FRISCO, Texas -- In Sunday’s loss to the Los Angeles Rams, the Dallas Cowboys’ running game looked as close to the 2016 version as in any game this season.
The Cowboys ran 27 times for 189 yards. Ezekiel Elliott finished with 85 yards on 21 carries, his best outing since running for 104 yards in the season-opening win against the New York Giants. Take away Alfred Morris’ career-high, 70-yard run and the Cowboys still averaged 4.6 yards per carry.
“Obviously, the numbers were gaudy,” coach Jason Garrett said. “I think we rushed for seven yards an attempt, close to 180 yards rushing. You have to factor a 70-yard run in, but those count, too.
“There were a lot of good things in the game. They did have a lot of guys around the line of scrimmage. I thought we did a good job continuing to persist to try to run the football. I thought we controlled the game, particularly in the first part of the game, because of our run game. I thought our guys did a good job blocking their front on a consistent basis. I thought Zeke ran well in the game. Alfred gave us a spark when he went in, and we tried to do that throughout the game.
“Ultimately, it wasn’t enough. Whatever we did wasn’t enough in this game, so we go back and see how we can do it better.”
Without question, the Cowboys can do better in the running game. They have to do better in the running game if they want to get off the win one, lose one train.
But sometimes, the mind can play tricks on you.
After last season, when Elliott led the NFL in rushing with 1,631 yards on 322 carries and scored 15 touchdowns, the prevailing thought was that it was easy. Every run call delivered. Every block was just so precise. Every read Elliott made was the right one.
That’s what a record-setting rookie season does to the memory. That’s what a 13-3 record does to the memory.
That’s why we believe Emmitt Smith was never stopped when the Cowboys needed the big yards and everything went swimmingly in 1992, ’93 and ’95, when they won Super Bowls.
Except it wasn’t easy to run the ball.
Elliott’s totals through the first four games in each of the past two seasons are not identical. He had 412 yards on 94 carries in the Cowboys’ 3-1 start a year ago. Through the Cowboys' four games this season, he has 277 yards on 76 carries with the nine-carry, 8-yard performance against the Denver Broncos, greatly skewing the numbers.
But looking inside those numbers, there isn’t that much of a difference.
Elliott actually had more negative runs in the first four games last year (eight) than this year (seven). He has 27 carries of 1 yard or fewer this season; he had 26 through the first four games last season.
If those are the negative numbers, Elliott must have had more big runs in the first four games last year. He had six carries of 10 yards or more through the first four games in 2016. He has four through the first four games this season. He had three runs of 20 yards or more in the first four games last year. He has two in the first four games this year.
There is a difference when it comes to runs of five yards or more. Thirty-five percent of Elliott’s first 94 runs went for five yards or more in the first four games in 2016. This year, 31 percent (24 of 77) have gone for 5 yards or more.
Against the Rams, eight of Elliott’s 27 carries went for one yard or less, but none were worse than minus-one yard. He had seven carries of five yards or more, including three that went for 10 or more yards.
“It was one of the better rushing outputs that we had, but again we try to go back and evaluate it play by play, player by player and just keep getting better and better,” Garrett said. “That’s what our focus is.”
The Cowboys’ search for consistency has focused attention on the offensive line, where they are breaking in new starters at left guard (Chaz Green, Jonathan Cooper) and right tackle (La’el Collins). Elliott still is finding that balance between patience and urgency with the zone scheme, which was something that clicked after his first two games. He also is having to deal with the threat of a six-game suspension, which has to have an effect on him at some level. Opposing defenses have altered their approach, and the Cowboys’ adjustments have been slow or not fruitful.
Sunday’s production was closer to 2016, but that doesn’t mean it was perfect.
But it wasn’t always perfect last year, either.