Cowboys Have Increasing Uncertainty at Running Back ⋆
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Cowboys Have Increasing Uncertainty at Running Back

Ezekiel Elliott, Alfred Morris

Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys Have Increasing Uncertainty at Running Back

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Cowboys Have Increasing Uncertainty at Running Back

Last week’s Hall of Fame game gave Cowboys fans some good looks at running backs Alfred Morris and Rod Smith, assumed to be competing for the third spot on the RB depth chat. Also, new comments from Jerry Jones have made Ezekiel Elliott‘s future tougher to predict. Throw in a brief but uninspiring performance from Darren McFadden and we have arguably more confusion now at RB than we did a week ago.

Jerry Jones, Ezekiel Elliott

Jerry Jones and Ezekiel Elliott (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Let’s start at the top; Ezekiel Elliott’s possible suspension has been hanging over the Cowboys all summer. During the Hall of Fame festivities, Jerry Jones commented on Zeke’s situation in a concerning way.

“There are a couple of issues that might or might not fall — and that’s going to be up to the league to the decide — under the behavioral guidelines.”

It’s not the most direct comment ever, which Jerry’s rarely are, but it does speak to the likelihood that the league is considering more with Elliott than just the domestic violence allegation. Whether it’s the St. Patrick’s Day parade shirt-lifting, the trip to the marijuana shop in Seattle, a speeding ticket for 100 mph, or his proximity to whatever happened at that nightclub, Zeke may be headed for a wrist-slapping, preventative disciplinary measure from Roger Goodell.

However, not long after those comments, Jerry went on to say that he did not expect any kind of suspension for Elliott. It’s hard to know if that’s supportive or even wishful thinking, or just an objective appraisal from the Cowboys owner. Either way, many now think a one or two-game suspension is very possible if Zeke’s entire body of work is being considered.

Darren McFadden

RB Darren McFadden

With three carries for a total loss of six yards, Darren McFadden’s preseason started with a brief whimper. As we’ll get to in a minute, Alfred Morris and Rod Smith had far better success with their carries that night. However, before you go handing McFadden’s job to one of them, there are two key points to keep in mind.

McFadden’s three carries came at the start of the game when the Cowboys offense looked the most befuddled. The offensive line created nothing for him to use. Also, let’s be real; three carries is hardly a solid sample size. One long run can change the way your entire night is perceived, much like how Morris benefited from his 25-yarder. Without it, he had six carries for 17 yards.

It’s important to remember that McFadden’s value isn’t just in carrying the ball. He’s an exceptional backfield blocker and receiver, making him an ideal third-down option. With Ezekiel Elliott as the workhorse, McFadden can go in and be more useful in various spots; more of a Swiss Army knife player than Morris. He can even return a kickoff in a pinch.

Rod Smith

RB Rod Smith

Still, there’s no denying that Alfred Morris and Rod Smith were the standout running backs in the game. Morris 25-yard run showed both athleticism and power, and on several other carries he did a nice job of reading blocks quickly before hitting the right lane. Both players had to make something out of nothing a few times.

With his 18 carries, Rod Smith got the biggest workload and shined consistently. His final stat line of 64 yards on 18 carries is not a great average, but Smith was clearly doing the best with what second and third-string offensive linemen could give him. He showed good improvisational ability, agility, and also power throughout the night. He even had three catches for 25 yards.

There were already reports that Rod Smith was threatening Morris’ roster spot coming out of training camp and this game showed you why. Along with effective running, Rod is a solid special teams player and even has the experience from playing a little fullback last year. He is a more justifiable number-three RB than a guy who doesn’t give you all of the extra things. Plus, cutting Morris saves you $1.6 million off the salary cap

~ ~ ~

Obviously, Ezekiel Elliott is the team’s workhorse back for whatever number of games he is allowed to play. At this point, there’s little reason to think that Darren McFadden will fall out of the number-two spot, let alone off the roster completely. A suspension will likely allow the Cowboys to delay their decision between Alfred Morris and Rod Smith; it is doubtful that will keep four running backs given Zeke’s projected workload.

With four games and a lot of practices between now and final cuts, there is plenty of time for assumptions and projections to change. As last week proved, it doesn’t take much for us to start rethinking things. The picture may get even murkier before it finally clears up.

Jess Haynie

Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!

7 Comments
  • Randy Martin

    I can’t think of any player ever suspended for their “body of work.” And yet that has been discussed. Jerry has been very specific on the issue of domestic violence and having reviewed everything says it doesn’t exist. Now we know sometimes it’s hard to take everything he says at face value. So let’s look at the other issues. First off can we just stop talking about getting ticketed for doing 100 in a 70? Who among the male population hadn’t taken the car out on the freeway and cleaned the pipes out? The difference here is he got caught. Are traffic violations covered under the personal conduct policy? I think not unless it includes other charges not noted. While he was wrong for his behavior on St.Patrick’s Day had that happened in New Orleans on Mardi Gras would we be talking about it. I’m pretty sure Gronk’s wild cruise featured much worse…we just have no photos. And we don’t have a precedent for this so not sure how that will be viewed by the league. The recent nightclub incident was closed after a short investigation due to lack of co-operation. Unless there is any conclusive evidence by the NFL such as a video of Zeke throwing the punch or a large check going from Zeke to the DJ in the days after I’m not sure the NFL is in a position to impose any suspension for that incident. As for the trip to the marina and shop….bad look but suspendable? No record of a purchase made or a failed test so if a citizen can’t walk into a legal place of business then something is wrong. That doesn’t mean it’s wise because perception is reality. I just wish whatever is going to happen, happens soon because I’m tired of reading about it. I did notice that Zeke was playing with his phone or something in his lap during JJ’s HOF speech while all other players had all eyes on Jerry. Maybe we should add that to the list.

    • Jess Haynie

      That’s the think with Zeke; you can isolate any of his issues and poke holes in them. But the accumulation of issues and question marks, with the shadow of domestic violence involved, is why he’s now in hotter water than he really should be. It may be harsh, but not really unfair.

      I don’t think he’s going to get suspended, but he needs to start living life with the recognition of how thin the ice has become.

  • Russ_Te

    Fail a drug screen, do a criminal offense, the league has to step in with suspensions to guard the brand.

    For the rest of Elliott’s behavioral issues, suspension should be a last resort. He can be warned & fined first. There is a fine line between preserving the brand and serving as 24/7 chaperone. The NFL needs to avoid the latter IMO. Let the teams deal internally with the stupid stuff a 22-year old does.

    McFadden looked uninspired but you figure that changes for regular season. Besides, why bang him up right now? He & Zeke should get a few reps, give the rest to those battling for a roster spot.

    • Jess Haynie

      I agree that it’s not up to the league to become a surrogate father. Unfortunately for Zeke, the DV accusation paints everything else with a different brush. That’s the reality of being an NFL player in a post-Ray Rice world.

  • John Williams

    One week of the preseason doesn’t change anything for me.

    I would want to continue to see Alfred Morris as an effective back before being willing to keep him on the roster. In my opinion, I think he’s auditioning mostly for other teams. I don’t think he does enough to get rid of McFadden or Smith. If anything they might be forced to carry four running backs and a full back if he continues to play well. But given that they want to feed Zeke, it seems carrying 4 running backs is a luxury. Especially with what Rod smith has been showing in camp so far.

    • Jess Haynie

      What scares me with Morris is that he looked good all of the 2016 preseason and even in some limited touches early in September, but his effectiveness clearly waned over time. McFadden came off NFI list last year and showed way more chemistry in his few touches. It would take a pretty dramatic difference in these next four games for me to feel confident enough about Morris to even question DMC’s job status.

      I think Rod Smith has almost secured a roster spot. Not only does he look good and give you special teams value, but he’s also the only guy who is under contract in 2018. If he keeps this up, he could probably be RB2 next year.

      • John Williams

        Totally agree. I just don’t see them being willing to bring four tail backs to the 53. Just seems that Morris is an odd man out. They might have been a bit hasty signing him in the first place if they intended on drafting Zeke last year. Was a solid insurance policy.

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