The Choice at Running Back: Why Tashard Choice is Not a Lock for 2011

Many Cowboys fans, since 2008, have been urging the coaching staff to make a change at running back. Everyone wanted a better look at our 4th round, 5'9 running back. For the past three years, we've seen some glimpses of number 23. He's started full games, given us impressive highlights, and projected to be a quality starter in the NFL.

The Cowboys, despite their woes on the ground, have been reluctant to give Choice more opportunities. Many fans have even proclaimed him the second coming of Emmit Smith (similar to how John Phillips is the next Jason Witten, and Shaun Chapas is the next Moose). So, I ask, what do we do with our third running back?

Most fans see Choice with a star on his helmet for the 2011 season. The speculation is that after that year, he will sign with another team as a free agent. Popular belief is also that the "writing is definitely on the wall" for Marion Barber. Why is everyone so certain that Tashard Choice will remain in Dallas while Marion Barber will be released? Of course, I realize that DeMarco Murray will be taking someone's job. Let's try to figure this one out.

First, financially speaking, what are the ramifications of releasing Barber or Choice? Releasing Barber results in a manageable amount of dead money being created (but a net savings, due to his high base salary). Releasing Choice bears no penalty.

How about trade value? With popular opinion being that Marion Barber will be released, most teams interested in 28-year-old running backs will wait and see who they can find in free agency. Tashard Choice is considerably younger, and has a very low base salary. A team looking for quick depth and a possible starter at Running Back may be willing to part with a 3rd or 4th round pick. It's no secret that teams have been interested.

The big question, now, is who do the Cowboys want on their team? The "RKG movement" has been well publicized here on BTB, but, with limited sample size (on the field, with Choice, and off the field, with Barber) it's hard to say who the Right-er Kinda Guy is between the two. What we can look at is coaching philosophy. Who fits best into the Cowboys offensive scheme? Let's see:

This post by OCC gives us some insight into what Jason likes to get from his running backs. He mentions running the football once, receiving the football twice, and blocking three times. Apparently, those are the priorities. Football Outsiders prepared a spreadsheet of running back, charting their effectiveness running the ball. Barber and Choice both rank terribly, with Choice having a slight edge. They also charted broken tackles, an important trait for a big play running back. Marion Barber was unlisted, meaning he was somewhat average in terms of breaking tackles. Tashard Choice, in 2010, was last. On 83 total touches, he managed to break only two tackles, for a broken tackle percentage of 2.4% The Cowboys' team average was 6.1%. Marion Barber did not fumble in 2010 on 124 total touches. Tashard Choice has only one fumble in his career, which came last year on one of his 83 touches. We all remember it.

As a receiving back, Tashard Choice had 17 receptions (53 career) for 109 yards (426) and a 6.4 average (8.0). Marion Barber has recorded 11 (174) for 49 (1,280) and a 4.5 (7.4) average. Tashard has the edge here, although neither of them represent a significant receiving threat.

Pro Football Focus put together a nice pass-blocking metric, comparing pass blocking success rates of running backs in 2010, and over the past three years. Neither Barber nor Choice ranked in top or bottom 15 during the 2010 season. Over the past 3 years, however, Tashard Choice is the 5th least successful back in pass protection. Marion Barber remains average. Remember Chris Gronkowski's disregarding Michael Boley (as if you could forget)? The odds of that happening again increase proportionately with the number of plays Tashard Choice is in the game.

The Cowboys run a platoon-style backfield. This is no secret. 30 carries in a game are more likely to be divided into 15-10-5 amongst the 3 backs, than 22-8-0 as many teams do. Garrett has professed no desire to change this. Who does better in a limited role, Barber or Choice? In 2006 and 2007, Barber averaged 4.8YPC, while averaging 7.5 carries per game, and scoring 24 total touchdowns. How has Choice, the "rhythm-," or "feature-," back, performed when given less than ten carries? In 3 games with under ten carries, Choice averaged 6 carries per game, picking up 2.9YPC, and scoring 0 touchdowns. It is no secret that Felix Jones will be getting the lion's share of the carries next year. Does it make sense to keep Choice around for 5-10 carries of futility? No.

The final case: Special Teams. Jerry Jones makes my point for me. At 210 pounds and with decent speed, Choice is not unqualified for special teams play. With a little heart and effort, he could improve things such as special teams play and pass blocking. At this point, with DeMarco Murray licking his chops, this team does not have room for Tashard Choice. Barber may not be a perfect fit in our offense, but he is certainly less of a liability. Barber has been a team captain for multiple seasons. Choice? Well, at least he has Marty B's support.

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