frankly, and I don't want to leave [Lance] Dunbar out of this equation either. If we can, we need to have Dunbar with a few more touches. But make no mistake about it: Joseph Randle can be effective out there too. Should we, and we probably should, have at least Randle get a few more snaps. I think he got seven the other day, and could probably push that up if you're going to have as many as run plays. You could probably double that and be pretty smart about how you're exposing Murray."
Running back by committee is the Cowboy Way. Here is head coach Jason Garrett this past week expounding on the benefits of a committee versus a lead rusher:
I think the biggest thing that any team wants to do is you want to be able to run the football. Sometimes you have one guy who’s a feature back and sometimes you have more than one guy doing it. When you have a couple or three different guys involved running the football over the course of a game, I think the benefits are many. There’s a freshness that each of those guys has. Maybe they have different styles, they can attack defenses different ways. And maybe over the course of three of them you’re just more versatile than one guy might be. They have a lot of different strengths you can tap into over the course of the game. I think freshness and versatility are probably the biggest things.
Passing-game and de facto offensive coordinator Scott Linehan even laid out for the media this week that the committee approach is all about a system and their commitment to it:
"We're committed to a system. So, if we call a certain play, we feel very confident the guys are going to execute the play we run. They all run it very efficiently and well. They've all got different styles for sure, but our expectation isn't different based on what we call. Certainly there are things we might be more inclined to do than others, maybe in the passing game but not in the running game."
See, Murray emerging from the original committee on Opening Day against the 49ers and galloping his way into franchise lore was unintended. The team had the original committee in place fearing Murray would get hurt midway through the season, just as he had in 2012 and 2013. Murray had shown nothing, even going back to Oklahoma, that he could handle a bell cow's burden. He did, and now he has a five-year, $40 million deal with the Eagles.
Nevertheless, the team isn't scrambling to replace Murray. Rather, they are continuing with the plan they had when Murray was here. Another of the front office, a very influential member as of late, joined our buddies Ben Rogers and "Skin" Wade recently on The Fan. The hosts asked COO Stephen Jones point blank at the end of the week if a feature back was preferable to this committee:
"Not necessarily preferable. That's going to be something that's a work in progress all year and we'll see who's kind of clicking at any given time and see who's got the hot hand and go from there. I don't necessarily think that it's a necessity that you have a lead back. And it may be that one guy establishes himself as maybe getting more carries than the other backs. But at the same time, I think good teams can utilize the different skills that they have on their team. In our case, four running backs all have different styles. We'll kind of develop that as the season goes. We feel real good about the three that we have in McFadden, Joe Randle, and Dunbar."
Now that we know the committee was meant to be an original component of the offense to 2014, we have to examine how it affects the offense. Let's start off with the running backs themselves. One current Dallas running back told CowboysHQ that all he had to worry about was being "unstoppable" in what he does. He also went on to say that this whole concept of "a rhythm" needing to be established in a game is misfounded. "Rhythm" in the running game, according to this anonymous rusher, is developed in practice, not the game.
Said the running back: "It's more about the alignment, the aiming points, where the holes are supposed to be, the blocking scheme and how things are supposed to be set up. So, I wouldn't say there's much rhythm in the game. You don't have to get a rhythm to do good things in a game. You just go out there and play. As long as you've been practicing all week and just read it like a normal read, it's not about what they're doing. It's about us and how we want to do that."
Another Dallas ball-carrier told CowboysHQ that the Cowboys running game philosophy is all up to the coaches. All he has to do is what they say, and he is not even paying attention to who they label as the "starter." In fact, this running back, who I noticed was getting all the hand-offs from Romo in practice, said to not read too much into it.
Fullback Tyler Clutts, who has only ever blocked for Murray since arriving in Dallas in 2013, says all three guys have their own styles, but all three guys (four when Christine Michael gets up to speed) run within the offensive scheme:
"That's what the off-seaon is for is building that camaraderie with all of the backs. And every other year you've built it with the backups anyway. It's no different this year. It's just who you plug in. And as a fullback, you just have to understand what's behind you and understand that each guy has his own syle and is not going to change too much of my approach. It's just understanding who's behind you. And certain guys have their specialties that they're really good at. But all of the guys run within the system and it all plays together. So, it's not like too much has to change."
For a quarterback, having a host of ball-carriers isn't an issue. Ultimately, according to backup Brandon Weeden, it's all about protections.
Said Weeden: "In the running game, I don't think there's a whole lot of difference. It's just a feel between him and the offensive line. I think for a quarterback, it's more the protection, the communication, and being on the same page, making sure you have that comfort level with your back. That's what I think.
"The three guys that have been with us since July, we know what they can do. They're all talented guys. We feel comfortable with them, and I think it's different element. It can be challenging, but I think those guys are ready for it. And they're all so different that it gives us a lot of options."
Dallas is going to roll out its running back by committee tonight against the New York Giants at 7:30 p.m. AT&T Stadium time. Our Mike Fisher is on-record as saying the "chairman'' of the committee all week in practice has been Joe Randle, and it'll probably unfold that way tonight. But ... The committee approach is what the team intended even back in 2014 when the chairman at the time became more sovereign than the other members of quorum. No matter how many running backs are on the 2015 committee, the coaches will give every one of them a shot because what is essential to their offensive philosophy is to have an attacking running game. Whether or not this approach succeeds is another issue, but the fact is the team has been all about the committee going back to last year.