That is the number of touches Dallas Cowboys All-Pro running back DeMarco Murray totaled this season. Five hundred touches for a running back has only happened four times in NFL history. Murray has not only been the main impetus toward Dallas’ phenomenal offensive success, but he has become one of the best, if not the best, short yardage running backs in the league.
On a crucial third-and-one, driving into Green Bay territory with the first half dwindling, Dallas elected to throw instead of feeding Murray for an almost automatic first down. The play wound up incomplete, and kicker Dan Bailey had his 50-yard field goal blocked. The Packers were able to salvage a field goal themselves to go into halftime down just 14-10. It was at least a six-point swing and precisely the type of situation that head coach Jason Garrett has been so successful with this season.
Re-committing to the run — or committing to the run — and leaning on the best offensive line in pro football has given Tony Romo the time to make excellent decisions. Don’t forget that he led the NFL in both passer rating and completion percentage. Not coincidentally, Dallas averaged 41 points per game in December and didn’t lose a road game until Sunday’s 26-21 defeat at Lambeau.
It is hard to know what really happened before the incomplete third-down play. Perhaps a run to Murray was called and Romo audibled out of it. Those watching on television heard him yell, “Kill kill” before the snap, the usual check call used by quarterbacks to change the play. Regardless, the margin for error in the playoffs — and the margin for error against Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs — is extremely low. The likely MVP has 28 touchdowns and zero interceptions at home this season, the single greatest clip by a quarterback in league history.
We should not disparage what was a quality season for the Cowboys — including just their second playoff win in six years — but it’s hard not to ask, “What if?” What if Murray had gotten the ball on that third-down play? Bailey would have at least had an easier field goal attempt, and maybe Dallas would have gotten six and gone into the half with a commanding 21-7 lead. What if Dez Bryant’s spectacular jump-ball catch with 4:06 remaining was not overturned and ruled incomplete? Dallas could have scored a touchdown and then gone for two to force Green Bay to kick a field goal to force overtime. What if Dallas had beaten Green Bay and headed to boisterous Seattle, where it was the only team to win all year?
Instead, Dallas went home to face the harsh reality that it hasn’t gone further than one win in the playoffs since 1995, its last Super Bowl appearance. All-Pros Murray and Bryant are free agents and Romo — after his best season as a pro — will be 35 next season with two severe back surgeries in his rearview mirror.
“I have played long enough to understand that you don’t have these kinds of teams on your side to play in these games consistently,” Romo told ESPN.com. “When you have that opportunity you want to take advantage. It just doesn’t feel very good right now because you feel like you let one slip away. … That is going to eat at you for a while.”
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