Keeping DeMarco Murray healthy key

OXNARD, Calif. -- Emmitt Smith remains the last Dallas Cowboys running back to rush for more than 1,200 yards in a season -- and he did it way back in 2000.

The franchise that produced Hall of Fame runners Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith rushed for a measly 1,265 yards as a team last season.

How embarrassing.

Did you know that Smith had nine seasons with more than 1,200 yards, including seven with more than 1,250 yards? Those were the good old days, when the Cowboys actually had a balanced offense.

If DeMarco Murray is healthy this season, he'll end that drought. The Cowboys need Murray to rush for at least 1,200 yards or they'll miss the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season.

This is not an unreasonable expectation. All he needs is health.

We're talking about a guy who has a career rushing average of 4.8 yards per carry. In two seasons, he has compiled 325 carries for 1,580 yards and six touchdowns. Don't forget, Murray owns the team's single-game rushing record with a 25-carry, 253-yard performance against St. Louis as a rookie.

But he has missed nine of 32 games in two seasons, including six last season with a sprained foot. And, although he can't stand talking about it, we can't ignore Murray's history of health issues going back to his days at Oklahoma.

Murray doesn't miss games because he lacks toughness; he has just had some bad luck. Now would be a good time for his luck to change.

Smith missed just seven games in 13 seasons with Cowboys, and Dorsett missed 12 games in 11 seasons. They set the standard around here, just like Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman have established the standard for any Cowboys starting quarterback.

Garrett and new playcaller Bill Callahan built the running game around Murray's skill set -- vision, quickness and patience. This scheme is designed for him to succeed because the Cowboys will use more zone blocking, which will give Murray more autonomy in the running game.

See, Murray likes to patiently run along the line of scrimmage, pick his hole and then accelerate through it. Callahan prefers the scheme because it forces the defensive lineman to move sideways, making them easier to block.

"In high school and college I was either in a one-back or shotgun, so I'm used to not having a fullback," Murray said. "You don't have to worry about reading the fullback or the hole getting clogged up. I just have to work on being more patient and giving the play time to develop. I watch a lot of tape of Frank Gore because he's probably the most patient runner I've seen. He does a great job of setting up blocks and waiting for the hole to open."

The Cowboys need Murray to provide the consistent offensive balance this offense has lacked the past few seasons. Dallas is 6-0 when Murray rushes for 100 yards and 8-0 when he gets 20 carries in a game.

All that does is reinforce the importance sticking with the running game to complement the passing attack.

"We were second-worst [run game] in the league last season," Murray said. "I get that. But we also had the second fewest attempts in the league. It's hard to do a lot when you don't get a lot of opportunities."

This is true, but only a fool would keep banging away with a running game that produces nothing.

We can blame the offensive line for the Cowboys' raggedy running game. Or we can assign it to Garrett, who called the plays last season. Perhaps it was just bad luck that resulted in Murray's sprained foot.

If we're honest, each of those played a role in the Cowboys having the worst rushing attack in franchise history. The one-dimensional offense forced Tony Romo to throw more than 40 passes in seven games last season. He had thrown more than 40 just eight times in the previous four seasons.

While today's NFL is about throwing the ball, the best offenses run it when they want to run it and when they need to run it.

When Murray is in the lineup, the Cowboys can do that. Without him, too many of Romo and Garrett's flaws get exposed.