It's Time for Less Joseph Randle and More Darren McFadden

Joseph Randle hasn't shown enough to be the Cowboys starting running back, which means Darren McFadden deserves a larger role.

During the offseason, Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett expressed confidence in the ability of their stable of running backs, led by Joseph Randle, to replace DeMarco Murray.

Through four weeks of the season, that confidence in Randle has been tested, and it showed in a Sunday night loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Early in the second quarter, Randle took a handoff from the one-yard line, leapt and spun his way over a heap of lineman, reaching the ball just over the goal line to notch his fourth touchdown of the season. The score also gave the Dallas Cowboys a 10-3 lead. 

But not everyone was congratulating Randle as he returned to the sideline.

Although the touchdown was upheld on official review,  running backs coach Gary Brown was reportedly hot on the sideline after Randle’s 360 spin-move. Garrett touched on the play in his postgame press conference, saying coaches have talked to Randle about the need to protect the ball in that situation.

Randle was seemingly benched after his goal line plunge. He had only four carries in the rest of the game -- combined, they went for a whooping one yard -- and Darren McFadden handled the majority of the workload.

Jones said Tuesday that Randle wasn't benched after his acrobatic score, but Randle’s fantasy owners are left to wonder whether Randle’s already tenuous hold on the Cowboys starting running back gig is slipping.

The Randle Roller Coaster

Last year, working as a complement to Murray, Randle rushed 51 times for 343 yards, a 6.7 yards per carry average. Per numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which measures how many points a player adds to his team’s point total based on historical expectation, Randle ranked fifth among running backs with similar usage. (You can read more about NEP in the  glossary.)

Some fantasy players saw potential in Randle, sending his average draft position into the third and fourth rounds of fantasy drafts this summer.

But a quarter of the way through the season, Cowboys' coaches aren’t the only ones showing signs of frustration with Randle. Randle’s fantasy owners have witnessed an up-and-down early season performance from the back that was expected to take the lead in replacing the NFL’s leading rusher from last year.

Opponent Carries Yards Yards per Carry Standard Fantasy Points
New York Giants 16 65 4.1 10.7
Philadelphia Eagles 18 51 2.8 6.5
Atlanta Falcons 14 87 6.2 28.5
New Orleans Saints 11 26 2.4 8.6

Through four weeks, Randle has served as the Cowboys “lead” back and has posted a -3.03 Rushing NEP score. Of the 54 running backs in the league with 20 or more carries, Randle ranks 35th in Rushing NEP, sandwiched between Isaiah Crowell (-2.88 NEP) and Benny Cunningham (-3.18 NEP).

Meanwhile, McFadden has been the better back, per NEP. McFadden sports a -0.67 Rushing NEP, good enough for 22nd in the league. (Most running backs will have a negative NEP score as rushing is less efficient than passing.) He also has the better Success Rate -- the percentage of positive runs made in terms of NEP -- ranking 17th of 54 versus Randle's disappointing 45th rank. McFadden's been successful on roughly 44% of his runs, while Randle's Success Rate is just 32%.

McFadden isn’t far behind Randle in terms of yards production on the ground, though, as McFadden’s handled the ball 32 times for 113 yards and a 3.5 yard per carry average.

Randle owns a 3.9 yards per carry average through four weeks, although those numbers are inflated by his Week 3 performance against Atlanta where Randle ran for 87 yards on 14 carries and scored three touchdowns. This is why Success Rate is so important, as the numbers are binary and not skewed by a few big runs.

Randle started hot against Atlanta, running 10 times for 92 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. But in the second half, Randle carried the ball four times for negative five yards. Combine that with his stats from Sunday night against New Orleans, and over the last six quarters Randle has run the ball 15 times for 21 yards, including his acrobatic touchdown.

Neither player has offered much in the passing game this season, with Randle catching six balls for 74 yards and McFadden catching three passes for 40 yards.

Disappointment in Dallas

Last year, the Cowboys leaned on their running game and finished ninth in Adjusted (for strength of schedule) Rushing NEP per play. This year, the Cowboys’ running game has taken a step back, per NEP ranks, currently sitting 14th through four weeks in 2015.

While Randle’s play has been inconsistent to start the year, the Cowboys season as a whole has been filled with adversity.

Dez Bryant was lost for anywhere from four to seven weeks with a broken bone in his foot after Week 1, stripping the team of its best playmaker. Then, in Week 2, Tony Romo broke his collarbone, sending him to the Injured Reserve/Designated to Return list, which will keep him out until Week 11.

Lance Dunbar had emerged as a play-making, pass-catching back that covered up some inconsistent production from Randle. But Dunbar is now out for the season after tearing his ACL Sunday.

Prior to his injury, one could argue that Dunbar deserved the most touches in the Cowboys backfield, as he posted positive Rushing NEP (3.05) and Reception NEP (11.17), which was third best in the league for running backs with more than 20 receptions. Only Devonta Freeman and Theo Riddick posted a higher Reception NEP than Dunbar.

Less Randle, More McFadden?

With Dallas turning to Brandon Weeden at quarterback and expected to lean on its lauded offensive line, Randle’s production hasn’t been consistent enough to keep him as the team’s lead back.

Now that Dunbar is out of the mix, it’ll be interesting to watch how the Cowboys replace a player who played more than 30 percent of the snaps, lining up as either a running back or wide receiver.

Will the Cowboys continue to trust Randle and give him an even larger role in the passing game? Does McFadden supplant Randle as the 1A back? Or does Christine Michael -- who was active for the first time in Sunday’s game, but received only one carry and was stuffed for a loss of one yard -- see an expanded role?

Randle has been anything but consistent through the first four weeks of the season, and with his top back status in question after a loss in New Orleans, he’ll be difficult to trust moving forward.