While the Dallas Cowboys are still mathematically in the hunt to win the NFC East and earn the right to get embarrassed in the first round of the playoffs, the division crown this year seems sort of like winning an award as the most lifelike zombie. You are still the walking dead. The team is still focused on figuring out how to win a game or two with Matt Cassel at quarterback, but the long term value of the last five games is going to be sorting out which members of the current roster have a role to play in 2016, and which ones will be leaving Dallas.
All positions are up for scrutiny, but a couple deserve some extra attention. I earlier addressed the backup quarterback situation because that was a key factor in the seven game trial of raging ineptitude that has largely defined the Cowboys' season. Another position group that also had more than its share of issues and requires some answers for next season is running back.
The problems all started when the brilliantly led Philadelphia Eagles decided to jack the price for DeMarco Murray up to cap-crippling levels (he represents a minimum of $8 million in dead money next season if the Eagles decide he is not really a help to their offense). Had they not enticed him away to struggle in a scheme that does not fit his skills well, he would likely have signed with the Cowboys and probably would have had a successful year, although it probably would not have been nearly as spectacular as the record setting 2014 performance. (All contract figures and details are from Over the Cap.)
This left Dallas with Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar as their top candidates for the backfield. They added Darren McFadden as insurance. We all expected them to draft a running back, but the team never felt that the right one was available when they went on the clock. It can be argued that they missed out on multiple candidates, and the fact that they could have gotten Thomas Rawls in the seventh round looks in hindsight to have been a clear miss. Dunbar got off to a great start before succumbing yet again to a season-ending injury. Randle underwent a meltdown due to off field issues and was released. McFadden has been at times very productive but also inconsistent, although poor performances like the one in the Carolina Panthers debacle were strongly affected by other factors. In that case, the three first half interceptions took the running game out of the equation very early, although it was not off to a good start against the Panthers' proficient defense. With Randle gone, the Cowboys have tried a variety of solutions. Currently they have Robert Turbin and Rod Smith on the active roster, and fan favorite Trey Williams has been waived with the plan to bring him back on the practice squad, indicating that the team has not written him off completely.
McFadden and Smith will still be under contract if Dallas wishes to retain them. Dunbar and Turbin are unrestricted free agents but are not likely to be a problem to keep if the Cowboys also want them to come back for camp. Williams would, I believe, have to be re-signed after the season if they want to keep him. The question is how many of them the team actually would want to keep around. Dunbar is a change of pace back, which is the role that Williams would likely also fill, so they are competitors. Smith has seen very little action so far, but might get more of a look, especially if Dallas is eliminated from contention before the end of the season (although in the NFC East, that is not at all a given to happen). But McFadden and Turbin are likely to carry the load the rest of the way, and they both have a real opportunity to make a case to stay in Dallas.
The interesting thing is that they represent two different styles of running. So far this season, McFadden has had his best runs in man blocking with pulling guards to lead him. He is more of a straight line runner who needs a chance to get his momentum going, and he also is not great at gaining yards after contact. Dallas prefers to use a zone blocking scheme, however, and in his more limited work, Turbin has looked to be a better fit for that. He is better at planting his foot and cutting into the holes that the ZBS provides, and also has shown some ability to get those YAC. While McFadden is having a better year than many expected, his propensity to go down as soon as he is hit and the fact that the Cowboys have to alter their preferred approach work against him. Turbin has an excellent chance to stake a claim as an experienced back to provide some stability for next year. Dallas will also once again be looking for a running back that they feel is a good value at the right spot in the draft, but as the past offseason proved, there is no guarantee that the draft will align with the Dallas board.
The Cowboys definitely need to have a better situation at running back for 2016 than they had going into this season. As with the quarterbacks, they have five games to figure out what they have and whether there is anyone that they can feel any confidence in moving forward. Hopefully they will have an effective offense during the remaining games that will let them use a game plan that incorporates the running game so they can make informed decisions about their current players. Otherwise, they risk having another situation at running back that can best be described by an impolite term incorporating the word "cluster".