Cowboys: The Surprising Play of Darren McFadden


Lost in the disappointment of the Cowboys 2015 season is the surprisingly strong play of running back Darren McFadden.

If you would have told me the Cowboys leading rusher at the season’s midpoint would be former Raider, Darren McFadden, I would have called you mad. But with 462 rushing yards eight games in, that’s exactly what McFadden is – the Cowboys leading rusher.

This past offseason, when the Cowboys deemed the NFL’s leading rusher (DeMarco Murray) expendable, they quickly signed free agent running back, Darren McFadden. McFadden, the former Oakland Raider, had a largely disappointing NFL career.

Drafted #4 overall in the 2008 draft, the former Razorback only posted one 1000 yard season in his seven seasons as a Raider. McFadden, 28, was brought to Dallas to serve as an insurance policy of sorts. With the incumbent starter playing in Philadelphia, the Cowboys were left with two unproven options in Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar.

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The Dallas Cowboys fully intended to address the running back position in the upcoming 2015 NFL Draft, but wanted a proven player like McFadden to offer stability in case Randle and/or the future draft pick didn’t pan out.  It’s a good thing too because Randle flamed out in a big way and is not even a Dallas Cowboy anymore, and the Draft brought exactly zero RB prospects to the Cowboys roster.

Darren McFadden’s ability to play in the Cowboys system has been a pleasant surprise to many (yours truly included). McFadden’s brand of running style never seemed to be a good match for the Dallas Cowboys brand of run-blocking.

The Cowboys run-blocking system, developed by Bill Callahan, leans heavily on a zone blocking scheme. In Callahan’s tenure as the de facto Cowboys offensive line coach, he used a zone blocking scheme roughly 75% of the time.

Darren McFadden has played predominantly in a man blocking scheme both in Arkansas and in Oakland. His full-speed running style and next-level eagerness did little to affirm his fit in a patient running system like the Cowboys zone blocking scheme (ZBS).

But who ever said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

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In McFadden’s eighth NFL season he’s shown just enough patience to make the Cowboys ZBS scheme work for him. McFadden is still largely the same runner and will never be seen as an ideal fit in a ZBS, but his willingness to adapt has made all the difference in Dallas this season.

McFadden has always been a home run threat but he’s also flashed a hard-nosed running style that has translated well in short-yardage situations as well.

On top of that, his pass-protection is solid and he’s only earned one negative pass-protection game grade from me in eight games this season.

The Cowboys 2015 season has been disappointing to say the least, but Darren McFadden should be seen as clear positive that can carry over to next season. McFadden is playing under a very modest 2 year/ $3M contract that keep him in Big D through 2016 making him a bargain by all reasonable standards.

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If McFadden can stay healthy all season (a big “if”), he could even be in line for an extension on his 2016 lame duck season. Considering he’s only been a starter for three weeks, a 1000+ yard season seems extremely likely for the man once considered nothing more than “an insurance policy”.