There's Only One Ball, Who Gets it in 2010, Part Two -- Runners

This is the second in a series examining how touches are likely to be distributed in the 2010 Cowboys offense.  Today I look at the touches for the running backs.

Part one drew some critics, who questioned why touches are in question.  The defense may have some say on where the ball goes on passing plays, but it does not dictate touches for runners to anywhere near an extent.  Personnel packages and run calls determine who gets the ball and where he will attack a defensive front.  The rest comes down to blocking.

Let's look at the committee touches, a staple of the Jason Garrett game plans since he took over the offense in '07:

Carries per game

Back 2007 2008 2008
Marion Barber 12.75 15.9 14.0
Julius Jones 10.25
Felix Jones 5.0 8.9
Tashard Choice 5.7 4.0

The one constant of course, is Marion Barber, who took the majority of carries in the two-man '07 platoon as "the closer."  Julius Jones would start each half and Barber would enter when the defense was a bit gassed and grind them down. Barber averaged a strong 4.8 yards a carry and slammed in ten touchdowns.

 

The plan entering '08 was for Barber to start with 1st round pick Felix Jones replacing Julius and offering more big-play punch.  Felix was filling the role; he averaged an eye-popping 8.9 yards per carry in his first six games, with long TD runs against Green Bay and Cincinnati.  Tthe load fell on Barber's shoulders, however, after Jones pulled a hamstring at Arizona.  Barber's carries per game zoomed to near 20 per game and his late-game effectiveness waned.  Then... injuries

Reports of Mr. Barber's Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated

Barber tore a ligament at the base of a pinky toe in the Thanksgiving Day '08 game against Seattle and became a part-timer.  Note his yards-per-carry pre injury and post injury:

  • Games 1-12 :  3.9 yards per carry
  • Games 13-16: 2.0 yards per carry.

Some fans tried to diminish the injury as "only a little toe" but a doctor explained the significance.  The tear normally takes weeks to heal and Barber only missed one game.  He set the healing back to stage one every time he carried the ball.  From an on-field standpoint, the injury affected Barber's explosion.

Tashard Choice played superbly as the lone back in the final month, watching his carries jump from 2.7 while Barber's understudy to 12.4 in the final month.

Barber returned healthy, but quickly faced a similar problem early in '09.  Late in the week two shootout loss to New York, Barber broke a long run up the far left sideline, and limped off the field after the tackle.  Barber left the game with a torn quad, an injury which takes several weeks to heal.  As he had in '08, Barber missed only one week to rest, meaning the tear never healed.   We have a small pre-injury sample size to inform us, but the difference pre-quad tear to post is dramatic:

  • Barber, games 1-2: 203 yards rushing, 6.3 ypc.
  • Barber, games 4-16: 729 yards rushing, 4.0 ypc.

The Barbarian kept his starting role because he was trusted as the power back, though all the backs had trouble running in short-yardage and goal-line situations. 

The biggest '09 change came in the final six games, when Jones returned from a sprained knee.  Jones had labored with a balky brace mid-season, but after taking it off for the Thanksgiving Day game against Oakland, his zip returned.  His work load crept up steadily and by season's end was nearly identical to Barber's, with Felix getting 12 rushes and 14 touches in the final month, compared to Barber's 15 carries and 17 touches.

The ratio of carries between the speed and power backs was back where it was in '07, and is likely what the Cowboys had envisioned when Barber was first drafted.

Barber's back-to-back sup-par years have led to speculation that he's no longer the same back fans saw in '07.  I have a hard time believing this.  Backs do wear down from accrued hits and Barber's style, which SI writer Paul Zimmerman termed "blood-and-guts" invited more hits than most.  In fact, Barber sought out contact. 

That said, he's never had more than 240 carries in a single season, never approaching the dreaded 400 carry mark which has sapped so many super backs over the year.  He has suffered two very different lower-body injuries which have had the same effect, robbing Barber of his explosion and drive. His early performance in 2009 was every bit as strong as his peer, and he's entering this season lighter, hoping to add even more burst to his game.  Barber has earned most of his yards inside and that extra bit of quickness may make him less predictable.  I've heard he surprised the Dallas linebackers with his speed to the edge in OTAs and will do the same to linebackers who don't see him week-to-week if he carries that speed into season.

Entering 2010, it appears that the only real question is how many overall carries Jason Garrett will factor into his bigger game plan.  Dallas has averaged roughly 25 carries between the backs.  The overall load may be a bit richer this year, to maybe 27-28 running back carries, if Garrett dials the run/pass mixture closer to 50/50.  I see Barber getting his usual 14 or so, with Jones getting 12 per game, with Choice getting his carries in between.

That seems unfair to Choice, but injuries have cut down both Barber and Jones in both '08 and '09, and running back isn't getting any less painful a position this season, so the odds are that Tashard will get his carries and perhaps his games again this year.

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