Late on a Saturday afternoon last April a good majority of Dallas Cowboys fans let out a collective groan. Jerry Jones and Wade Phillips had the perfect situation drop into their laps: Rashard Mendenhall, who was expected to be drafted much earlier, had fallen into the laps of the Cowboys at pick #22 in the NFL draft. The Cowboys instead opted to go with Arkansas running back Felix Jones, whom Jason Garrett determined would be a much better compliment to Marion Barber. Fans across the nation, myself included, were o.k. with the choice but miffed that a "sure fire" franchise running back had been passed up.
By week three of the 2008 season fans were singing a much different tune.
Felix Jones flashed signs of absolute brilliance running the ball, possessing both incredible speed and great vision that made him a threat to score everytime he touched the ball. He was the first rookie in Cowboys history to score in each of his first three games. He proved to be a threat not only on offense but on kick returns as well, returning a kick 98 yards for a touchdown against Philadelphia in his home debut. Alongside Marion Barber, the Cowboys had seemingly found the perfect combo for a 1-2 punch in the offensive backfield.
But it was not to last.
A slightly torn hamstring in week five against Arizona sidelined Jones for over a month and while working hard to return in shape he slipped during practice and tore a ligament in his foot. Felix Jones' brilliant rookie season was over before it could really get going. The Dallas Cowboys offense was never the same after Jones was hurt. It's tough to say whether his absence was the sole reason the offense struggled there is no doubt that his presence alone would have altered the way defenses prepared for the Cowboys.
Months earlier the team had another prime opportunity present itself in the draft and the Cowboys nabbed Georgia Tech running back Tashard Choice in the fourth round. The leading rusher in the ACC had seen his stock fall in the draft due to "poor" 40 yard dash times and the Cowboys were able to secure a quality, dependable third string running back that could start for many NFL teams. Unfortunately the Cowboys refused to utilize him until they absolutely had to.
Before Felix Jones' injury Jason Garrett and the Cowboys offense were under constant scrutiny for their stubborness in using Marion Barber. A running back that is a threat to score and is averaging over eight yards per carry is a player that deserves to get the ball more, and the Cowboys were hesitant to do so. Jones would get a series or two a game and that was it, despite the fact he would gouge defenses on a consistent basis. Coaches cited that Jones was still learning the system and was troublesome in pass protection, but a willing and imaginative coordinator finds ways to get his playmakers the ball, any way they can.
In a week 4 loss to Washington, Felix Jones had zero touches. The Cowboys offense struggled for 90% of the game. Coincidence?
After Jones went down due to injury the Cowboys offense jumped on Marion Barber's back and never went very far. With Tony Romo out as well the offense was a stale skeleton of it's former self. Marion Barber, always the quiet yet determined heart of the offense, struggled against defenses that were stacked against him and constantly was fighting off defenders in the backfield. At one point Barber was on pace to have the most touches by any other offensive player in the league as he became the sole weapon both in the passing game and on the ground, and was the Cowboys leading receiver in three out of four weeks. The Cowboys lost three out of four games in that span.
Media and fans alike were practically begging for Tashard Choice to get into the game. While Marion Barber was struggling to get just over three yards a carry, Choice was racking up over five a touch yet had under 20 carries through nine games. With Felix Jones out for the season it was clearly evident that Choice was primed to step in and spell Barber yet again the coaches were hesitant to do so, citing Choice's inexperience.
Then Marion Barber was hurt on Thanksgiving Day and never fully recovered.
Choice immediately stepped into the starting role and proved just how valuable he could be. He was the Cowboys' lone weapon, gashing the Ravens and Steelers both on the ground and in the passing game. Against the top two defenses in the leagure, Choice averaged 4.5 yards per carry and over eight yards per catch, a higher average than either team had allowed all season. He proved a sturdy and straight ahead runner that always found a crease and rarely lost yards. His vision allowed him to find cutback lanes that opened up long runs, and his patience gave the Cowboys their most successful screen plays in years. Tashard Choice proved that he is a player that needs to be utilized.
So what to do in 2009, when all three are healthy once more? Jones showed how dangerous he is anytime he is on the field and Choice proved that is not a liability when given prolonged time in the backfield.
The key to the decision is Marion Barber. When healthy he is the best all-around running backs on the team and one of the top rushers in the league. He is a determined pass blocker, dangerous in the passing game and one of the toughest players in the league to tackle. Yet after averaging nearly five yards per carry in his previous two season, Barber's average fell to a measly 3.7 yards per attempt. This can be attributed to many things such as a Dallas Cowboys offensive line that struggled and an offense that went stale without Tony Romo, yet the Cowboys also never fully utilized their combination of running backs and it hurt Marin Barber in the end. He didn't have the same burst, the same determination he had in previous years. He still showed an undying motor and at times seemed to be the only player on the Cowboys giving it his all, and was the workhorse that closed out the game against Washington. Yet he just wasn't the same dangerous running back he was before.
For the Cowboys to have better success on offense next season they need to find a way to keep Marion Barber fresh throughout the season. He is too valuable and too determined to be run into the ground and the Cowboys will need him when it matters most. They also have two other extremely talented running backs who deserve important and numerous touches as well. So how to use them all effectively?
For the past two seasons the Dallas Cowboys have been a pass first team and have using the passing attack to set up the run. Perhaps it's time for Jason Garrett to mold this offense into a dangerous rushing attack that opens things up for Tony Romo and the Cowboys' receivers. With two capable tight ends and a large, physical offensive line there is no reason why the Cowboys shouldn't have one of the league's top rushing attacks. Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice are all number one running backs on the same team and with each having a different style would pose problems for any defense when properly utlized.
So who starts? Who gets the most carries? Should Tashard Choice start, with Felix Jones coming on at times and Marion Barber finishing the game in the fourth quarter against a worn out defense? That is when he has been most effective in the past: closing out a game with run after punishing run against a defense that's been chasing speedy and shifty running backs for 45 minutes. Or do you keep Barber as the starter, yet put in Choice and Jones more often during the course of the game? Either way the key will have to be to keep Marion Barber fresh.
It will be interesting to see what the Cowboys actually do next year. In the past they have shown to be stubborn and set in their ways and have refused to change until circumstances dictate what must be done. For the offense to pull itself out of the funk it was in in 2008, pride must be set aside and changes brought about. Otherwise, we're having this exact same discussion next January