Why Cowboys’ decline in rushing productivity shouldn’t be seen as a fatal flaw

Running the ball is hard work and the Cowboys don’t plan on abandoning it anytime soon.

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) runs the ball between a pair blocks during...

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) runs the ball between a pair blocks during the second half of an NFL game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022. The Cowboys defeated the Titans 27-13.(Elías Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

The discussions began shortly after last season was done.

Mike McCarthy knew the Cowboys had to be better at running the ball. More consistent. The organization had drifted too far from that basic principle.

McCarthy sat down with offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and the rest of his offensive staff to design a scheme, an approach, that would get Tony Pollard more involved, making him more than a change-of-pace for Ezekiel Elliott. Dallas needed to be more insistent with the run and not default to the passing game at the first sign of resistance.

That approach has paid dividends. It helped the Cowboys weather the five games Dak Prescott missed with an injury and kept a fierce, ball hunting defense fresh early in the season.

The efficiency of the run game has fallen off in these last two games. How much should be read into this decline?

Don’t go overboard. This will be a point of emphasis in the final regular season game against Washington. But look at it more as a late course correction than a fatal flaw.

Sure, the run numbers have gone down, but the passing yards have gone up. Running the football is hard work. It’s exhausting.

And remember, the Cowboys are coming off a stretch where they played three games in 10 days. This is more about the group catching its breath and bracing itself for a physical postseason run than it is an irreversible slide.

“I think the numbers over the course of the season speak for themselves,’’ McCarthy said. “I don’t know exactly where we’re ranked, but the last two weeks, they’ve been a lot of emphasis to stop the run, but I think you see the production still exists for the offense to move the ball through the air.

“There’s give and take in everything. I think the most important thing is our complementary formula is intact, and we need to keep giving our players the running attempts. We did that (Thursday) night, and I think that always carries over, not only just based off the yards per carry but the body blows and the ability the still get after their defensive front.

“The performance and the productivity in the run game was not what we were looking for last night, but we’ve still got to keep giving those guys those opportunities.’’

The Cowboys amassed a little more than 145 yards a game on the ground with an average of 4.6 yards a carry in the first 14 games of the season.

That has dropped to 101 yards a game on an average of 3.2 yards the last two games.

Tennessee’s defense was particularly effective, holding the Cowboys to 87 yards on 2.7 yards a carry. It’s not like Dallas quit. Ezekiel Elliott carried the ball 19 times for 37 yards.

“They were physical and had a lot of movement,’’ Elliott said. “We got to take a look at the run game and get it back going.’’

Pollard didn’t play Thursday night due to a thigh injury. But it’s hard to imagine he alone would have reversed the trend. Pollard managed to scrape together only 19 yards rushing on nine carries five days earlier against Philadelphia.

McCarthy was reluctant to go into specifics Friday afternoon since he had yet to meet with his staff. A late rash of injuries in the offensive line have certainly contributed to the issues.

“Two weeks in a row we’ve been challenged in the run game,’’ McCarthy said. “Obviously, people are focused on our run game and rightfully so because of the production and it’s a starting point for us. But the benefit is it’s an opportunity to what we’re able to get in the passing game.

“But we definitely want to be productive in the run week in and week out. That becomes a bigger challenge going forward because that’s everyone’s focus on us.’’

It’s been a Cowboys focus since before the season got underway.

They won’t abandon it now.

Catch David Moore on The Ticket (KTCK-AM 1310 and 96.7 FM) with the Musers at 9:35 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and The Hardline every Tuesday and Friday at 4:30 p.m. during Cowboys season.

Twitter: @DavidMooreDMN

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