Grading the ‘Boys in 2010, Part IX: Running Backs
In Part VII of my “Grading the ‘Boys” Series, I analyzed the efficiency of six Cowboys’ offensive linemen in both run blocking and pass protection. In doing so, I 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.
Today, I 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 keep that in mind when analyzing the statistics gathered from my film study.
- In this particular analysis, I 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.
- As always, the best stats are circled in blue, the worst in red.
- Marion Barber
Short-Yardage Running: C-
Barber’s short-yardage running was once again sub-par in 2010. Other than a 5/5 day against Minnesota (which I think was due more to the Vikings’ defensive scheme than Barber’s ability), Barber proved he simply doesn’t possess the power he once did. He frequently stumbles before even receiving the handoff and, for whatever reason, dances in the backfield instead of hitting the hole hard. He converted only 75.0 percent of plays with one yard-to-go.
Overall Running: D-
Barber averaged only 3.7 yards-per-carry in 2010, including just 2.2 YAC-per-rush–down from 2.7 in ’09. There were very few times when Barber appeared even somewhat explosive. The numbers are really irrelevant here–anyone who watched Cowboys games this season knows Barber is done.
What was once a strength of Barber’s game is now a weakness. Barber is sure-handed, but he appears extremely hesitant after catching the ball and turning upfield. Barber should know he’s a power back (or was one) who shouldn’t try to make a ton of moves. He tries to run like Barry Sanders, but he has the agility of Refrigerator Perry.
Pass Protection: B+
This is really where Barber can still help the Cowboys. I attributed zero sacks to him in 2010. His success stems from a willingness to do the dirty work. Barber appears to take pride in his blocking, which is admirable.
The problem now is that Barber’s diminished skill set as both a runner and receiver make it difficult to put him on the field on third down. Sure, he can block, but if he poses no threat out of the backfield, why not put another tight end in the game?
- Felix Jones
Short-Yardage Running: A-
Some readers were a bit stunned when I provided Jones with the highest sh0rt-yardage running grade last season, but in 2010 it became clear he’s the team’s best option with just a few yards left for a first down. Jones converted 88.2 percent of runs with 1-3 yards-to-go. Only 9.2 percent of Jones’ runs came in such situations, however–less than half the rate of Barber–so Jason Garrett would be smart to utilize Jones more on short-yardage plays.
Many fans, analysts, and coaches argue that you need a humongous running back for short-yardage plays, but I disagree. Mammoth backs like Brandon Jacobs can sometimes get stuffed in short-yardage situations because they lack the lateral quickness to dodge defenders. If the primary hole is clogged, it’s difficult for any running back, regardless of size, to power his way through. Instead, the ability to make one quick cut to elude a defender and then get upfield seems to me to be a more effective method of converting short-yardage plays.
Perhaps that’s why you see Jones with a 13.0 percent broken tackle rate–by far the best on the team.
Overall Running: B+
Jones’ 4.3 yards-per-carry isn’t stellar, but it’s certainly superior to the 3.7 average from Barber and Choice. Jones’ big-play ability gives the Cowboys a much-needed explosive dimension on the ground, but I still think Garrett needs to do a better job of utilizing Jones’ skill set. Jones averaged 10.0 and 7.3 yards-per-carry, respectively, on counters in 2009 and 2010. The 35 total counters in that sample size is reaching the point where we can say Jones’ 9.0 overall yards-per-carry on counters is statistically significant.
In getting Jones out on the edge more often, I think you’ll see his yards-per-rush increase pretty significantly in 2011.
Jones’ improvement in the passing game was extremely valuable to the ‘Boys this season. According to my numbers, Jones caught a ridiculous 48 of the 50 passes intended for him (that’s 96 percent folks). His 9.38 yards-per-reception average is incredible, particularly when you factor in the predictability of some of Jones’ catches. Garrett often dialed up the same “flare/screen” from the formation below (Double Tight Left Twins Right Ace), but Jones’ explosiveness made up for it.
Pass Protection: C-
If I was Jason Garrett, I would have Jones work on pass protection more than any other aspect of his game. The Cowboys need Jones on the field on as many downs as possible, but Jones’ lack of pass protection makes that difficult. I credited him with yielding three sacks despite being in pass protection on just 107 snaps. Jones possesses the ability to be fine in pass protection, so right now it’s about his mindset.
- Tashard Choice
Short-Yardage Running: B-
Choice’s sample size of 10 short-yardage runs isn’t enough for those stats to mean much, so we have to judge his performance with film. To me, Choice did just an average job on short-yardage in 2010, but I think he’s a better player than what his numbers indicate (70.0 percent conversion rate). He doesn’t have incredible explosiveness, but he always seems to be either elusive or strong enough to adequately perform his job.
Still, Choice’s yards-after-contact and broken tackle numbers need to improve.
Overall Running: C-
Again, I don’t think Choice’s numbers match up with his actual ability. I think Choice is the type of player who performs well as he becomes accustomed to the flow of the game. He needs some time to get going. Is that ideal? No, but it does appear to be the case.
When Choice has received that extra playing time in the past, he’s done well. He’ll never be a feature back, but I certainly believe he can be a very productive No. 2 option. He’s solid in every aspect of running back play, but will Garrett even want him around in 2011?
Choice is a natural pass-catcher. Again, he’s not flashy and won’t take a screen pass 60 yards to the house, but he will consistently put himself in position to convert first downs.
Pass Protection: B
I think Choice regressed just a bit in his pass protection this season. He really struggled in the preseason, but he got it cleaned up (for the most part) during the regular season. I attributed one sack and three pressures to Choice.
Overall 2010 Running Back Grades
1. Felix Jones: B (86.3)
- 2009 Grade: B+ (89.8)
2. Tashard Choice: C+ (78.9)
- 2009 Grade: B+ (87.3)
3. Marion Barber: C- (71.3)
- 2009 Grade: C+(77.2)
In 2009, Barber received 54.3 percent of the regular season rushes, with Jones garnering 29.5 percent and Choice 16.2 percent. In the offseason, I called for the breakdown to be 50/30/20 for Jones, Choice, and Barber, respectively.
The actual breakdown was remarkably similar (51/31/18), except Barber received the second-most carries.
In 2011, that breakdown is almost certain to change again, as either Barber or Choice will likely be out of Dallas. Barber’s contract and diminishing ability make him the logical choice to go, but Garrett seems to still like Barber (and dislike Choice).
In my opinion, it will be a tragedy if Barber is still in a Cowboys uniform in 2011. With Choice more than capable of handling third downs, there’s really no place for Barber anymore. He’s poor in short-yardage situations and is terrible in the open-field. To me, the only thing Barber can do better than a mid-round (or even late-round) draft pick is protect the quarterback.
The ‘Boys will obviously need to acquire another running back if either Barber or Choice leave. Some mid/late-round draft possibilities include Oklahoma’s DeMarco Murray, Cal’s Shane Vereen, Syracuse’s Delone Carter, Clemson’s Jamie Harper, and Wisconsin’s John Clay.