Monday, October 12, 2009

Running Back Roulette

Amidst the emergence of Miles Austin in Sunday's overtime edging of the 0-5 Chiefs, it should be clear that the Cowboys now have a dilemma over who should get more time on the field in the offense. Don't be too concerned with the term "starter", just focus on who is getting more opportunities to make plays. And I'm not talking about Austin compared to Roy Williams at the receiver spot. I'm looking seven yards behind the line of scrimmage into the Cowboys backfield.

Running backs Marion Barber and Tashard Choice "split" time in the 26-20 win over the Chiefs, but Choice set himself apart despite getting seven less carries than Barber. A quick look at the numbers from Sunday and so far in 2009:

Tashard Choice89211.5136
Marion Barber III15533.5017

2009 SeasonATTYDSAVGTDLong
Marion Barber III582975.1335
Tashard Choice442255.1236
Felix Jones2121210.1156

From the looks of things, it appears that through five games, a fair sample size compared to a 16-game season, that Choice and Barber have equal productivity while the injured Felix Jones accounts for the main source of explosiveness out of the backfield. If and when Jones in healthy, I believe he should be frequently featured in the offense to the same extent that Terrell Owens wanted to be featured in the offense last season. He's too talented not to have on the field, and he's a match up nightmare out of the backfield for a defense.

As for Barber, he has always been his best when playing the role of bruiser, punishing opposing defenses with his aggressive running late in the games to wear them down. Look to last season's game against the Redskins after the bye week that looked like it might have kick-started the second half of the season for Dallas. Barber once again proved to be the ultimate closer as the Cowboys pounded the ball late in the game.

It didn't happen a lot last season, but that was mainly because MB3 was getting "starter" carries. And while last season, he carried the ball 238 times, just 34 more than in 207, it wasn't as effective as the tackle-breaking monster who dominated the fourth quarter for Dallas in 2006 and 2007 while splitting time with Julius Jones. (Barber's career stats)

Last season, Barber carried 238 for 885 yards for a 3.7 yards per carry average, more than a yard less than his 4.8 average in 2007 when he carried 204 times for 975 yards. The difference is because of the situation he carried in. Make him the closer. The Cowboys need to move Tashard Choice (and Felix Jones when healthy) into the role of doing what Julius Jones did in 2007: set the table. Allow Choice and Felix Jones to help to establish the running game, and bring in Barber to seal the deal. When Barber played the role of finisher in 2006 and 2007, he was able to run through defenders. In 2008 when the fourth quarter rolled around, Barber was more susceptible to arm tackles and easy take downs.

Using the Cowboys running backs in concert can put this team back in competition for a playoff berth, but having all the weapons doesn't guarantee results. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has to properly use those weapons. That being said, when do you think Barber is most efficient? He frequently fades as the season goes on as his career numbers show. Don't wear him out with early game carries that Tashard Choice and Felix Jones can handle. I'm not saying only run him in the fourth quarter, but make sure he has the freshest legs when it matters most.

It is because Barber is so good and has been so good in the role of finisher that the Cowboys must keep using him to close out games this season.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

I'm not sure I agree. Firstly, Barber has clearly not been 100% since he's returned, but still has been making some bruising plays early in the game. Secondly, though TC has come through for us while Barber and Jones have been getting healthy, it's not as if he looks better than Barber. He may looks similar, or more flashy, at times, but you still have to call Barber a more complete package.

Who do you trust more to pick up the Blitz when Romo goes back to throw? I choose Barber at the moment. That makes Barber the guy you want to have consistently in the backfield.

Obviously, you want Felix on the field as much as possible, too, given his explosiveness. So Jones and Barber each were getting many more touches than Choice before the injuries. That's the coaching philosophy at the moment, and I don't disagree.

Choice is a great running back, and he could easily grow into a real starting role, especially if Barber and Jones can't stay healthy. But when you have all three available, you've got to let Jones and Barber each get some consistency to get going. Once all three are healthy after the BYE, you will see the touches going primarily to Jones and Barber.

To dispel the notion that Barber should just be the bruiser after the other teams defense is worn down.. why not have Barber in early, run the ball early, and have Barber and our oLine punish them early and often? Perhaps that's why Choice's running has been so good, given that most of his recent carries have come late.

As always, I'll play devil's advocate... :)

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