IRVING, Texas — The Dallas Cowboys have pulled off quite a midseason transformation.
No longer are they a team that will only go as far as Tony Romo throws. No longer are they trying to pull out victories late in the fourth quarter.
Dallas has turned into a balanced club that can break games open, then stay in control, all because of the emergence of a single player: rookie running back DeMarco Murray.
Since an injury to starter Felix Jones forced Murray to take on a bigger role, the third-round pick from Oklahoma has averaged 150 yards per game, and the mere threat of him getting the ball has defenses jumping. Dallas has gone 3-1 in that span, moving within a game of first place in the NFC East.
“I definitely think I get too much credit,” said Murray, a Bishop Gorman High School product who’s been as humble as he’s been effective.
Murray’s breakout began with a franchise-record 253 yards against St. Louis. He’s proven that he was no fluke by gaining 74 yards on eight carries against Philadelphia, then racking up 139 yards against Seattle and 135 yards on Sunday against Buffalo.
Consider this: Murray has three 100-yard games in the past month, while predecessor Jones has two in his 41-game career. NFL rushing king Emmitt Smith also had three 100-yard games as a rookie, but that was over 16 games; he never had two in a row.
And this: Murray’s 601 yards rushing over a four-game span is 51 yards better than Smith ever had over a similar stretch. His outburst has lifted Dallas from near the bottom of the NFL in rushing to ninth-best. He’s up to No. 11 in the league despite having had only 14 carries the first four games.
“He is and should be inspirational,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “I haven’t seen enough of DeMarco. I’d like to see five more years — at least.”
The Cowboys are 5-4 and play teams with losing records in each of their next three games, giving them a chance to keep this roll going.
Each of their three Murray-infused victories has gotten more impressive. The topper came Sunday with a 44-7 rout of the Bills, a team that came in 5-3 and tied for the lead in the AFC East.
Dallas jumped ahead 21-0 and was hardly challenged. Romo set a franchise record by hitting 88.5 percent of his passes, the defense went from solid early to turnover-gobblers late, and kicker Dan Bailey made three field goals.
So why does Murray get the credit? Because each of those can be traced back to the running game.
Romo is no longer facing a secondary stacked to stop him. Now teams are committing the usual front seven to stopping the run and often adding an eighth man close to the line.
For a quarterback, it’s like the difference between driving on an empty country road and a downtown highway during rush hour. Receivers benefit, too, because there’s more room for them to roam.
“When (Murray) is bringing the safety down in the box because he is running the ball so well, it opens it up for us on the outside,” said receiver Laurent Robinson, who found enough space to catch two touchdown passes Sunday.
Murray makes it work by finding creases regardless of how many guys are chasing him. He’s turning plays that look doomed into short gains and getting first downs out of plays that look like short gains. His season average of 6.7 yards per carry practically laps the field among featured running backs. The next closest is Buffalo’s Fred Jackson, who is at 5.6.
“(Murray’s) expectations have not been a good run here and a good run there. His expectations and his standard have been high,” tight end Jason Witten said. “That’s good to see, because a lot of rookies aren’t that way.”
Offensive linemen love run-blocking, and having success at it sends their confidence soaring. It’s no coincidence that this unit, considered a liability early, has just gone back-to-back games without allowing a sack.
“You see (Murray) every week: powerful runner, his vision is outstanding, he can stop on a dime,” left guard Montrae Holland said. “You saw it at the end of the first half when he reversed field. They had overplayed it. He turned back, reversed it and picked up (25) yards. That’s a great back. I don’t think we did anything there to help him out.”
The defense loves a ground game because that keeps the clock running and helps them rest more on the sideline. The more they rest, the more effective they can be.
As Dallas looks ahead to playing at Washington on Sunday, there’s a chance Jones’ high-ankle sprain has healed enough to allow him to start practicing.
Jones might even be active Sunday. He certainly won’t be the featured back.