Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett is working on having a balanced attack with his offense. This means putting an effective running game together, so that an opponent is often unsure if the Cowboys are coming at them through the air or on the ground.
This is in some ways a throwback approach. The running game has become almost an afterthought for some teams in the NFL. Garrett likes to have options available, and 2011 gave some hint as to how he wanted to do things. However, he was only able to put a complete package together for a few games.
This makes it a bit hard to figure out how the Cowboys running backs stack up against the rest of the NFL. DeMarco Murray showed in his rookie season that he is a quality NFL runner, but his season was cut short by injury. He is explosive and runs with power. Reports are he is fully healed from his broken ankle, and if that is accurate, he promises to be one of the top starting running backs in the league.
The Dallas offensive scheme uses a traditional fullback to be most effective. Murray ran his best last year when Tony Fiammetta was in the backfield with him, but Fiammetta had recurring problems with what was apparently an inner ear issue. Fiammetta has been replaced by Lawrence Vickers from the Houston Texans, and he may be the most underrated free agent acquisition the Cowboys made in 2012. With Vickers lead blocking, Houston had the number two rushing offense in the league last year. It is a bit puzzling why he was not retained by the Texans, but he and Murray should be able to put some big numbers up.
Felix Jones is both the primary backup and the change of pace back for Dallas. He has been a bit fragile, and does not seem able to bear up to the load of starting game in and game out. However, he is still a dangerous runner when he gets outside and should play a sizable role in the passing game as well.
Phillip Tanner is the incumbent number three running back. In style, he is more like Murray than Jones. He also missed games due to injury. He is going to be challenged this year by UDFA Lance Dunbar, a small, very elusive running back who would actually be a great backup for Jones. If the team can find the roster slots, it might want to go with four running backs, given the fact that the top three all missed time in 2011.
There are two real keys for Dallas. The first is health, as mentioned. When Murray and Jones are both available at near top efficiency, with Vickers also ready to go, Dallas should be among the top five ground games in the NFL as far as personnel goes, with an untested but apparently competent backup (or two).
The other key is the offensive line. And that is going to be another topic, as you can imagine, but I just want to say here that having a decently performing line in front of them should give Dallas a potent rushing attack suited to Garrett's philosophy. But a subpar year by the guys up front can neutralize all but the most talented runners in the league.
The tight ends I included as part of this post for two reasons. First, it is a short list of names. And second, in Garrett's offense, there are times tight ends will play the H back position, which can also be filled by a running back or fullback.
Dallas still believes in the traditional tight end who is as valuable as a blocker as a receiver. Many of the stellar tight ends elsewhere in the league, such as Tony Gonzales and Rob Gronkowski, are much more a big, physical wide receiver than the old style tight end. Dallas, however, is blessed with one of the best pure, traditional tight ends ever to play the game in Jason Witten, an almost certain future Ring of Honor and Hall of Fame member.
Witten has a well deserved reputation as Tony Romo's safety blanket. He also is the template for Jason Garrett's "Right Kind of Guy". The only negative is his age. At 30, he may still have several productive years left, but he also may be very near a drop off in his ability. The team definitely hopes for the latter.
With the departure of Martellus Bennett (who was a great blocker, but never quite mastered that ball catching thing), Dallas is left with John Phillips as the number two tight end. Phillips has shown flashes in the past, but remains mostly an unknown quantity. Dallas does use a fair share of two tight end sets, so he will certainly get his chance to prove himself.
Past Phillips, the team has only sixth round draft pick James Hanna and some UDFA candidates. Hanna did not have an impressive showing in the OTAs and minicamp prior to the season, and Dallas may have to make a decision about finding a veteran backup or possibly going with just two tight ends on the active roster if Hanna or someone else does not emerge in training camp.
Jason Witten is absolutely one of the best football players in the NFL, much less tight ends. But past him, depth has to be a concern, because the drop off from Witten is severe, no matter who the number two is. When he is on the field, the Cowboys have a tight end that is at the top of the NFL. Otherwise, they are just hoping to be average.