DeMarco Murray needs to hang onto the football.
Because the Cowboys season hangs in the balance.
The NFL’s leading rusher gave a clear picture of his importance to the Cowboys offense, as they hung a 38-17 win over the Saints.
Murray ran for 149 yards and two touchdowns, but his biggest role might simply be making opponents defend Dallas differently.
If you commit eight to the box as the Saints were eventually forced to do, that means single-covering receivers downfield.
And with Tony Romo looking well, that means there are going to be guys open. Wide receiver Terrance Williams was the prime beneficiary early, but there were plenty of other options.
Single-covering a star like Dez Bryant for too long is asking for trouble, as the Saints found out in the fourth quarter with the game on the line.
But the way Murray was running the ball, it’s hard to come up with a viable alternative.
He’s had some problems with fumbling (three this year already), but as long as his grip is secure, the Cowboys can contend in the NFC East.
Here are five more things we learned during Sunday Night Football:
1. Two years ago, the Saints were the worst defense in the history of the NFL.
Last year, they improved to fourth in the league in yards allowed.
Everything new is old again.
Rob Ryan was able to put lipstick on a pig last year, using emotion and blitzing to cover up the fact he didn’t have very many good football players.
Now that the blitzes aren’t getting home as often, that reality is setting back in.
In addition to not having nearly enough pass-rush, the Saints can’t tackle very well. They have some impact players at safety, but they don’t have enough players in their front seven to consistently stop good offenses.
2. Of course, part of the reason the Saints looked so bad and the Cowboys looked so stout up front was the recent emphasis on drafting offensive linemen.
Three of their five starters were drafted in the first round within the last four years, giving them a stable base to build on for years to come. They’ve already locked up left tackle Tyron Smith to a long-term extension, and 30-year-old right tackle Doug Free is the graybeard of the group.
But being willing to use first-rounders on Travis Frederick and Zack Martin (instead of, say, Johnny Manziel) takes a certain persistence and patience the Cowboys aren’t necessarily known for.
OK, it’s probably putting too fine a point on it to give Jerry Jones credit for doing something he’d probably prefer not doing, but they have a lot of good linemen, for whatever reason.
3. The Saints needed a fourth-quarter touchdown to Josh Hill to protect an incredible streak.
Quarterback Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton have never been held without a touchdown in a game since they linked up in 2006.
Granted, they’re much better in their own building than they are anywhere else, but their ability to read off the same page of music has kept the Saints competitive for an extended stretch.
4. That being said, Sean Payton is a football coach.
And football coaches, as an industry, overcomplicate things.
On fourth down in the fourth quarter when the Cowboys were doing their dead level best to cough up a lead, the Saints tried the most obvious fake punt ever in the history of ever.
On a team with so many offensive weapons, they elected to put the potential pass of the game in the hands of punter Thomas Morstead.
As I tell my kids about a dozen times a day: “It doesn’t have to be that hard.”
But Payton, like my kids, probably won’t realize it until it’s too late.
5. They might have benched him last week, but the Cowboys could ill afford to lose cornerback Morris Claiborne for any extended amount of time.
Even though they gave his starting job to Orlando Scandrick (probably rightfully so), Claiborne was still going to play plenty of snaps.
Now, they’re scrambling for a solid third option behind Brandon Carr and Scandrick.
They’re not deep enough or good enough in the secondary to sustain those kind of losses.
Of course, that might also explain why they were willing to take him back after he went AWOL last week, also.
Coupled with the quad injury to linebacker Bruce Carter that kept him from finishing the game, the Cowboys took a pair of hits at a time when enough other guys were coming back to make their defense almost competitive.