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Are Cowboys Planning For Darren McFadden To Be The Lead Back?

Everyone believes that the Cowboys will not have a running back get 392 carries again like they did last year. But, what is the plan for whoever gets the role as the lead back? How many carries could he expect to get?

Darren McFadden -
Darren McFadden -
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

The running back by committee (RBBC) approach does not mean taking two or more backs and dividing up the carries equally. Normally when a team does the the RBBC approach they will have one back that takes the majority of the carries and then the other backs will get a few series to spell him during the game. What the Cowboys did last year was not the normal method for teams in the NFL in this new passing game era.

They had a "Bell Cow" running back that was good at getting the tough yards and he was more than okay in pass protection and receiving, but the NFL has been a two-back league for quite some time now and if we look at Table 1 below, there are some interesting things that jump out at you.

Table 1 - (2014)

Rank Name Team Age Pos G Att Yards Att/Game
2 LeSean McCoy PHI 26 RB 16 312 1,319 19.5
3 Le'Veon Bell PIT 22 RB 16 290 1,361 18.1
4 Marshawn Lynch SEA 28 RB 16 280 1,306 17.5
5 Matt Forte CHI 29 RB 16 266 1,038 16.6
6 Alfred Morris WAS 26 RB 16 265 1,074 16.6
7 Arian Foster HOU 28 RB 13 260 1,246 20.0
8 Frank Gore SFO 31 RB 16 255 1,106 15.9
9 Eddie Lacy GNB 24 RB 16 246 1,139 15.4
10 Justin Forsett BAL 29 RB 16 235 1,266 14.7
11 Mark Ingram NOR 25 RB 13 226 964 17.4
Average 264 1,182 17.1

Those listed represent the top 10 running backs from last year except for DeMarco Murray who would have otherwise been in the first row. I did this to remove the outlier so I could find the averages of some important stats.

DeMarco Murray had 392 carries last year which equates to an average of about 24 carries per game for a 16 game season. The other top 10 running backs listed in Table 1 carried the ball an average of 263 carries for the year. That works out to about 17 carries per game.

I was very surprised that it wasn't closer to 30 carries per game when I looked at Murray's 392 carries for the year. But the Cowboys as a team ran the ball 508 times and that figure was 31 carries per game.

The table below shows that Murray got 78% of the carries last year.

Table 2 - (2014)

Rank Name Att Yards Avg Pct Att / Gm
1 DeMarco Murray 392 1,845 4.7 78% 24
2 Joseph Randle 51 343 6.7 10% 3
3 Lance Dunbar 29 99 3.4 6% 2
4 Others 36 67 1.9 6% 2
Total 508 2,354 4.6 100% 31

In Table 3 below for the year 2011 those 78% were divided between Murray and Felix Jones, with Murray getting the bigger share of those snaps with 44% to 34%. Notice that the Cowboys were not really a running team in 2011 like they were last year, with only 369 total carries compared to 508 total carries last year.

Table 3 - (2011)

Rank Name Att Yards Avg Pct Att / Gm
1 DeMarco Murray 164 897 5.5 44% 10
2 Felix Jones 127 575 4.5 34% 8
3 Sammy Morris 28 98 3.5 8% 2
4 Phillip Tanner 22 76 3.5 6% 1
5 Tashard Choice 28 75 2.7 8% 2
Total 369 1,721 4.6 100% 23

In Table 4 below I have taken the 2011 snap percentages and applied them against last year's 508 carries.

Table 4 - (2015 Projected)

Rank Name Att Yards Avg Pct Att / Gm
1 Darren McFadden 224 1,232 5.5 44% 14
2 Ryan Williams 173 778 4.5 34% 11
3 Joseph Randle 41 143 3.5 8% 3
4 Lance Dunbar 30 105 3.5 6% 2
5 Others 41 110 2.7 8% 3
Total 508 2,368 4.6 100% 33

Darren McFadden would get 14 carries per game and either Ryan Williams or Joseph Randle would get 11. Using the 2011 yards per carry average gets McFadden 1,232 yards and Williams or Randle 778 yards.

The reasons I chose McFadden as the lead back are as follows:

  1. McFadden is the best pass blocker among all the backs currently on the roster.
  2. McFadden is the best receiver among all the backs currently on the roster.
  3. McFadden is the best runner among all the backs currently on the roster.
  4. Jerry Jones keeps mentioning McFadden when asked about not taking a running back in the draft.

I believe that when Jerry Jones speaks about the team, he is often speaking about what the current thinking is among the coaches and not necessarily about his personal feelings. As Rob Phillips said about the consensus feeling on not taking a running back in the draft:

"But the front office believed they covered themselves to some degree by signing Darren McFadden in free agency."

And as one of my favorite scouts, Gil Brandt, has opined:

"....But the ceiling is simply higher for Darren McFadden in Dallas. He's a very talented player, both as a runner and a receiver. Behind that Cowboys offensive line, he has a chance to break the 1,000-yard mark for the first time since 2010, even if he ends up splitting carries with Joseph Randle."

The second back could be Ryan Williams or Joseph Randle, but I have a hunch that Williams will be the second guy because I think that if the Cowboys believe they have something in Randle, they would have been touting him as the heir apparent to Murray - and they haven't been.

It may be that they still don't trust Randle to be available, and the reason you will see the Cowboys continue to bring in running backs to try out is not that they are unhappy with the current group, but rather they always want to "churn the bottom of the roster" and that would include the bottom of the RBBC group. It is clear to me that it does not reflect how they feel about McFadden.

Darren McFadden is also fully capable of being the guy that gets the "dirty yards" when needed. He is not a small guy that just happens to run a 4.3 forty. He is 6-1, 218 pounds and has 1,038 career carries while the others below him in the depth chart only have a combined 243 career carries. He has a career average of 4.1 YPC which is very good especially considering the line that he was trying to run behind at Oakland. It is clear that McFadden was signed by the Cowboys this season to be the starter and that the others on the team are there to push him and try to unseat him.

Ryan Williams intrigues me a lot and I feel that he may have a good shot to prove he can be the guy. He is 5-9 and 207 pounds. He was the 38th pick in the 2011 draft but was injured in the preseason and returned in 2012 to play in only 5 games. He carried the ball 58 times for 164 yards, a 2.8 YPC average. He may not have been entirely healthy that year, but as our own Tom Ryle pointed out, the Cowboys seem to be very high on him.

He will be given a chance to unseat McFadden and will have to be pretty good to replace him as the lead back since McFadden is the only back on the roster that has proven he can carry the load for a full season, and this time around he won't be trying to do it behind an offensive line that struggled to shine.

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