Christine Michael in Dallas: The NFL's Rorschach Test

What do you see when you look at Christine Michael in a Cowboys uniform: hope or failure?

The beautiful thing about football analysis is its subjectivity.

No two analysts will look at the same team, the same unit, the same player, or the same play in the exact same way. The way one examines a complex player’s profile actually often indicates a lot about what the analyst values in the football world; that scouting report becomes a scouting report about the reporter just as much as the player. What becomes even tougher is when the player himself is fairly ambiguous in his profile -- little production but impressive tools, high draft pedigree but buried on the depth chart.

Some people may see this, then, as an impossible task of analysis. I see in it an NFL version of the Rorschach test.

Despite the many players who have had great ability but never panned out, one still divides analysts far more than any other: that is Christine Michael. Michael has been enigmatic for football minds since entering the league. One of the most purely physically talented draft prospects in recent history, he wasn’t given a chance in college (or in the pros).

Now, however, we get to put our best football psychological test under the microscope, as the Dallas Cowboys traded for Michael over the weekend. With little talent competition, we may finally get to see what he’s truly made of.

So, I ask you: when you look at Christine Michael in Dallas, what do you see?

Tell Me About Your Mother

Christine Michael is a tough nut to crack within our collective football psyche. Before we can get into the musings and deliberations, however, we have to look at the inkblots: what do we know about the man named C-Mike?

We’ve already broken down his college pedigree -- as well as his physical attributes -- on numberFire. What I want to take a closer look into here is Michael’s usage and production here in the NFL, and the best way to do that is with a little tool we like to call Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so that they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows Michael’s NFL production and ranks among running backs with between 15 and 100 carries in a season, in terms of Rushing NEP and Reception NEP. We know there’s not much too look at from the pros yet, but this is all about finding how you interpret the data. What do we find?

Year Rush NEP Per-Play Rec NEP Per-Target Target NEP
2013 0.60 (15th) 0.03 (t-12th) N/A N/A N/A
2014 4.19 (7th) 0.12 (6th) 1.39 (48th) 0.69 (9th) 0.61 (39th)

A lot of what this comes down to is how you look at the data. When I see Christine Michael, I see a boatload of potential on every play that has been given just 56 touches in his career so far.

As we can tell from the table, Michael’s modest Rushing NEP totals are pretty good in the context of his peers, and he actually improved from his rookie season to last year. Both his raw and per-play Rushing NEP marks rank inside the top-15 of low volume runners for each year, and last year his per-play mark was worse than only Silas Redd, Darren Sproles, Juwan Thompson, Jonas Gray, and Antone Smith -- all of whom had explosive production in small roles.

Michael has a clear deficiency in the receiving game. Even going back to college, he had less air production than a typical back, but this shouldn’t be a huge issue for his rushing value; there was a time when no one viewed Marshawn Lynch as a receiver either, and now he brings in 50 targets annually.

Still, Michael was only afforded two targets during his years in Seattle, and while he made a lot of value with the one he caught, it doesn’t bode well for the team to have only trusted him enough to throw to him twice.

Duck or Rabbit?

What about his competition? In Seattle, Michael had to contend with a potential future Hall of Famer in Lynch and a strong change-of-pace runner in Robert Turbin. In Dallas, what is he up against?

The table below shows Michael’s Cowboys competition in terms of their combined Rushing NEP and Reception NEP over the last two seasons. Is there really that much standing in his way?

Player Rush NEP Per-Play Rec NEP Per-Target Target NEP
Darren McFadden -39.97 -0.15 8.20 0.10 -17.13
Joseph Randle -0.36 0.00 3.78 0.25 -1.74
Lance Dunbar -2.16 -0.04 18.16 0.63 14.97

As we can tell, there is no clear top dog in this group. Darren McFadden inexplicably has a job at all on this Cowboys team, but we can see that he’s been one of the worst running backs in the NFL over the past two seasons, detracting an average 20 points a season from a team just through his rushing efforts. That says nothing of the more than 8.5 average points a year a team loses by targeting him in the passing game, or the time he misses due to injury.

Joseph Randle is currently penciled into the lead gig, but he hasn’t topped 60 rushes in a season once yet, playing a change-of-pace role behind DeMarco Murray the last few years. Still, his 0.00 per-play Rushing NEP is actually heartening, as the league average per-play Rushing NEP is -0.03. Randle also has some problems with the passing game.

Lance Dunbar is the receiving specialist of the group, as he has been slightly below average in the rushing department over the last two years but excels through the air. The team has already stated that Dunbar would be their primary “nickel running back,” and this doesn’t seem to influence their primary back decision at all.


On top of everything else, the fit works. The Cowboys run a zone-blocking scheme, much like the Seahawks ran -- and Texas A&M before them in college. Michael has proven that he has the vision and patience to work in this type of scheme and also the acceleration to plow over defenders once the hole opens. If he can get even 60 touches -- like Randle has the last two years -- he could put up very good numbers as the big back behind such a talented offensive line.

When I look at this trade, I see the Cowboys adding talent and variety to their running back group that they just don’t have there right now.

McFadden, unless he has an analytical renaissance, will be back on the sidelines where he belongs soon. Randle is an unproven, yet promising option for the Cowboys. He runs with speed and elusiveness, and this style should be a complement to Michael, not competition. Dunbar is the most role-oriented of the group, and his up-tempo and third-down role should stay contained.

That means there is a need for a power back in this offense, and at 5'10", 221 pounds, Michael fills that need.

If any of this shows that Christine Michael is done in the league, then you can lock me away and call me crazy. The need makes sense. The fit makes sense. And goshdarnit, Christine Michael just makes sense. When I look at this bigger picture, I don’t see a black and white image of a team giving up on their draft pick. I see a golden opportunity for a talented young back to make an impact after two years of toil.

More than anything else, though, I see a chance to test our theories in practice.