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By Jonathan Bales

Grading the ‘Boys, Part III: Running Backs

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In Parts I and II of our “Grading the ‘Boys” Series, we analyzed the efficiency of six Cowboys’ offensive linemen in both run blocking and pass protection. In doing so, we attempted to isolate one component of the offense as effectively as possible to determine the worth of individual players.

In reality, of course, offenses are holistic systems. The productivity of each position indirectly affects the ability of players at each other position to properly perform. In the running game, the success of linemen is affected greatly by the talent level of the running backs, and vice versa.

In Part III of our “Grading the ‘Boys” Series, we will study the productivity of Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice. These three players all contributed in different ways and in distinct situations, so we will keep this in mind when analyzing the statistics we gathered from our film study.

Marion Barber was surprisingly ineffective on runs up the middle in 2009.

Notes:

  • In this particular analysis, we will grade each running back on four components: short-yardage running, overall running, receiving, and pass protection.
  • The four components of the overall grade are not all equal. They will be weighted 15/45/20/20, respectively.
  • All totals include the playoffs.
  • As always, the best stats are circled in blue, the worst in red.

Grades

  • Marion Barber

Short-Yardage Running: D-

Barber had by far the lowest average on the team on runs up the middle and in short-yardage situations, averaging just 2.8 yards-per-carry and converting a ridiculously low 56.0 (14 for 25) percent of the time with just one yard to go (for either a first down or a touchdown). His yards after contact and number of broken tackles were both down significantly from prior seasons.

Would you have guessed Felix Jones led the team in broken tackles?

Overall Running: C

Barber was more effective on draws and counters than in short-yardage situations. His 4.2 average was mediocre, but he did carry the ball a lot more in these short-yardage and goal-to-go scenarios. He still scored seven touchdowns, but only about once every 29 carries.

Receiving: B

Barber was again solid in the passing game, although his receptions decreased due to the presence of both Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. Barber does an excellent job of disguising his intentions on screen passes.

Pass Protection: B

Marion gave up the most sacks of any running back (three), but he was also on the field during pass plays about twice as much as the other backs. He does a great job of taking on defenders much larger than him, usually coming out on top.

Overall Grade: 77.2 (C+)

  • Felix Jones

Short-Yardage Running: B+

Despite not receiving a lot of short-yardage carries (five), Felix Jones converted on them 100.0 percent of the time. His runs up the middle, which may be more indicative of his short-yardage abilities than such a small sample size, is still solid at 4.1 yards-per-carry. It is hard to relate this number to Barber’s, though, because Barber had more short-yardage runs up the middle which would have decreased his average.

Overall Running: A

Jones really displayed his value to the Cowboys in 2009. He averaged a ridiculous 6.2 yards-per-carry, including 220 yards on 22 counters. He also surprisingly led the team in yards after contact and broken tackles.

Receiving: B

Jones’ receiving numbers were solid, but with his explosiveness, we would expect them to be a bit higher. They should increase next season, particularly with teams focusing in on the run when he is in the game.

Pass Protection: B

We think Jones is underrated in pass protection. He gave up one sack on the season, but he is rather good at an aspect of his game which most believe is his biggest weakness.

Overall Grade: 89.8 (A-)

  • Tashard Choice

Short-Yardage Running: B+

It is difficult to grade this aspect of Choice’s game. He was a respectable 5 for 7 in short-yardage situations and also led the team (by a lot) with a 5.8 yards-per-carry average on runs up the middle. However, he averaged only 1.9 yards after contact and broke just three tackles all season.

Felix Jones was incredible on counter runs, averaging 10.0 yards per attempt.

Overall Running: B

Choice averaged 5.0 yards-per-rush on the season, with a large chunk of his rushing yards coming from the Wildcat formation. It seemed like he was more comfortable taking the direct snap than on other runs, as he was worst on the team in both counter and draw average. His 5.1 percent touchdown rate led the squad.

Receiving: B+

Choice led the team in reception average, which you would expect out of your third-down back. He isn’t incredibly fast or strong, but just solid in all aspects of the game.

Pass Protection: A-

Choice really has done an excellent job in pass protection since his rookie season. According to our film study, he didn’t allow a sack all season.

Overall Grade: 87.3 (B+)

Final Running Back Rankings

1. Felix Jones: 89.8 (A-)

2. Tashard Choice: 87.3 (B+)

3. Marion Barber: 77.2 (C+)

A lot of fans are calling for the Cowboys to trade Marion Barber. Other than the fact that his contract makes this basically impossible, we don’t think it would be a smart move. Barber still has his place on the team. If the ‘Boys would trade any of their backs, they would turn a positional strength into a possible weakness. The team would be just one injury shy of having only one experienced running back on the roster. Three good running backs is certainly a luxury, but it also is an important component in the success of the Dallas offense.

So how should Jason Garrett alter how he utilizes each of these players in 2010? First, Barber needs to get fewer carries. He received 54.3 percent of the regular-season rushes in ’09, with Jones garnering 29.5 percent and Choice 16.2 percent. In 2010, we would advise the following breakdown:

  • Felix Jones: 50 percent
  • Tashard Choice: 30 percent
  • Marion Barber: 20 percent

Some may argue that we would be giving up on Barber too quickly, but now is not the time to wait on players. The Cowboys are built to win now, and the most productive players should play.

These percentages could be attained by starting Jones and letting him play two series for each of Tashard Choice’s one. We would also use Tashard Choice on short-yardage runs, including a bit more Wildcat. Barber would come in to spell Jones and Choice, particularly on third down, and to finish games out. In baseball, closers are only successful because they haven’t pitched all game. The same is true for Marion Barber. By saving his energy, he could effectively return to the “closer” role, creating the most efficient Dallas Cowboys backfield possible.

In our next “Grading the ‘Boys” segment, we will analyze the productivity of the cornerbacks.

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10 Responses to Grading the ‘Boys, Part III: Running Backs

  1. john coleman says:

    Again numbers don’t lie. Let MB3 be the closer. Use him on special teams. I agree he is for the most part untradable. Also, Choice’s inside running numbers might make him the short yardage guy. His quickness, makes him good in tight spaces.

  2. jongb35 says:

    Agreed that Choice should be the short-yardage guy. I would love to see his touches double in 2010, but that is a long shot. Keeping Felix healthy, while still increasing his touches, will be key.

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