As the Dallas Cowboys find themselves in the second week of Training Camp, the leading narrative from national writers continues to focus on finding the replacement for running back DeMarco Murray.
Will the offensive line in Dallas revive the career of veteran running back Darren McFadden? Perhaps Joseph Randle could become a workhorse back, as Cowboys owner and general manger Jerry Jones suggests.
Honestly, it doesn’t really matter.
This 2015 Cowboys team will win a lot of games. And this time, they don’t need 1,845 yards from a running back to do it.
Almost exactly one year ago, Josh Planos published an article in the Washington Post where he suggested the 2014 Dallas Cowboys could possibly have the worst defense ever:
"This season’s unit is comically bare and the team hasn’t won more than eight games since 2009—in large part because of their defense. With a ransacked roster, no back end or starter-quality safeties and a difficult schedule, Dallas very well could be looking at the worst defense in the history of football in 2014."
It’s hard to fault this point of view.
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During what seemed to be a disastrous offseason, the Cowboys lost DeMarcus Ware to free agency, Sean Lee to a torn anterior cruciate ligament, newly drafted Demarcus Lawrence to a broken foot, and Orlando Scandrick to a four-game suspension. To salvage the season, the Cowboys had to change something.
They did. On offense.
It could be argued that DeMarco Murray was actually the 2014 Dallas Cowboys defensive MVP.
For much of that season, the Cowboys employed Murray to keep opposing offenses off the field. Dallas averaged nearly 33 minutes of possession time, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. While some teams hogged the ball late after the Cowboys had built a lead, America’s Team held onto the ball for 57% of playing time during the first half of games and kept opposing quarterbacks on the bench, unable to find rhythm.
This isn’t to take away an admirable job done by new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. But his defense was decimated by injury it took more than brilliant coaching for them to manage ranking in the middle of the pack in most statistical categories. It can’t be ignored that during the course of the season, only the defenses of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Carolina Panthers saw less time on the field.
With Tony Romo at quarterback, the Cowboys have not typically struggled to put up points. During 2014, Dallas put up 28.4 points per game, up exactly 1.0 from the past season. On defense, the Cowboys allowed 22.1 points per game, a near 5-point improvement from 2013.
That progress came from a defense that still ranked next-to-last in the NFC with a mere 28 quarterback sacks. It was a unit that had arguably lost both of its top two players from the year prior in Lee and Ware. Somehow, it still held its own.
That was, of course, thanks largely to Murray.
As this team prepares to enter another season, the Cowboys offense should still be feared. Romo will probably put the ball in the air more frequently, but with one of the best receiver groups in professional football, the Cowboys will continue to score points.
But without Murray, the training wheels will come off for the defense. They will probably be on the field more and expected to make plays. They can handle it now.
The 2015 installation of this defense will impress even if playing without Murray a year ago might have spelled disaster.
Additions of a top tier pass rusher in Greg Hardy, a healthy Lawrence and Lee, a young defensive end brimming with potential in Randy Gregory, and others, make up the personnel of a legitimate unit. Even while it may not be elite, this defense only has to be good enough to keep opponents from scoring more than the Cowboys’ high-powered offense.
With the combination of a first-class offensive line making the most of the current running backs and an obviously upgraded roster defensively, this team will continue to surprise.
The 2014 version of this team needed 1,845 yards on the ground to win 12 games.
The 2015 Dallas Cowboys do not.