The year was 2014. The Dallas Cowboys offensive line was absolutely dominating on the field every Sunday, as DeMarco Murray was the benefactor of their stellar blocking. Murray shaped the Cowboys' identity, pounding out yards on the ground that kept the offensive moving down the field while keeping the Dallas defense on the sideline.
Also on the same offense, WR Dez Bryant was having a breakout year – in his contract year – thanks to opposing defenses becoming so preoccupied with Murray. Romo and Bryant added another lethal option to a Cowboys offense that led them to a 12 win regular season.
Fast-forward to 2015, where Murray found himself exiled to a life of running sideways all game long with Chip Kelly over in Philadelphia. In Dallas, the Cowboys offensive line was still in tact, ready to block for Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden.
While fans couldn't quite put total confidence in these two backs to pick up where Murray left off, the Cowboys still had the reliable combination of Tony Romo and Dez Bryant….
…and then they didn't. Bryant exited from the Cowboys week 1 win against the Giants with a foot injury, and the very next week saw Romo go down against the Eagles. While Randle's production and running style wasn't quite what Murray brought to the table, it turned out to be his off the field issues that ultimately led to his release from the team.
Darren McFadden then took over as the lead back for the rest of the year, as he rushed for 1,089 total yards that yielded the Cowboys 1 win without Tony Romo. The 2014 team that left us holding our breath for a Super Bowl run in 2015 instead left us with more questions entering 2016 – as they played the bulk of the season without their star QB, star WR, and a RB that didn't fit Scott Linehan's scheme.
Dez Bryant is ready to live up to his contract with a healthy 2016, as he too will welcome back his QB in Tony Romo. Suddenly, when the realization that Ezekiel Elliott was ours after the draft sunk in, the 2014 Cowboys were re-emerging before our eyes.
Collectively, these 3 players will try to help the Cowboys return to their winning ways from that season. If you think back to that season once again, there was no doubt that the ball-control style of offense that Dallas ran covered up some deficiencies that existed on the defensive side of the ball.
While this will still likely hold true for 2016, the newest Cowboys' running back may also help Dallas cover up a need at another position – WR2.
The second wide receiver position across from Dez Bryant will be one that is fought for hard in training camp between Terrance Williams and Brice Butler. While it's unfair to write off either player, as they both have tons of potential, the two are also very unproven.
For Williams, a veteran, this is a concern – and a big reason why fans have even speculated that Butler could steal his spot on the depth chart. A combination of Bryant and Butler gives Tony Romo a lot of speed and play making ability from his WR unit, but it will still be a unit that hinges on the play of #88.
To put some numbers on how #21 will help #88, let's compare Bryant's 2014 numbers next to those of DeMarco Murray.
Week 1: 22 carries, 118 yards, 1 TD
Week 2: 29 carries, 167 yards, 1 TD
Week 3: 24 carries, 100 yards, 1 TD
Week 4: 24 carries, 149 yards, 2 TD
Week 5: 31 carries, 136 yards
Week 6: 28 carries, 115 yards, 1 TD
Week 7: 28 carries, 128 yards, 1 TD
Week 8: 19 carries, 141 yards
Week 9: 19 carries, 79 yards
Week 10: 19 carries, 100 yards
Week 12: 24 carries, 121 yards
Week 13: 20 carries, 73 yards, 1 TD
Week 14: 32 carries, 179 yards, 1 TD
Week 15: 31 carries, 81 yards, 2 TD
Week 16: 22 carries, 58 yards, 1 TD
Week 17: 20 carries, 100 yards, 1 TD
Week 1: 4 catches, 55 yards
Week 2: 10 catches, 103 yards, 1 TD
Week 3: 6 catches, 89 yards, 1 TD
Week 4: 3 catches, 44 yards, 1 TD
Week 5: 9 catches, 85 yards, 1 TD
Week 6: 4 catches, 63 yards
Week 7: 9 catches, 151 yards
Week 8: 3 catches, 30 yards, 1 TD
Week 9: 2 catches, 15 yards, 1 TD
Week 10: 6 catches, 158 yards, 2 TD
Week 12: 7 catches, 86 yards, 2 TD
Week 13: 4 catches, 73 yards
Week 14: 6 catches, 82 yards
Week 15: 6 catches, 114 yards, 3 TD
Week 16: 5 catches, 73 yards, 1 TD
Week 17: 4 catches, 99 yards, 2 TD
The first trend you should notice in these stats comes from weeks 5 and 15. These were the only two games of the season that Murray went over 30 carries, and you can see the effect it had on Bryant's production. In the week 5 OT win over the Texans, Bryant was just short of a season-high in receptions with 9, while hauling in a TD catch for the fourth consecutive week – in the fourth of what would be eight consecutive 100 or more yard rushing outputs from Murray.
Week 15 was Dez Bryant's signature game, as the Cowboys picked up an emotional and pivotal win in Philadelphia thanks to his 3 TDs. As you also see above, Murray chipped in with 31 carries for 2 touchdowns of his own.
In the 4 games that Bryant went over 100 yards, Murray averaged just short of 27 carries. For comparison, Darren McFadden went over the 27 carry mark once this season, and it was in his only game as the starter with Tony Romo at QB.
In the week 11 victory over the Dolphins, he rushed for 129 yards on 29 carries.
These are certainly numbers that Ezekiel Elliott can replicate if not improve on, and the boost it provides to a healthy Dez Bryant could have opposing defenses shaking their heads when it comes to trying to slow down the Cowboys offense on game day.
So, while we wait for someone to seize control of the WR2 spot across from the Cowboys franchise #1 WR, just remember the impact that Elliott could have on Bryant and Romo in this passing game.
It's time to once again unleash Dez Bryant on the NFL, and watch him help carry the Cowboys to where they want to be.