Sunday, October 05, 2008

Dal 31, Cin 22: Fast Felix

Week 1: Felix Jones, in his first professional football game, takes his first career carry into the end zone.
Week 2: Felix Jones takes a kick-return 98 yards for a touchdown.
Week 3: Felix Jones bounces left outside the tackle, jukes a DB, and sprints 60 yards for a Cowboys score.

After the week 4 loss in which the Cowboys defense surrendered 26 points to Washington, the focus was on the offense (which did score 24) and the distribution of the ball. Is TO nuts for wanting more touches? Why didn't Marion Barber get the ball more? Why didn't Felix Jones get the ball at all?

That third question should be the focal point. Case & point: Sunday's 33-yard TD run by Felix Jones on his first carry of the game.

One week after dark clouds hovered over Valley Ranch, all is once again right with the Cowboys. A 31-22 triumph over the winless Bengals highlighted once again a rookie who is proving his owner, GM and fellow-Razorback to be a prophet. Jerry Jones wanted Felix Jones with a star on his helmet. Some wondered if the Cowboys should have gone with Rashard Mendenhall, a starter at Illinois, instead of Jones, who backed up Darren McFadden at Arkansas.

If there were any doubters of Felix Jones after the first three weeks, there can't be many more of them after Week 5. Now the Cowboys have a bigger question to answer.

What is the most effective way to utilize the two dynamic running backs in Dallas?

Last season, Marion Barber received all the praise and glory of being the "closer," the bruising back who came in for the second and fourth quarters to wear down opposing defenses. Was it because Barber was just better than last year's regular season starting RB Julius Jones, or was it the system?

I'd argue that while Barber is arguably the most punishing back in the NFL today, the two-back system, specifically the way it was organized, allowed Barber to flourish in 2007 (975 yards, 10 TD). When Wade Phillips, Jason Garrett and the Cowboys inserted Barber into the starting lineup for the playoff game against the Giants back in January, not only did Julius Jones become a mere footnote - 3 carries, 8 yards - but Barber's effectiveness decreased drastically as the game continued.

NYG @ DAL - Jan 13, 2008
NFC Divisional Playoff Round
Marion Barber
27 carries, 129 yards, 1 TD
Second Half
11 carries, 28 yards
Fourth Quarter
4 carries, 4 yards

Barber not only became less effective, but he became easier to tackle. When the game ended, the Pro Bowl back seemed overworked and overexposed.

Fast forward to today, 2008. In keeping up with the Jones, Jerry let Julius go to make room for Felix. And Felix has been making room for himself to run ever since, putting Cowboys coaches in the dilemma they find themselves in now. Again:

What is the most effective way to utilize the two dynamic running backs in Dallas?

The solution is to mimmic the 2007 system but alter it slightly. Last year, Julius Jones started, but everyone knew his carries were nothing more than warm-up runs for the O-line and the running game. He was a necessary part of the game in order to properly set the table for the different style of running Barber would exhibit. Barber would be the one to close out games, using his punishing style in the fourth quarter to secure leads for Dallas.

Rather than making Barber the running back, the Cowboys should allow the pendulum to shift back toward the two-back system it used in 2006 and 2007. Don't be fooled into thinking they are there just yet. In the Cowboys game versus the Bengals, Jones' 9 carries pale in comparison to Barber's 23.

With Felix Jones continuing to prove himself, and continuing to master the playbook - which is a big part of it for rookies - Garrett is making sure to get him the ball. Maybe Sunday's play-calling for Jones was compensation for his 0 carries, 0 receptions last week. Maybe it's because the offensive coaches now feel comfortable utilizing the rookie runner more. Whatever the reason, the end result will be great. Jones finished with 9 carries, 96 yards (10.7 yards per carry) and a touchdown.

So as the Cowboys continue a 2008 campaign to break a playoff drought that dates back to 1996, the running game needs to continue to shift the workload to more equally distribute the ball between Barber and Jones. Barber should start the games. He's not only earned that with two Pro Bowl seasons, but his running attitude of "I'd rather run over you than around you" makes for a very aggressive way for the Cowboys offense to introduce itself to opposing defenders, and it nicely compliments the finesse passing game of Romo-to-Owens. Barber can handle the majority of the work in the first quarter before making way for Jones to change things up with his blazing speed. Jones can get the bulk of the carries in the middle of the game, with Barber to be used sparingly (blocking on passing downs). When the fourth quarter rolls around, Barber can resume the "closer" role he so brilliantly filled in 2006 and 2007.

If the Cowboys don't change the way they operate the running game, it won't be catastrophic, but it will leave potential unfulfilled, which has been a sad theme of this franchise the past few seasons. It'd be a shame to set that standard before the playoffs arrive.

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