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What reputation? Cowboys' McCarthy has good history with running backs

Despite being thought of as a quarterbacks-led head coach, new Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy has gotten a lot out of his running backs through the years.
Credit: AP
Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy, center, speaks to the team during NFL football training camp in Frisco, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

DALLAS — When people recall Mike McCarthy's heyday with the Green Bay Packers, they don't remember how his teams pounded opponents into submission with the ground game.

They don't remember his All-Pro running backs or NFL rushing champions. If there were any triplets in his offenses, it might have referred to his receiving corps; certainly not a particular running back.

As a result, McCarthy had a reputation for not working with dominant running backs, or that he eschewed such talent. How would the new Dallas Cowboys coach be able to work with Ezekiel Elliott?

"I wasn't aware I had a reputation with running backs or misconception," McCarthy told reporters Tuesday. "I have been fortunate to be around a lot of great running backs throughout my career."

McCarthy isn't wrong. His first season as an NFL coach in 1993, as the offensive quality control monitor under Marty Schottenheimer in Kansas City, was also the first year in KC for Marcus Allen, who would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Allen led the NFL with 12 rushing touchdowns that season and earned his first Pro Bowl nod since the 1987 season.

Being in the same building, working on the same side of the ball as Allen is one thing. Being an offensive coordinator and utilizing running backs is another. From 2000-04, McCarthy was the New Orleans Saints offensive coordinator under Jim Haslett. 

With running back Ricky Williams, the Saints earned their first ever playoff win and the former Texas Longhorn rushed for exactly 1,000 yards. The next year, Williams produced 1,245 rushing yards, the second-highest of his career.

Though the Saints traded Williams to the Miami Dolphins in 2002, McCarthy's commitment to the run continued with second-year back Deuce McAllister. The 2001 first-rounder churned out 1,388 rushing yards in 2002 and followed it up with 1,641 in 2003, a mark that still stands as the second-best single season rushing effort in franchise history. Both seasons earned Pro Bowl selections for McAllister.

When McCarthy left for San Francisco to take the same job under 49ers coach Mike Nolan, there was a rookie on the roster who would develop into a feature back by the name of Frank Gore. The third-rounder from Miami led the team with 608 rushing yards on 127 carries.

"At the end of the day, the running back position is very important to your offense," McCarthy said. "You still need to run the football to be successful as a football team in today's NFL."

In Green Bay, while he didn't have the star power in the backfield that he had in his offensive coordinator gigs or even in Dallas, McCarthy had effective rushers in Ahman Green, Ryan Grant, and Eddie Lacy. All three produced 1,000-yard seasons in his offense with Grant and Lacy recording multiple such seasons.

"When you have a player like Zeke, the focus will be clearly on touches. Zeke needs to touch the football and he will in this offense. He is definitely a primary focus," said McCarthy. 

The two-time NFL rushing champion has been limited with his touches throughout training camp, but McCarthy says the governor is simply in place because of the phase of training camp. The Cowboys are still in the process of installing their offense.

"It's about getting scheme, regulation, and coordination and making sure everybody is on the same page on what we are trying to get done on each and every concept," McCarthy said. "The touches don't really correspond to the thought process on how we are going to actually play the game."

When the Cowboys are ready to play ball, Elliott will be a key component of an offense that seeks to rebound from the club's mediocre 8-8 finish in 2019.

Do you think Ezekiel Elliott will have as much success under Mike McCarthy as he did with the previous regime? Share your thoughts with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.