There has been a lot of talk around the water cooler about Darren McFadden and whether or not he’ll be playing for the Cowboys in 2016. Some fans are outraged. How can you expect the team to push aside someone who delivered such a productive season last year? That’s a fair question, but it has a very simple answer. We live in the here and now, where the Cowboys have added three new running backs to the roster. Two of them are brand new running backs and one of them is a veteran who is still younger than McFadden. And fresh legs matter.
Darren McFadden doesn’t have fresh legs.
He’s been in the league for eight seasons and has spent many of them dealing with nagging injuries. But McFadden’s health is the least of his worries these days as he faces new obstacles standing in the way – his teammates. McFadden is going to have to work hard in order to land a spot on the Cowboys deep backfield. Running for over 1,000 yards and leading the team in rushing gets you nothing going forward. He doesn’t have a special advantage or a hidden immunity idol that will keep him from being voted out. As Jason Garrett likes to reiterate – it’s a new season with a clean slate. Everything starts all over.
So what is he really up against here? What role can he have on the team and who stands in his way?
McFadden vs. Ezekiel Elliott
Ha ha, just kidding.
It is not unimaginable to think that in the beginning, a veteran running back could take on a larger role than some people think. Maybe there will be some things Elliott will need to dial in before the coaches cut him loose. And there could be a little mystery as to how the workload will be distributed at first. If that’s the case, expect it to be short-lived because Zeke will be the featured back sooner versus later. And once he gets the gig, he’ll take it and run.
McFadden vs. Alfred Morris
The role of the number two running back is very important. First off, they would be the guy getting the second most touches as he would come in and relieve Zeke at certain points in the game. And if something were to happen to Elliott and he got hurt, the #2 RB would need to step in and carry the load. So the first question that comes to mind is – who has the edge for the backup RB spot, McFadden or Morris?
Here is a side-by-side comparison of some attributes that stand out to me.
Based on this information, it seems evident that Morris is the clear-cut choice over McFadden. Obviously, Morris isn’t going anywhere. It would cost more to cut him than to keep him. As far as McFadden goes, it’s quite the opposite. The Cowboys could save themselves two million by letting him go. But money aside, what are some other factors that could come into play?
Alfred Morris is a much better fit in the Cowboys running scheme. Tom Ryle described it well when he referred to McFadden as a square peg trying to fit into a round hole when it comes to the zone-blocking scheme.
Morris is durable. If you are looking for a reliable insurance policy for Zeke, wouldn’t you feel more comfortable with Morris instead of McFadden? Neither will be able to adequately replicate what Elliott does on the field, but both would still be effective and Morris stands a better chance of staying on the field.
McFadden is a proven commodity in Dallas. It was surprising to a lot of fans that McFadden was able to have his best rushing output since he was 23 years old, when he started a career high 13 games. I think people can point to five big reasons for his success and they all weigh around 300 pounds. So if running behind the Cowboys offensive line can revitalize what he's capable of, what could it do for Morris? It’s tough to say exactly, but you got to figure it’s going to be something good.
Morris is only a two-down back. If there is one thing that McFadden has a clear-cut advantage over Morris, it’s on third down. The problem with this however, is that the Cowboys can use other players to cover this gap. Both Zeke and Dunbar could be used on third down.
While nothing is written in stone, Morris should have a choke hold on that number two spot.
McFadden vs. Lance Dunbar
Is this really a fair comparison? Dunbar is a specialty back. He plays a specific role and brings a unique dynamic to the team. Fans have been pleading for more Dunbar throughout his career and they finally got their wish last season. Well, for a little bit anyways. Despite only playing the first four games of the 2015 season, Dunbar set a career high in receptions and was adding 54 yards receiving a game to the Cowboys offense. What gets lost in last year’s disappointing season is that the Cowboys had themselves a very nice weapon to help out a backup quarterback who likes to check things down and throw short. Unfortunately, Dunbar got hurt and that element of the offense was gone.
And there lies the problem with Dunbar. He can’t stay healthy. He has missed 19 games over the last three seasons. Strangely, his healthiest season was 2014 when his role was extremely limited behind DeMarco Murray and Joseph Randle. If that is indication of his usage, does it make sense to use a roster spot for a player that will touch the ball only three times a game? While he’s a one-trick pony, those tricks can come in handy in certain football situations.
While the Cowboys will have some time to sort out what they want to do with Dunbar as he'll start the season on the PUP list, they'll need to figure things out sooner for McFadden.
McFadden vs. Darius Jackson
If you’re having trouble mustering up excitement for a rookie taken in the sixth-round that hasn’t played a lick in the NFL, that’s understandable. I mean, what six-round running backs end up doing anything? (see Alfred Morris) But there are a few things about Darius Jackson that make him an intriguing candidate for that last RB roster spot. His athleticism is off the charts. He’s super-fast, with great jumping ability. The Cowboys must see something valuable in order to invest a draft pick in him despite being fully loaded at the running back position. He also has fresh legs. If the skills between McFadden and Jackson are relatively close, then it seems smarter to go with the player with eight years less mileage. And finally, the rookie can play special teams. The Cowboys would have another athletic candidate for Rich Bisaccia to choose from if Jackson is a game-day active.
Jackson is also considerably cheaper and will be under contract for the next four years.
McFadden was McFabulous in 2015. His contributions were greatly appreciated. Jason Garrett values the type of football player he is and how he approaches the game like a true professional. He’d be a great mentor for Elliott, and without a doubt a good locker room presence for this team. It cannot be overstated how much good football character means to Garrett and the culture for his team, but is that enough to keep him on the roster?
Does McFadden make the cut, and if so - which of these other running backs gets the hook?