The Cowboys signed Darren McFadden as their feature running back in 2015 after letting DeMarco Murray walk in free agency. Their thinking was they could put any decent runner behind the league’s best offensive line and be fine.
Although McFadden rushed for 1,089 yards, the Cowboys signed Alfred Morris last offseason and drafted Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick. Using comedian Bill Engvall’s line, “Here’s your sign.”
As Elliott led the league in rushing, coach Jason Garrett repeatedly declared, “The runner matters.”
Now, with Elliott facing a possible suspension, the Cowboys may have to turn back to McFadden at least temporarily. Considering McFadden’s age and injury history, Alfred Morris’ value just increased. McFadden, who turns 30 next month, has missed 42 games in nine seasons, including 13 last year after elbow surgery. He has played a full 16-game season only twice — in 2014 and 2015.
Morris was on the trade block for much of the offseason, and it seemed unlikely after the offseason program that Morris would make the roster in 2017. Since Morris doesn’t play special teams, it was a better bet the Cowboys would keep McFadden, fullback Keith Smith and Rod Smith. Rod Smith got more offensive snaps than Morris in the offseason practices.
But with the NFL looking into multiple incidents involving Elliott, the Cowboys are bracing to be without their star running back at least temporarily. Although it remains unknown how long an Elliott suspension might be or when the league might announce it, the Cowboys open with the Giants, Broncos, Cardinals and Rams. Those teams all ranked in the top 10 in total defense last season with the Giants tied for third against the run, the Broncos 28th against the run, the Cardinals ninth against the run and the Rams 16th against the run.
Elliott, with his 354 touches last season, was involved in 35 percent of the Cowboys’ plays and expected to play an even bigger role this season. If Elliott misses any time, Dak Prescott likely will take on more responsibility with McFadden and Morris as the runners.
Morris, though, has three 1,000-yard seasons in his five-year career and should have fresh legs after getting only 72 touches last season.