In an NFL season that has taken some incredibly awkward turns — Houston snapping an eight-game losing streak against Tennessee, Denver scoring the first 30 points at Dallas, a famous NFL head coach made to disappear over emails — what follows will be the most surprising sentence I will type all season.
The Cowboys need to be more like Philadelphia and commit to the running game … unless they want to get run down by the Eagles in Week 18.
Dallas hosts the 5-5 Las Vegas Raiders on Thanksgiving, followed by a trip to New Orleans to play the 5-5 Saints, and it all eventually wraps up in Philly against the 5-6 Eagles. And if that all sounds like a bunch of mediocrity standing between Dallas and the playoffs, I won’t completely dismiss that perception. The only thing is that the Cowboys have lost two of three and will still be without their two best defensive ends, their two preferred defensive tackles and at least one prominent wide receiver when they host the Raiders. So, let’s not pretend that a team that has managed two touchdowns in two games against AFC West competition (both in garbage time) is a lock for anything.
Remember when we all declared the NFC East race over? When the Cowboys were riding high at 6-1 and the rest of the division hit the seven-game mark with a 2-5 record? Yeah, I don’t think anyone felt there was a race to be monitored. And, in particular, not a chase involving the Eagles who seemed more interested in how they might spend their three first-round picks next spring. When Dallas beat the Eagles 41-21 here in September, some of us noted that new Philly coach Nick Sirianni had produced a game plan that included three rushing attempts by running backs (for 29 yards) and that maybe the rookie coach might want to ease the burden on Jalen Hurts’ shoulders.
Fast forward. The Eagles have won three of four games, they have rushed for more than 175 yards in all of them, more than 200 yards in the three wins, including 242 against the Saints Sunday. At 5-6, still 2.5 games behind Dallas, the Eagles aren’t so much in the race as they are not quite out of it.
Now, this isn’t some old man’s lament about how running the football remains king or the need for offensive balance. If a team can operate with efficiency and throw the ball all over the field the way Kansas City has for much of the last three years, then go for it. But there are numerous reasons the Cowboys need to revisit their running roots they displayed during that six-game win streak.
Amari Cooper remains out for at least one more game. That removes Dak Prescott’s most precise route runner and sure-handed receiver. It’s hard to think that after missing the second half with a concussion Sunday, CeeDee Lamb will be operating at 100% efficiency if he plays. That’s Prescott’s most dangerous receiver by far.
Assuming a Tyron Smith return at tackle after missing three games, power running through the left side of the line will be restored as an option. If Ezekiel Elliott looks to be limited in any way by an ongoing knee injury, then it’s time to pull the cover off the luxury car that is Tony Pollard.
His 31-yard run on a direct snap Sunday was the Cowboys’ only rushing attempt worth noting. Kellen Moore gave up on it early, called a poor game — he had help from Prescott in making it look that way — and needs to focus on restoring the run Thursday.
The Raiders, even at 5-5, might be the weakest team left on Dallas’ schedule. In their three-game losing streak, yes, Mahomes lit them up as he can do but the Giants and Bengals both won by piling up more yards rushing than passing. Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon went for 123 on the ground Sunday and even Giants backup Devontae Booker ran 21 times for 99 yards.
We know a healthy Zeke and his 4.6 yards per carry can run on this team. If that appears to be less of an option, isn’t this the right time — short rest and all — to saddle up Pollard? Among the league’s top 25 backs, only the Colts’ MVP candidate, Jonathan Taylor, and Cleveland’s Nick Chubb average more than Pollard’s 5.5 yards per carry.
The Bengals kept the Vegas defense on the field for 37:20 Sunday afternoon. The last thing a team wants after something like that is to be on an airplane Wednesday preparing to go at it again.
Unlike the Eagles, Moore doesn’t have a running quarterback to feature but he also doesn’t have Jordan Howard and Boston Scott and Miles Sanders at his disposal. He has better runners. If they are on full display early and often Thursday, the Cowboys don’t have to sweat being chased from behind in the NFC East.
At least not until December.