The DC Times

A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football

By Jonathan Bales

Grading the ‘Boys in 2010, Part IX: Running Backs

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Jonathan Bales

Already graded: Defensive lineinside linebackersoutside linebackerssafetiescornerbackstight ends, wide receivers, and offensive line.

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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.

Notes:

  • 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.

Grades

  • 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.

Receiving: C-

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.

2010 Snap Counts: Barber-292, Jones-571, Choice-220

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.

Receiving:  A-

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?

Receiving:  B-

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.

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19 Responses to Grading the ‘Boys in 2010, Part IX: Running Backs

  1. john coleman says:

    I have to say that at this point MBIII is a bigger liability than Roy W. With that said, I hope JG is not counting on Barber to regain his old smash. Plus Barber has been hurt 3 seasons in a row. Choice just shows up and does his job. I also think he is a guy who rises to the occasion.

    Sometimes players(remember they are still people) need a vote of confidence. I think Choice saw at the start of the season that he was on the short end of the stick again. He had both Wade and JG saying MBIII brought a physical presence(didn’t seem to matter at other positions). So maybe he eased off a bit early on. Not saying I agree, but with camp cupcake I see know way he could show anything. Also RBs that are offensive contributors shouldn’t be big special teams players. I still think WRs and RBs are not as efficient on Special teams as DBs and LBs. Let the tacklers tackle.

    I also think you are right that one of the RBs has to go. Three capable runners are a luxury, an expense, and a roster spot.

  2. JJ says:

    Jonathan,

    Been looking forward to this segment for a few reasons.

    First, grading aside, I tend to drift toward “what does this look like next year?” and “what should it look like next year?”

    Your key line about Garrett is how he likes Barber but dislikes Choice provides me pause…my only hope is that late in the year it appeared Garrett realized Barber is done. I pray that this realization is accurate.

    Assuming Barber is gone, I’m still not convinced Felix is an every down back and, of course, he may not need to be. On the edges and with screens, he can be lethal but between the tackles, just doesn’t seem to work.

    So, I find myself with this question. Was the interior run blocking so poor that not even the best backs could generate yards or do the Cowboys have a couple of “specialist” backs in which neither is really the answer? The great thing about Barber in him prime (which was not a very long duration) was his ability to inflict punishment and toughness. I am concerned that Felix seems to come against injury often and may be more effective being fresh as compared to Choice who is grinder and probably gets stronger with more carries similar to an Emmitt Smith as it relates to fortitude.

    So, I’m optimistic that an improved OL with a split of Choice and Jones can be effective and picking up a rookie back that could be a steal would be more than adequate. It does occur to me that RB is a young man’s position and I hope the Cowboys serve youth by jettisoning Barber.

  3. Grant says:

    JJ,
    I agree with everything you have said, I havent heard this idea before and it is brillant. Based on this given grading, Barber only has a C is because he got so many carries compared to Choice who has the same grade but got far less carries let alone playing time. I also like the idea of picking up a new RB, similar to Mendenhall. The Cowboys have not had a good draft year in a very long time, the only good draft pick was Dez, and Sean Lee. We have wasted some many picks on players who do not perform. This year needs to be focused around are defense(secondary and LB) and our O-line. If we could sneak a pick for a Mendenhall type running back then that would be fantastic.

  4. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    JC, JJ, good words. I’m just surprised that TC had only 2 broken tackles all year. He always seemed like a better option to me but TWO broken tackles (3%)? Either that’s an anomoly due to low sample size or he’s really elusive…

    I, for one, think the MBIII is a victim of his own success. A few years back he caught the hearts of Cowboy fans everywhere by his punishing running and staunch stiff arm. From that, defenders (probably CBs) complained to the league that the stiff arm like his was unfair. So, they changed the rule and caused MB to think twice about its use. At the same time, guys like Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett were in his ear telling him to not run so hard and run out of bounds when the play was obviously over to prolong his career. He listened to that somewhat as well. In the end, he ended up being a bounce outside, limited stiff arm type of runner which equates to less yards per carry. If he could just get back to being the Barbarian that he once was, he could be used more efficiently in that role (albeit he’d see less playing time but certainly would be the short yardage/decoy back like Peyton Hillis or Ricky Williams) and would still have value. And, you’d have to restructure his contract as well.

    I put the chances of that happening at about 1.2% as its clear his time in Dallas is up. I actually hope the MBIII gets cut (traded would be better but highly unlikely) and gets on a w/ a another team that needs a bruiser like Houston or Indianapolis – maybe even Denver, Buffalo, Miami or New Orleans.

  5. JC–You know I like Choice, but the only issue I have with him is he seems to bow down a bit when things don’t go his way. Should he have been the No. 2 RB? Yes, but he wasn’t, so he needed to make sure he produced on special teams. He didn’t, and I think that’s a major reason JG doesn’t care for him much. TC CAN be a great leader, both vocally and on the field, but true leaders to all the dirty work too.

    JJ–I think Felix/Choice is a fine combo, but there needs to be a third guy as well. Some people want a huge guy for short-yardage, like Wisconsin’s John Clay, but I don’t. First, I just simply don’t like backs that are that limited (especially big ones, since I don’t think you need a ton of size to be effective in short-yardage–you need the max combo of size AND quickness…F = M x A)

    Anyway…another reason is an injury to Felix would be devastating to the offense if TC and Clay/Barber are the backs). I would MUCH rather have a back like Pitt’s Dion Lewis, who I LOVE. He won’t go high and he can catch the football. I know people will want someone who can run between the tackles, but I actually think TC is just fine at that (or CAN be if he gets reps).

  6. Grant–It isn’t just the snap count and touches–Barber was simply far worse (on film) than Choice. Choice has some explosion and lateral quickness (remember the TD run on the first drive vs Minn?). Barber has zero.

    I like the idea of a Mendenhall-type player, but he was a first-rounder. I’d love someone with versatility–for me, he needs to be able to catch the football out of the backfield and must be solid in pass pro.

    Tyrone–You bring up an awesome point about broken tackles–they can be misleading because if a RB jukes a defender, he didn’t break the tackle. Not saying TC has that kind of elusiveness, but still. Barber broke so many tackles early in his career because he didn’t run around people. Now, he doesn’t run around them and he still doesn’t break tackles…awesome :P

  7. JJ says:

    Jonathan – Just to clarify, I absolutely believe we need a third back and agree it should not be a Ron Dayne type. Candidly, I don’t think we have a back with lots of wiggle (hips) and so someone that is sturdy, shifty with deceptive power would be great. While I understand that the “best” backs are drafted early, there are always “gems” that are found in late rounds or as free agents.

    My concern going into the season with Jones and Choice is that neither can make you miss at the point of attack as well as I would like and, as chronicled, Jones is oft injured.

    Separate note: if you deem fit once this series is over to provide an analysis of Garrett’s final coaching staff, it would make for an interesting read. Plus, I could take another jab at Coach Wilson.

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  9. JJ–I’ve really started to like Shane Vereen from Cal and I think he matches your description. Small, shifty, but powerful. Nice idea on the coaching staff analysis..I will do that for you at some point over the next week.

  10. beWARE says:

    I’d like to see more of Lonyae Miller who is already on the team. I think he can do well and he’s already willing to work hard on special teams.

  11. Vince_Grey says:

    I don’t really care how big a RB is physically, I care how big his heart is. At one time, MBIII had the heart of a barbarian, lately, he’s had the heart of a Phil Donahue, at least when it comes to running the ball, and without that heart, Marion’s just another guy… at Pro Bowl starter prices.

    I think we very much need to add another runner- a physical guy who runs and pass blocks hard, but that doesn’t necessarily mean (But doesn’t preclude either) a 240 pounder. And of course, it’s a real plus if the guy can catch some passes.

  12. beWARE–I liked Lonyae Miller’s speed/size combo last year as Ryan Matthews’ backup, but he didn’t run with authority in the preseason. Let’s see what he’s able to do this preseason.

  13. beWARE says:

    I agree JB. He didn’t run with authority. I was disappointed he didn’t take advantage of his opportunities. But I still have high hopes for him.

  14. percyhoward says:

    I seem to always be showing up late.

    I have a different idea of what constitutes “short yardage.” To me, 2nd and short isn’t the same kind of situation as 3rd and short. 2nd and short invites you to pass, and forces the defense to respect the pass a lot more than on 3rd and short.

    Barber was actually quite good in short yardage situations on 3rd and 4th downs, and was among the league leaders in the first half of the season. His short yardage performance declined dramatically after the first Giants game–a game in which he didn’t play a snap after the first quarter.

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  16. Yeah..certainly a difference between 2nd and 3rd and short. Still, I don’t like what I’ve seen from Barber in short-yardage, even if he was adequate over the first half of the season. Over a large sample size, I think you’d see Barber’s efficiency plummet (as we did a bit).

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  19. Pingback: Felix Jones, DeMarco Murray, Tashard Choice: Projecting 2011 Touches | Dallas Cowboys Times

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