As fans of the most loved, and most hated, football franchise in the world, we Cowboys fans enjoy an abundance of media coverage of our football team. Unfortunately, the media often falls into this same love/hate dichotomy, and the resultant coverage can quickly morph from a healthy stream of information to a powerful maelstrom of white noise. Thus, a number of us have become fairly cynical, tuning out the mainstream media.
And still, when certain people talk about the Cowboys, we listen. Emmitt Smith is one of those people.
Fittingly, the topic of the day was the Cowboys' stable of running backs. Clearly, the Hall-of-Famer knows what it takes to be successful as a running back. He's also been keeping up with the evolution of the game, so his advice is far from out of context.
The three-time Super Bowl winner's recommendation: we need both Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray to play, and play well.
More after the jump...
The Felix vs DeMarco debate has never been much of an argument. Early on, those that wanted Felix benched wanted him replaced with Tashard Choice (who only lasted a single week on the Redskins' roster, if that tells you anything). Once Felix succumbed to injury, two things happened. DeMarco Murray exploded, and Tony Fiammetta started to click in our system. Murray's production made him the unquestioned favorite among fans for a few weeks against possibly inferior competition.
Then something else happened. Fiammetta became mysteriously ill. Coincidentally, Murray's production dropped steeply. Fiammetta later returned, and Murray regained his phenomenal efficiency, only to have his leg broken as a result of an after-the-whistle submission hold.
Not to be outdone, the still-injured Jones returned to duty and produced at or above the same level as Murray, with the sole blemish being that forgettable finale in the Garden State. Here's a side-by-side comparison of their 2011 season.
|Felix Jones||Demarco Murray|
|DNP - Injury||10.1||253||25|
|22||108||4.9||DNP - Injury|
As you can see, both Felix and Murray posted 3 games of at least 100 yards rushing, with Jones receiving carries in 11 games to DeMarco's 13. Murray had the more efficient season, but I'm left wondering how much of that was due to fluctuations in the fullback rather than the running back.
Still, the touches were rarely distributed evenly, and so there was never really a running back competition, or even a controversy. When they were both healthy, Felix handled the load, as Murray was still an unknown quantity and Choice was the primary backup. Late in the season, the healthy man got the ball. But what about now, in 2012?
If you immediately answered that Murray should start, take a deep breath (especially if you added in anything about trading Felix Jones).
Let's stop with the Felix Jones hate. For some reason, there are those who believe the Cowboys would have been better served selecting another running back with the 22nd pick in the 2008 draft. There's some preconception that many of the other running backs available at that point would have been better selections. Let's have a look at that 2008 running back class.
We'll focus on efficiency statistics, since the volume stats are both readily available and largely incomparable. We'll use carries per game, yards per carry, touchdown percentage, and touchdown percentage in goal-to-go situations. All statistics were pulled from Yahoo sports.
We tend to think of Felix as a change-of-pace back. With the lowest average carries-per-game of the surveyed group, this observation appears to hold up. Looking further into Felix's career stats further emphasizes this, showing that he has never accounted for 50% or more of the team's total carries. Even in 2010, as the apparent starter, Jones' 185 carries were eclipsed by the combination of Marion Barber (113), Tashard Choice (66), and Jon Kitna (31). The rest of the roster accumulated a total of 33 carries.
In contrast, the 2011 edition of Chris Johnson accumulated 70% of his team's total carries (262/376). The backup running back totaled less than 16% of all carries.
Yards per carry is where Felix really shines. He is second on this list only to Jamaal Charles, who slipped all the way to the mid-third round. Is Felix a bust for not outperforming a third-round gem? If that was the case, DeMarco Murray must have also made quite a few busts out of the 2011 running back class (he was the 5th running back selected). And about that same Jamaal Charles: he only averaged half a carry more per game than Felix, and missed the majority of last season with a torn ACL. Eight months after the injury, Charles claims to be 80% healthy.
The one player to top Felix's YPC average has larger caveats of the same sort as Felix's: injuries and change of pace role. The oft-mentioned Rashard Mendenhall, by the way, is second-to-last on this list. On his extra six-and-a-half attempts per game, Rashard only provides a total of 17.5 yards more than Felix - yards easily made up for by giving Romo a few more passing attempts.
The touchdown statistics, well, are an ugly thing to look at. The Dallas offense's struggles to convert goal-to-go situations, or carries in general, into rushing touchdowns are infamous. Watching those games, however, didn't show Felix as an ineffective goal-line runner. Rather, it showed the Dallas Cowboys as an ineffective goal-line running team. For what it's worth, Felix outperformed Murray in overall TD%, and they were identical in goal-to-go TD%.
Looking at the top names on the list, can you honestly say they're playing behind lines that don't give them any push? And yet, behind that terrible line, Felix has compiled a career yards per carry that would put him near the top of the all-time leader boards. He is clearly one of the premier backs in the league, and eats up yardage quickly in space.
Ignoring all other factors, however, DeMarco Murray was the most efficient back on the Cowboys' roster last season, with a final tally of 5.5 yards per carry. At 12.6 carries per game, he also showed that he can manage a slightly larger workload. Combining the duo's career carries per game gives us roughly 22.4 carries per game. With spot duty filled by a third back or the fullback, there's no reason to force either back into a role larger than he can handle.
Back to Emmitt, he had a similar take:
We don't need just one without the other. We need to have the yin and the yang. Period. I mean, two-back systems now creates an inside game and an outside game, a fast game and a slow game, and, you know, those are things, nuances, that teams can utilize. And utilizing the talent that we actually have can be a positive thing.
So we just need DeMarco Murray to just come along and just get back into the fold, and we need Felix Jones to step up and take the lead right now while he has an opportunity to do it.
What did he mean by this? Essentially, Felix should prepare the same way that he has his entire career, regardless of who gets the first carry of the game. He should expect to get his ten carries, and Murray should get his 12-13.
One thing I'd correct, though (apologies, Emmitt): Felix and DeMarco don't really make for a fast game and a slow game. More like an extremely fast game and a fast game. How about big and small? DeMarco is listed at 227, and Felix at 217, so it's really bigger and big.
While it's hard not to drool over the promise shown by Murray in 2011, it also appears to be hard to appreciate what Felix Jones has done for this team since he's gotten here. Taking an informed look at the big picture, one could conservatively say that Felix Jones is very good, and DeMarco Murray has the potential to be better. It's not a matter of who starts, but more about using each player more effectively.
So, who do I think should start? Give it to the third-stringer. Let him run the first two or three running plays (against the scripted defense, most likely), while DeMarco and Felix watch, study, and wait for the call to duty.