Another year, another running back controversy.
Debating running back carries and value has become the favored topic among Cowboys' faithful. In '06 and '07 the Marion-vs.-Julius debate was in full roar. Last year, there was much preseason debate about Dallas' selection of Felix Jones, and whether Rashard Mendenhall should have been the pick. Once Jones showed big play abilities, a hint of a Felix-vs.-Marion debate began, though Jones went down with injury before it could erupt.
That didn't mean MarionBarber was safe. He was the people's choice over Julius Jones, but when Tashard Choice showed he could handle a heavy load in December -- while Barber gimped around on a dislocated pinkie toe -- some fans were in fact calling for number 24 to be shipped out of town for the first big-name receiver available.
The bigger question, entering 2009, is how the Cowboys will use their lode of rushing talent?
Answering the big question means first answering a series of smaller ones. To begin, how much will Dallas run the ball?
Let's begin by looking at Dallas' run/pass blends for '07 and '08. The Cowboys ran almost exact play totals each year -- 950 in Jason Garrett's first year and 948 last year. That's just over 59 plays a game. To keep things simple, I'm going to:
a. assume that Dallas keeps the same number of plays this year and;
b. round the total to 60 plays per game.
Let's now look at the percentage or runs and passes Garrett called each year. In '07, when Dallas ranked in the top five, it ran 44% of the time and passed 56%, a ratio in line with other top-ranked offenses. Last year, the blend was more extreme, a 42-58% run-pass mix.
That makes Garrett seem as if he's gone all Mouse Davis on us, but his play sheet didn't vary that much. Going from a 44 to a 42% run mix means he called an average of one fewer run per game, compared to the season before.
Let's now assume that Dallas will tweak its game plans to get closer to a 50/50 mix. For argument's sake, let us say that Dallas goes to a 48/52 run to pass ratio. (Those road kings, the Giants, were at nearly 50/50, in case you're wondering.)
Getting to 48% means Dallas calls four more runs than last year and three more than in '07. Consequently, that means four fewer passes. Again, assuming 60 plays a game, that means 29 running attempts a contest and 31 pass attempts.
The second question, is who gets those carries? How can they be distributed to maximize each runner's skills?
I'm going to begin with a second assumption that might not make some fans happy. I think 29 carries are too few to split three ways. I think Dallas is going to give heavy carries to its top power back -- Barber -- and to its speed back Jones. Choice will get on the field, but his total carries will be far fewer.
Look at New York's blueprint. They had the NFL's best ground game last year and averaged 29 rushes per contest, the number I'm assuming Dallas will call this year. Giants OC Kevin Gilbride distributed the touches thusly:
- Brandon Jacobs -- 14 carries per game;
- Derrick Ward -- 11 carries per game;
- Ahmad Bradshaw -- 4 carries per game.
Bradshaw may have wanted more, but who can criticize the results? Jacobs and Ward both topped 1,000 yards.
I think Dallas will split the carries in a similar fashion, and I'm not using New York's benchmarks as my only guide. Let's look at Dallas' '07 distribution. Recall that Julius Jones started those games and that Barber took a bigger role as the games progressed, taking over completely in the 4th quarters:
- Barber -- 13 carries and 2.6 receptions per game
- Jones -- 10 carries and 1.5 receptions per game
As you can see, Marion and Julius carried the ball about the same amount that the Giants' guys did. And those numbers worked well for Barber. He averaged 4.8 yards a carry and made the Pro Bowl.
Last year, Barber carried a much, much heavier load. One reason may have been to justify his immense new contract. The more likely reason was the uncertainty over Jones' and Choice's readiness. Whatever the case, Barber went from 16 touches a game to 25 (20 carries and five receptions) touches last year, and his production suffered. Barber's yards per attempt dipped to 3.7, about what Julius averaged in his last year as a Cowboy.
I think Dallas will dial Marion's touches back to his '07 numbers, figuring a fresher player will be better able to finish games the way he did that year.
The team also needs to give Felix Jones a much bigger role. Last season he got half a dozen touches in his healthy month and a half. I'm going to predict he'll get Julius' '07 workload: the starts, and 10-11 carries per game. I'm also going to assume he'll get at least half of Dallas' running back receptions. Barber and Choice both averaged 5 catcher per game and both topped 8.0 yards per reception.
I can see Dallas keeping that five passes per game average to its backs. I can also see it rising to maybe six catches per game for the group. I see Jones getting at least two catches per season, maybe three. He caught only two passes last year, but he's the most dangerous receiving threat. Jones made linebackers look slow and stupid every day at Oxnard catching simple circles,delays and flares. Garrett ran screen passes to backs and tight ends very effectively last year, but never to Jones. There's no reason for Jones to finish with fewer than 32 to 35 receptions in this coming campaign.
I want him to catch even more. When I see Felix Jones, I see a younger, slightly bigger version of Tiki Barber. Like Jones, this Barber entered the league as a "change up back," who returned kicks and caught far more often than he ran the ball.
Starting in 2000, his OC Jim Fassell began to platoon Barber with power back Ron Dayne, with carry splits very similar to Julius' and Marion's from '07. Barber showed he could be the feature back and soon made Dayne the change-up: between 2000 and 2006, Barber averaged 1885 yards from scrimmage, 1359 on the ground and 526 through the air. He caught an average of 63 passes a season, roughly four a game.
Jones has Barber's game. He's fast and elusive. He can catch the ball. He's also bigger. Tiki played at 5'10", 205. Jones is 6'0" and weighed 200 or 205 lbs. last year, depending on your source. The Cowboys site, which is very accurate with player weights, now lists Felix at 212 lbs. He's used his rehab time wisely.
Felix averaged 8.9 yards a carry as a rookie. He's a touchdown threat every time he gets the ball. He was underused last season. He's that Tiki-like torch who can ignite the offense and offset some of T.O.'s lost production.
2009 should be Tiki Barber Time for Felix Jones.