Is Felix Jones More Suited For Artificial Turf Than Marion Barber?
By Jonathan Bales
I’ve often wondered how different playing conditions affect various players and teams. Is it true that run-based offenses fair better in cold weather than pass-based ones? How about in rain? Snow?
And what about individual players? Did Jerome Bettis’ bruising running style make him a more effective running back in poor playing conditions than, say, Warrick Dunn?
The unique range of talents displayed by the Cowboys’ three-headed running back monster got me thinking about how their talents might best be utilized. First, let’s take a look at their skills:
- Marion Barber
Bruising runner with exceptional power despite average size; tough inside runner when healthy; lacks elite straight-line speed; mediocre quickness; best on dive, trap, and power runs
- Felix Jones
Quick-twitch player with underrated power; surprisingly effective inside runner; great (but not elite) straight-line speed; tremendous quickness; best on counters, tosses, and draws
- Tashard Choice
A Barber/Jones hybrid; solid in every aspect, but not spectacular in anything; underrated quickness and balance; best on dives, screens, and in Wildcat
The Cowboys’ new stadium obviously appears to best fill Jones’ skill set. The field is Matrix Artificial Turf: a surface which rewards quick cuts and track-like speed. Jones would undoubtedly have an easier time utilizing his quickness on counters, tosses, and draws during home games than, say, a snowy December game in Philly.
But to what degree would Jones be more effective on turf as compared to natural grass? Not as much as you might think.
I uncovered a very interesting (albeit dated) study on running back performance on grass vs. turf from Pro-Football-Reference. Interestingly, running backs in general actually perform equally well on grass as compared to turf.
The reason? Defenses have to play on the same surface. A running back’s quicker cuts on turf are matched by the defenders.
Further, there does not seem to be any correlation between particular running backs’ styles and their success on different surfaces. Bruising running backs like Marion Barber seem to fair just as well on turf as grass, while quicker backs such as Felix Jones have no issues running on grass as compared to turf.
But what about weather?
Sure, grass and turf may not be much different on their own, but what about in poor weather? Turf is usually installed in domes or stadiums (like the Cowboys’) which can avoid the elements if need be. Grass fields, on the other hand, are generally installed in open-air stadiums which are subject to poor weather.
Further, it may be possible we wouldn’t see much of a difference in overall running back performance on grass versus turf due to the low percentage of truly poor weather games. Even in cities where poor weather is prevalent, such as Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo, the chance of the weather being detrimental enough to significantly impact the strategy of the running backs isn’t great.
Conclusion/Implications for Cowboys
There appears to be no significant difference in effectiveness among running backs whether they are running on grass or turf. This applies to running backs league-wide, although there is also no correlation between a running back’s style and the surface on which he is running, i.e. bruising running backs don’t perform significantly better on grass.
For the Cowboys, this means there is really no reason to switch the distribution of running back touches based on the playing field–Felix Jones should be the lead guy regardless of where the ‘Boys are playing.
This may or may not change when weather is extremely poor, although there do not appear to be any meaningful blips in the data to indicate that weather significantly alters the play of shifty runners.
Even if weather does play a role in a runner’s mentality, the fact that there is no true statistical evidence to support that theory seems to indicate that maintaining a normal touch distribution among ball-carriers is more important than attempting to provide carries based on weather, playing surface, or other rather insignificant factors.