So this is what the Dallas Cowboys look like when they are mad, frustrated and focused?
After a week of outside criticism and so-called locker room infighting, the Cowboys put together their most complete performance in two years with a 31-7 victory against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday.
The Cowboys (2-1) were dominant on both sides of the ball from the outset before a crowd of 80,848 at AT&T Stadium.
Certainly, the performance of running back DeMarco Murray will garner the most attention. He rushed a career-high 26 times for 175 yards and a touchdown as the Cowboys emphasized the running game after just 16 rushes in last week’s 17-16 loss at Kansas City.
It was the second-best performance of Murray’s career, behind his team-record 253-yard output as a rookie in 2011, also against the Rams. He also had three catches for 28 yards.
“I think offensively, the most important thing we did was run the football,” coach Jason Garrett said. “I thought we did a good job of running the football throughout the game. The balance was good. We kept giving DeMarco Murray opportunities to run the ball. It was a good day for us.”
The commitment to the run was a direct answer to criticism of quarterback Tony Romo and offensive coordinator Bill Callahan for being “pass happy” and “reports” of defensive tackle Jason Hatcher calling out Romo and others in a speech to the team after practice Wednesday.
“I think those reports are inaccurate,” Garrett said. “We try to empower people. Hatcher’s words after practice [were] directed at our entire football team. I think it was a real good sign of leadership by him. It’s not about words with Hatcher. It’s how he plays every day. Certainly, our guys responded the right way.”
Romo denied being called out personally by Hatcher, saying he was talking to the entire team. Romo said he and other leaders such as tight end Jason Witten have spoken to the team before and Hatcher has earned the right to do so.
“He named like five people,” said Romo, who complemented Murray by completing 17 of 24 passes for 210 yards and three touchdowns. “Why would he call me out? He wants guys to understand how important it is every week.
“I thought it was a great talk. Guys who have been around, you are going to listen to. Witt talks, guys listen. I talk, guys listen. Hatch talks, they listen, one because Hatch’s production has been good and because he has a great work ethic. It allows you to stand up in front of the team. He has done a great job of that.”
Not coincidentally it was Hatcher who spoke to the Cowboys in the locker room after the game, thus reinforcing his words of the past week: that they were making him tired of the mediocrity of years past and stressing the importance of making the most of the opportunity this year.
The Cowboys have a 106-105 regular-season record since the start of the 2000 season and 18-17 since the start of the 2011 season.
Hatcher also wanted it clear that he has no problem with Romo.
“I just want to win, man,” Hatcher said. “We are too good on paper, man, to just let games like Kansas City slip through our fingers, man. So that’s what it was.
“I love Romo to death. I wasn’t getting on Romo. He came out and balled. Did you see that? He balled out. They ran the ball. He threw the ball great. He is the best quarterback in the league. I love Romo. Romo loves me.”
Whatever the case, a more balanced Cowboys attack proved to be too much for the Rams as they jumped out to 17-0 lead halftime lead and cruised to victory.
Not to be overlooked was the Cowboys’ defense, which held the Rams to 18 yards in the first half and 232 for the game, with 129 coming in the fourth quarter.
St. Louis and former Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford entered the game with the league’s fourth-rated pass offense that had yet to give up a sack.
The Cowboys sacked Bradford six times, including twice by defensive end DeMarcus Ware, who surpassed the late Harvey Martin as the team’s all-time leading sacker with 115. Hatcher recorded his third sack of the season as the defensive line dominated.
The Cowboys allowed 35 yards rushing and held the Rams to 1 of 13 on third-down conversions. They also forced and recovered a fumble.
The Cowboys, atop the NFC East at 2-1, head to San Diego (1-2) on Sunday. Philadelphia is 1-2. Washington and the New York Giants are 0-3.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wouldn’t comment on the state of the division. He can’t remember the last time the defense played this well, and he credited Hatcher for inspiring the entire team, not just Romo.
“I know that Hatcher really expressed himself emotionally this week at practice,” Jones said. “It’s inspirational with Hatcher, especially inspiring the team and, of course, those guys backing it up with play.
“In order to really make that work, with emotion and persuasion, you need to be a real player. Those two guys are and had the game to back it up today.”