During yesterday's game against the San Diego Chargers, the Dallas Cowboys ran the ball consistently well, including for big chunks of yardage on two different drives. The first drive was in the second quarter, when the Cowboys ran the ball 14 times on a 15 play drive, culminating in a game deciding goal line stand.
Second year tailback Felix Jones was superb on that drive (five rushes for 37 yards), but curiously did not get the ball on any of the plays inside the four yard line when the Cowboys had a first and goal. Marion Barber got the call four straight times and was unable to penetrate the Charger defense for the score. A touchdown there and Dallas would have tied the game at 10-10 heading into halftime.
The second drive came in the third quarter, when the Cowboys went 99 yards and finally reached the end zone. All season long, the Cowboys have been real good at piling up yardage, but have not turned many of those drives into scores. That long drive was helped by some nice runs by Barber and Jones.
Barber had been effective in both of those drives and had similar numbers to Jones. But what does not show up in the stats was Barber's inability to consistently elude tacklers at the point of attack, and his lack of speed when he bumps runs outside.
Most of Barber's successful runs are up the middle, and if a running hole is there, Barber can get good yardage. But he rarely turns the corner any more, evidenced by the no gain he had in the first drive when he turned a stalled run outside but was upended near the sidelines by the safety. A season or two ago, Barber used to be able to turn that corner and bull his way for a few more yards.
That is not the case anymore.
When Barber was his most effective two seasons ago, Julius Jones was the starter with Barber getting an occasional play or two, many times a screen pass which he gained chunks of yardage. Barber would then come in middle of the third to fourth quarter and with his punishing style of running (and fresh legs) would chew up the tired defenses for big gains. Whether the Cowboys were winning or losing this was the M.O., but Barber was even more effective with a Cowboy lead.
Barber was the "closer," football's equivalent to Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees. When Barber came into the game as the lead back with the Cowboys ahead, they were almost always assured a victory.
But Barber is not a lead back, especially with two seasons on those used to be fresh legs. All those instances of running over defenders getting the extra couple of yards have taken their toll.
The Cowboys have had their share of tremendous running backs. Emmitt Smith, Duane Thomas, and Tony Dorsett were three of the best. Many people back in the late 1970's and the 1980's used to say Dorsett was "tough enough" as he usually slid out of bounds after gaining yardage, instead of taking on a hit. But because of his style of running, Dorsett was able to last 11 years and gain 12,739 yards, including eight seasons over 1,000.
Barber will likely not make it another couple seasons, as those type of backs fizzle out quickly once the legs go and little injuries mount. If the Cowboys want to extend Marion's usage and get more from him (both in terms of seasons and production), they need to start Felix Jones the next three games. Use 2009's Jones/Barber tandem similar to how the 2006-2007 Jones/Barber tandem was used. Start Jones and close with Barber.
Felix is a much more dynamic rusher and play maker and needs to be used more often. Felix needs to touch the ball at least 25 times from scrimmage this Saturday night against New Orleans. His speed and game breaking skills are exactly what the Cowboys need to open up a statistically successful, but stagnant scoring offense. He has three runs of 40 yards or more this season, averages 6.2 yards per carry in 2009 and 7.0 yards per carry over his first two seasons!
And when Jones begins to make big plays during the course of the game and the Cowboys finally have a late game lead, that is the time for Marion the Barbarian to do his thing.