Running joke: Cowboys' ground game has been laughable without DeMarco Murray

IRVING -- Before the season, DeMarco Murray was seen as the Dallas Cowboys' most complete back since the days of NFL rushing king Emmitt Smith and worthy of possibly one day taking his place in the illustrious running back hierarchy of Smith, fellow Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett and Calvin Hill.

That was the futuristic goal.

There was certain hope that he would at least top the 1,000-yard barrier in his second season, becoming only the second back to do so in the past decade.

Of course, that was before Murray and the running game started slowly because of injuries on the offensive line and to him with a sprained foot against the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 14.

He has missed the past six games and the Cowboys' running game has gone from 20th in the league to dead last.

Now Murray is looked upon as a last-gasp effort to not only revive the offense by providing balance in hopes of salvaging the season but also to save the Cowboys from having the worst rushing season in team history for 16 games.

Murray practiced Wednesday, albeit on a limited basis, for the first time since his injury and anticipates returning for Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Cowboys Stadium.

"I had a good day," Murray said. "A good first day."

He acknowledged he took part in more football activities in practice than he had in the past six weeks.

"I'm back out there," Murray said, regarding practice.

However, he was coy when it came to his game-day plans.

"You going to be there Sunday? I will be there too. You will have to wait and see," Murray said.

There is no question the Cowboys need him. Felix Jones replaced in him the starting lineup and has largely been ineffective because he's been banged up with injuries to both knees and neck. He came into the season out of shape and he's also run behind an injury riddled line.

Jones, who didn't practice, is averaging a career-low 3.6 yards per carry and has gained 335 yards this season, only 5 more than Murray.

The Cowboys have gained only 368 rushing yards on 123 carries since Murray has been out of the starting lineup. That is an average of 20.5 rushes per game, 61.3 rushing yards per game and a rushing average of 2.99 per carry.

The overriding result has been a run to nowhere at a record pace for the Cowboys.

Dallas is averaging 22.2 attempts per game and a league-worst 78.7 rushing yards per game, putting the Cowboys on pace for 355 carries for 1,260 yards this season -- the totals would tie and set team records for futility in both categories for 16 games. The Cowboys rushed 355 times for 1,409 in 1989 when they went 1-15.

"You know, it's a team thing," coach Jason Garrett said. "DeMarco has been a really good runner for us over the past couple of years. When he's been in the lineup, we've run the ball. We've run it well, and we've run it better than we have when he's been out of the lineup. But again, the next guy's got to go in there, and you've got to keep rolling along. Hopefully, when he gets back, he'll help us. There's no question about it. Both in the run game and the pass game."

Murray's absence and the line struggles are not the only reasons for the team's running woes. The Cowboys have fallen behind early in games, forcing them to go to the air more than they would like to of late.

They also haven't run it well when they have tried. It has put too much pressure on quarterback Tony Romo and the passing game.

That's why Garrett has no interest in foregoing the run all together and going with the hurry-up approach at the start of games even though that has seemingly been the team's most effective way of moving the ball.

"You like to have enough balance so you're not putting so much pressure on everybody," Garrett said. "You want to be able to attack defenses a lot of different ways. Line one of that is you want to be able to run it and you want to be able to throw it. That balance is important."

Consider that NFL leading rusher Adrian Peterson (1,236 yards) is one of nine running backs in the league who have more rushing yards than the Cowboys' 866.

The Cowboys' run game will also be buoyed Sunday by the return of center Ryan Cook and left tackle Tyron Smith. Cook missed the past two games with a knee injury, forcing right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau to play center and backup Derrick Dockery in the lineup at guard.

Smith, who has been the team's best offensive lineman, missed last Thursday's game against Washington with a sprained ankle and was replaced by the inexperienced Jermey Parnell.

"I know if we throw people around and make holes the running game will exit," guard Nate Livings said. "It's frustrating."

And on the record-setting road to ignominy.

Clarence E. Hill Jr.


Twitter: @clarencehilljr

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