Pressing Matters: What will the running back committee look like next season? The rotation shifted in 2011, with Felix Jones becoming the primary rusher and three-year starter Marion Barber settling into third-down, short-yardage duty.
Now Barber’s future in Dallas is being widely speculated as he enters the fourth year of the seven-year, $45 million deal he signed in 2008. Teams are now permitted to release players between the end of the Super Bowl and the March 3 expiration of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (and beyond that, if a new one is struck before then), but despite rumors, the Cowboys have given no indication that Barber’s time is up.
Jones, one of the team’s 2008 first-round picks, is clearly the top option. Will Barber return in the same secondary role, or is third-string backup Tashard Choice ready for more than the 43.3 carry average he’s had over the past three years?
Those questions are being discussed externally from Valley Ranch. Internally, head coach Jason Garrett has said he likes all three players, but right now his main priority is finalizing his new coaching staff.
2010 Evaluation: The Cowboys’ preseason rushing struggles carried into the regular season. In the first eight games, they rushed only 169 times for 605 yards (3.6 yards per carry). Blame went to the backs and the offensive line. Whatever the reason, production had dipped drastically from 2009, when the offense had the seventh-best ground game (131.4 yards per game).
In Garrett’s final eight-game interim tenure, the carry (259), yardage (1,181) and per-carry average (4.6) totals jumped. The Cowboys were running it more, largely because they were staying more competitive in games and establishing a time deterrent against high-powered offenses like New Orleans, Indianapolis, Philadelphia. Garrett also imposed pads practices on Wednesdays, the main installation day of the week, and several offensive linemen believed it aided their blocking on game days.
The Cowboys’ 147.6 yards-per-game average down the stretch would have been fifth in the final rankings; their 4.6 yards-per-carry average would have tied for sixth; and their 32.4 carries-per-game average would have been third. For the entire season, they finished 16th in yardage (111.6); 15th in yards per carry; and tied for 15th in carries per game.
Jones (800 yards, one touchdown) led the team in rushing for the first time in his career. Barber missed three games, and exceeded or tied career lows in yardage (374), per-carry average (3.3), catches (11) and touchdowns (4). Used sparingly, Choice had 66 carries for 243 yards and three touchdowns.
Rookie fullback Chris Gronkowski provided a different receiving dimension than his predecessor Deon Anderson, but his blocking and recognition are still a work in progress.
Need More From … : All three – that’s the simplest answer. But given Barber’s possibly uncertain future and the potential domino effect it would have on Choice, let’s go with the surest thing: Jones.
He added a little bulk (up to 220 pounds), leading some outsiders to question whether he’d lost any of his trademark burst. But he played a full season for the first time in his career and set personal highs in carries (185), rushing yardage (800), catches (48) and receiving yardage (450).
Jones’ carries (112 of 185) and rushing yardage (498 of 800) increased during Garrett’s interim stretch. The Cowboys believe he can become even more of a versatile threat and improve his 4.3-yard rushing average next season.
Upgrades Needed: The ground attack has to be more consistent over a full 16 games for the offense to be fully successful. It took a big step forward in those last eight contests.
If the entire three-back committee doesn’t return intact, the Cowboys could look to draft one in April. Right now, though, it wouldn’t appear to be a high priority.
Felix Jones - Stayed healthy, and in turn, had a breakout year. The offense is likely to lean on him as the primary rusher and pass-catcher out of the backfield again.
Marion Barber - Questions about his role and future abound after a career-low season. Teammates will tell you he provides an intangible spark for the offense, though.
Tashard Choice - Badly wants more playing time and has tried to stay patient. Important year coming up; he’s scheduled to be a free agent after 2011.
Chris Gronkowski - More than anything else, his rookie year unfortunately will be remembered for the missed block that led to Tony Romo’s injury. But he does have versatile skill set for a fullback.
Lonyae Miller - Signed from the practice squad for the final month and appeared in four games. Did not receive a carry.