THE SAD truth is the Cowboys got pushed around when it mattered most over the last two playoff-less seasons, routinely losing fourth-quarter leads and critical late-season division games. But a tone-setting play early in training camp this year may signal that those all-too-submissive Cowboys are a thing of the past.
Second-year running back DeMarco Murray provided that signature moment, catching a simple swing pass from Tony Romo in the flat just as reserve cornerback Teddy Williams was coming up fast to make the tackle. The 6-foot, 215-pound Murray secured the ball, then lowered his shoulder to mete out the punishment—after all, it's better to give than to receive—bowling over the 6'1", 201-pound Williams and sending him to the sideline for a few days with a concussion.
Murray's seismic hit was still a hot topic in camp days later, and Dallas is hoping the reverberations continue all season as coach Jason Garrett's team works to toughen up.
"DeMarco runs with bad intentions," says new Cowboys fullback Lawrence Vickers of Murray's surrender-no-ground approach. "He's out there trying to bring it to somebody. He's going to thump 'em, because when it comes to that third and fourth quarter, those defenders are tired of getting thumped, and that's when our big runs are going to come. When he hit Teddy that day, what it alerted everybody to is, he's always ready to play. Even when you think he's not looking, he's ready to lay the boom. He's saying, 'I'm here, and it's DeMo time.'"
The Cowboys got a taste of DeMo time last season, but it ended far too quickly. Murray was an unheralded third-round pick out of Oklahoma in 2011, and he saw only sporadic action in the season's first five games. But taking over for injured starter Felix Jones in Week 7, Murray made NFL and team history with a club-record 253-yard rushing game against the Rams (breaking Emmitt Smith's 1993 record of 237), including a 91-yard touchdown run on his first carry—the longest first career scoring run since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
In the first four games in which Murray saw extensive action, he rushed for 601 yards, more than any Cowboy has in a four-game span. But his season, and Dallas's ability to run, came to an abrupt halt in Week 14 when Murray fractured his right ankle in the first quarter of a season-turning loss at home to the eventual champion Giants. Even with just seven starts, he finished with a team-high 897 rushing yards and a 5.5-yard average.
Murray is healthy and eager to make up for lost time, and no one in Cowboys camp has looked more impressive. He won't even talk about his record-shattering day against the Rams, believing that reliving past success will do nothing to help his preparation for the 2012 season. As for the notion that he might be a one-year wonder now that opponents have had a chance to study his game, Murray just smiles and invites such scrutiny. "We'll have to wait and see," he says. "I love the doubters. I feed off them."
Dallas believes relying on the Murray-led running game will help the team protect a lead late in the game. That strategy will also take some pressure off Romo and the passing game, which lost receiver Laurent Robinson to Jacksonville in free agency and has been without Miles Austin (strained hamstring) during the preseason.
If the high-profile upgrades at cornerback (free agent Brandon Carr and No. 6 draft pick Morris Claiborne of LSU) pay off, the Cowboys' fiery second-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan might be able to field a unit that brings a shut-the-door attitude to the party as well.
That's what it's all about for the Cowboys this season: attitude. "The thing with DeMarco is, he's hungry," says Vickers. "He wants success. He's beasting out there, and he's striving for excellence. But this whole team is hungry for success. We want to win right now."
If the Cowboys do win—at least enough to make the playoffs—Murray will be hailed as the difference-maker in Dallas. At the very least, opponents will think twice before stepping in front of a runner who knows how to "lay the boom."
WITH 2011 STATS
OFFENSE 2011 RANK: 11
opponents has big-time receivers and big-time playmakers," Garrett said. "Carr gives us the chance to counter that."
Defensive packages used in 2011 by Cowboys coordinator Rob Ryan. By comparison, the Bears employed just three defensive packages.
Yards per carry by the Cowboys at home last season, compared with 3.3 on the road. No team had a bigger home-away differential.
Tony Romo's completion percentage if one disregards dropped passes, the third-highest adjusted rate in the league.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (MURRAY)
When Murray went down with a broken right ankle, so did Dallas's chances of making the playoffs.
MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS (CARR)