Prior to the season, when Darren McFadden was hurt and didn’t look like he could make it back and provide anything to the Dallas running attack, I was of the view that he should be traded or cut, to save the rather modest $800,000 difference between his cap hit and dead cap number.
At this point, however, as disappointing as Lance Dunbar and Alfred Morris have been, it seems that the Cowboys would be far better off with McFadden taking all the backup snaps at running back.
Let’s look at the numbers.
Obviously Darren McFadden had a lot more opportunities last year than either Morris or Dunbar have had this year. So his overall numbers far exceed those of our current backup running backs.
On a yards per carry basis, McFadden gained 4.6 yards per carry, while Morris has managed only 3.8 ypc and Dunbar a tiny 1.8 ypc. On a per catch basis, Dunbar is slightly higher, with 7.5 yards per catch to McFadden’s 6 yards per catch. But the totals are so small for Dunbar that a couple of decent plays have boosted his average significantly.
McFadden himself had some bad games last year. Against Tampa Bay, he rushed 17 times for 32 yards, and against Carolina, he rushed 10 times for 11 yards.
But McFadden also finished the season on a complete tear over the last four games, with 56 rushes for 402 yards, for an average of 7.17 yards per carry. He also caught eight passes for 65 yards, for an 8.125 yards per catch average. Neither Morris nor Dunbar can match these numbers.
McFadden was also good on third and fourth down last year, carrying 24 times and converting first downs on 16 of them, or 66.7%. Morris has converted two of five chances this year, for 40%, and Dunbar was used only once in this situation, though he managed a first down. Zeke has rushed 22 times in these situations and converted 14, for 63.6%.
There are three reasons the Cowboys should use McFadden, and only McFadden, to back up Zeke.
First, he averages more per carry as a running back than either Morris or Dunbar, and he has the potential to hit bigger running plays. He’s also much better as a third down rusher.
Second, he’s the only dual-threat back of the three. In other words, he can serve as a lead running back on first and second downs, and a receiving or rushing option on third downs. Because he’s the only dual-threat back, his appearance in the lineup will force teams to guess a bit more than they have to with Morris, who never catches passes, and Dunbar, who never really rushes.
Third, he’s the best pass-protector of the three backs. This should seal the deal over Dunbar as a third-down option, even if Dunbar has been slightly better as a check-down receiver.
Finally, there aren’t nearly enough snaps to tire out McFadden in a backup role, so there’s no reason not to give him all the snaps for the rest of the year. Since Morris doesn’t play special teams, the Cowboys shouldn’t even activate him any longer, unless someone gets hurt. This may be tough on Morris, who by all accounts is a great teammate. But the Cowboys need to seek every little edge they can get down the stretch, and since they’ve kept Run DMC around, it’s time to use him.
P.S. In anticipation of the argument that McFadden is not best as a zone running back, but does better in a man blocking scheme, this is likely true, but may be another reason to use him, because it will force teams to deal with more diversity in Dallas’s offense. And judging by McFadden’s excellent finish to last season, it seems like once Dallas figured out how to use him best, it also figured out how to execute those plays. With almost the same offensive line (though Leary is different), this shouldn’t be hard to do.
P.P.S. If the Cowboys were in fact to take this option, it would be even more irksome that they chose to cut Darius Jackson this week instead of Lance Dunbar, because Jackson was on a cheap four-year contract and Dunbar will almost certainly be gone next year. Indeed, given his speed and size combination, it’s possible he could have developed into a better backup runner than any of the Cowboys’ current stable as early as next year. And if you are discounting the fact that Jackson was a sixth-round pick, remember that Anthony Brown was too. Now the Cowboys will either need to re-sign McFadden or some other back, or use additional draft resources to get another back, whom they may have to groom for a year to get him fully ready.