By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) If the Dallas Cowboys had an opportunity to rewrite T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” surely they would edit it to read “December is the cruelest month.”READ MORE: COVID-19 Update: Indiana Announces 1,243 New COVID-19 Cases, 36 Additional Deaths
Since coach Jason Garrett took over in Week 10 of the 2010 season, the Cowboys have gone 7-10 in December. Twice, the Cowboys have entered the month with a winning record only to fall to 8-8, which is the mark they’ve earned every season under Garrett’s guidance.
The Cowboys sit at 8-4 heading into the final quarter of this season, so can they avoid the trap they’ve fallen into three straight seasons and possibly earn their first playoff berth since 2009? The former seems highly likely to happen and the latter will take some work, but it’s certainly within reach.
What feels different about this year’s Cowboys team is their commitment to the run.
Unlike years past when they’ve put all the onus squarely on the right shoulder of quarterback Tony Romo, this version is a run-first, balanced offense. The Cowboys have adapted to their available personnel and put the load on running back DeMarco Murray and their offensive line, which features three first-round draft picks and may be the league’s best group overall.
The Cowboys’ youth movement on the offensive line started in earnest two seasons ago.
2011 first-round draft pick Tyron Smith started at right tackle as a rookie but transitioned to the left side in 2012. Smith has developed into arguably the league’s best left tackle, showcasing elite footwork to mirror and transition on the edge, knee bend and a powerful punch to stun opponents. This past July, the 23-year-old Smith signed an eight-year, $97.6-million extension with $22 million guaranteed. That type of contract demonstrates how the organization views him as a cornerstone of their foundation.
Then in the 2013 and 2014 drafts, the Cowboys spent back-to-back first-round picks on center Travis Frederick (Wisconsin) and right guard Zack Martin (Notre Dame). Both have started every game since becoming professionals and lead the charge for a running game that averages 145 yards per game, the league’s third-best mark.
Murray’s season totals are staggering. He has more than 100 yards in all but two games, averages five yards per carry, leads the league with 68 rushing first downs and is on pace for 1,900 rushing yards. The Cowboys are primarily a zone-running team, but they mix in gap and man blocking schemes as well.
The zone runs are an ideal fit for Murray, who runs with vision and patience to wait for the running lane to develop before pressing the hole. Murray runs with burst through the hole and is a quick, one-cut runner who can make players miss at the second and third level to gain chunk yardage. He’s also utilized in the passing game on check-downs and screens. His 44 receptions tie him for second on the team with tight end Jason Witten.READ MORE: Dolton Mayoral Candidate Giving Cash Prizes At Fundraiser After Previous Allegations Of Buying Votes
With a running back like Murray, opponents are forced to drop an extra safety and play single-high safety looks over the top, which plays right into the hands of first-year play-caller Scott Linehan’s hands.
Linehan’s arrival this year as the passing game coordinator and play-caller makes him the third different play-caller in as many years for Dallas. Garrett’s roots trace back to the Air Coryell, a three-digit system based on speed and spacing the receivers at three different levels of the defense. Blending that with Linehan’s timing-based scheme that incorporates a lot of play-action and screens has worked well for the Cowboys, particularly receiver Dez Bryant.
Bryant leads the Cowboys in every receiving category and is averaging a touchdown every seven receptions. He possesses an elite size-to-speed ratio, competes for contested passes and is an explosive runner after the catch who will break arm tackles in the open field.
Another reason the Cowboys have committed to the run game this season is to control the clock and protect their defense. While improved, this unit is still vulnerable and struggles to get to the quarterback.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is playing a rotation of players along the defensive line to keep the pass rush fresh, but the results just haven’t been there. The Cowboys have two or fewer sacks in all but two of their games this season, totaling 19 on the season. Defensive tackle Henry Melton, an ex-Bear, leads the way with five sacks, but as a whole, opposing quarterbacks have consistently thrown from clean pockets.
Over their last two games, the Cowboys’ secondary has allowed a 100-yard receiver each time out. Thus, they must make a decision on Thursday night against the Bears at Soldier Field — turn up the pressure on quarterback Jay Cutler or play more coverage to neutralize the Bears receivers. The latter of those two approaches has been more successful against the Bears this season.
A few free agents and a position switch have had a positive impact along the defensive front. Linebacker Rolando McClain and defensive end Jeremy Mincey have fit in nicely along the defensive front, while Tyrone Crawford’s transition from defensive end to tackle has given the Cowboys more push on the interior of their defensive line.
In the secondary, outside of Orlando Scandrick, the Cowboys are vulnerable. Brandon Carr was a big-ticket free agent two years ago, but he has been a mega-bust in Big D. Last year, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery had their way against Dallas, totaling 184 yards on 11 receptions.
Avoiding the December swoon is the primary focus for the Cowboys, who are 5-0 on the road. Whatever happened in the past has nothing to do with this team, but surely it’s in in the back of the players’ minds. The Cowboys’ rededication to the running game has worked well for them, and there’s no need to change the course at this point in the season.MORE NEWS: Chicago Weather: Mostly Sunny With Seasonable Temperatures
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.