A strong run game and staunch defense was supposed to be the Dallas Cowboys’ formula. Instead, it’s the San Francisco 49ers who are headed to Super Bowl LIV.
Last week, I sat back and watched the San Francisco 49ers run all over the Green Bay Packers in route to a 37-20 victory. Frustration poured over me as they punched their ticket to Super Bowl LIV. I wasn’t so much angry at the end result as I was to how it all unfolded. This was supposed to be the Dallas Cowboys‘ formula for winning.
In a pass-heavy league, the 49ers have found success doing what the Cowboys were supposed to do — running the ball. Jimmy Garoppolo threw just eight passes all game, only two in the second half. Of course, when your running back carries the ball 29 times for 220 yards and four touchdowns and you have a defense that holds Aaron Rodgers to a goose egg in the first half, you don’t really need your quarterback to do much work.
Heading into the season, it was the Dallas with the supposed best offensive line in the NFL. It was the Cowboys with the explosive running back in Ezekiel Elliott, who, by the way, is also the highest-paid back in the league. And it was America’s Team with the incredible amount of talent on defense
The strategy was simple; lean on Zeke, play tough defense and grind down the opponent. Somewhere along the way, this strategy was forgotten about.
Quarterback Dak Prescott threw the ball a whopping 596 times this season, the most attempts of his career. While on the way to the best statistical season of his young career, we kept hearing how the Cowboys have become Dak’s team. In doing so, they lost their identity as a run-first offense.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the disappointing season. You can pin it on (former) head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore for abandoning the run too early and often. Or you can point towards the inconsistent play of the offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott failing to get the job done when given the opportunity.
Elliott still carried the ball 300-plus times this season, though. He finished with 1,357 yards (4.5 ypc) and 12 touchdowns (second-most of his career). But his final stat line doesn’t tell the full story.
It doesn’t properly convey the ups and downs of the season or how the Cowboys struggled against teams with winning records. However, looking at Zeke’s individual game states two things stick out to me.
In the four losses where Elliott averaged at least four yards per carry (Packers, Patriots, Bills, Bears), the Cowboys ran him on average 16 times per game — not nearly enough. Against the Packers (5.17 ypc) and Bills (5.92 ypc), Elliott ran the ball just 12 times per game. Inexcusable.
In the team’s other losses (Saints, Jets, Vikings, Eagles), the run game was completely shut down. In all four of those games, Elliott averaged less than four yards per carry. Two of those games — against the Saints and Vikings — he averaged less than 2.5 yards per carry.
It’s hard to establish any sort of identity when you’re so wildly inconsistent. Consistency in execution has been the key to the 49ers’ success this season and in the postseason.
The Packers knew exactly what the 49ers were going to do last week and they still couldn’t stop it. San Francisco imposed their will upon Green Bay’s defense, which is exactly what a dominant run game should be able to do.
If your offensive line and your running back are among the best in the league, you should be able to win those one-on-one matchups — even if the defense knows what’s coming. The Cowboys, despite all the hype surrounding this roster, were unable to get the job done consistently.
On the bright side, we now have proof that this sort of offensive formula can work. The 49ers — and the Tennessee Titans to a certain extent — have proven that you can still win in this league with a game manager at quarterback.
The Cowboys don’t need Dak Prescott to be Drew Brees if they want to make the Super Bowl. They need a consistent run game, a strong defense and coaching that’ll get them to play up to their potential.