Cowboys get a one-two running punch

DeMarco Murray rushed 17 times for 63 yards with three TDs in Dallas' win against Oakland. AP Photo/LM Otero

ARLINGTON, Texas -- A few years ago, the Dallas Cowboys tried something with their running attack.

They wanted a one-two punch. It was supposed to be the power of Marion Barber and the speed of Felix Jones.

It never worked out. Barber's health betrayed him, and Jones just never could stay healthy. Each left the Cowboys for other teams, and while Barber is retired, Jones is plying his trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Thanksgiving Day, the one-two punch the Cowboys were looking for to wear teams down was discovered.

In the Cowboys' 31-24 victory against the Oakland Raiders, the run game produced 144 yards on 29 carries. We're not counting Tony Romo's kneel-down as one of the carries, in case you're wondering.

DeMarco Murray rushed 17 times for 63 yards with three touchdowns, and Lance Dunbar rushed for a game-high 82 yards on 12 carries before leaving in the fourth quarter with a sprained left knee.

Murray was the power, averaging 3.7 yards a carry, taking measured steps on the day for the first three-touchdown game for a Cowboys player since Julius Jones did it in 2004. While Murray had a productive day, it wasn't as exciting as Dunbar's efforts, who averaged 6.8 yards per carry as he zipped through holes and bounced off tacklers.

It's unfair to Murray to say his day wasn't as productive as Dunbar's. But while Dunbar was the flash, Murray was the substance.

"I love it, I love it," Murray said of the one-two punch. "He's a great back, and he deserves to play and get his touches. It's a testament to [running backs coach] Gary Brown, who works us extremely hard. He puts us in great position to make plays, and I think that’s what he showed [Thursday]."

Committing to the running game is something the Cowboys say they want to do but never accomplish. Remember the zero fourth-quarter rushes in the Kansas City game in September? How about the franchise-low, nine-carry contest against Minnesota?

According to the ESPN Stats & Info group, the Cowboys ran on 29 of 63 plays Thursday, excluding a kneel-down, their second-highest rate in a game this season. That's 46 percent. Before Thursday, the Cowboys had run on just 32 percent of their offensive plays, third-lowest in the league.

After the Cowboys took a 28-21 lead early in the fourth quarter, they ran the ball on 12 of their last 17 plays of the game. That shows a commitment given how both players touched the ball.

"I love it, too," Dunbar said. "Our coach talks about it all the time, we should be unstoppable out of the backfield. Big powerful back and I'm a speed guy. Just wear and tear. He's going to wear the defense down, and I'm going to come in and change it up and follow behind him."

Both players have dealt with patience this season.

Murray waited to get the carries needed to show he's a productive player, but for a variety of reasons he wasn't given the chance. Dunbar battled health issues and seemed to be waiting outside the stadium to get his carries.

After the Vikings game, the Cowboys sounded like a sorry bunch in trying to explain why they didn't run it more than nine times in a one-score game. It's pretty simple, to be honest with you: Either you want balance or you don't.

This isn't about getting blown out and forcing yourself to throw 40 to 50 times a game. This is more about establishing yourself in the run game so when it gets cold and rainy and snowy on the road late in the season, you have something meaty to use for the offense.

Thanksgiving Day was one of those days when the Cowboys used the meat of their offense to take control.

"It was probably one of the better running games we've had all year," coach Jason Garrett said. "And when you can do that, all of a sudden you're getting some favorable matchups outside in the passing game. I thought once we got going on offense that Tony was outstanding. He completed a ton of balls in a row, starting with that drive right before the half. He really played well, and it all fits together."

Now the Cowboys have to maintain it. This isn't an end-of-the world deal, but if the Cowboys want to accomplish something in 2013, running the ball is vital for success.

"Very happy, very happy," Murray said. "I thought we ran it well, and Romo obviously threw it extremely well, and when he’s throwing that way, you get two safeties [playing deep], and we definitely have to take advantage of that. And I think Dunbar came in and gave us a huge spark, and the offensive line did a great job blocking for us, and we were clicking."