Halting the Christine Michael Hype Train
While Michael does not deserve blame for failing to overtake Lynch in Seattle, it is time to stop giving him a free pass and believing that his pure athletic gifts will almost certainly guarantee him success and a starting opportunity.
While DeMarco Murray left the Dallas backfield and turned it in to a muddy situation, no running back truly stood out to replace his every-down role from last year.
But after Week 7, McFadden looks to have earned the lead back role, and Michael appears on the outside looking in. Again.
It is time to put the Christine Michael hype to bed.
After Week 7 last year, the Cowboys had 1.61 Adjusted Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP), which had them in 11th place in the NFL.
NEP indicates how many points above or below expectation-level a team has secured, and it can be adjusted for opponent strength.
At that time, Murray already had rushed 187 times for 913 yards at 4.9 yards per carry. With all of his volume, these numbers were impressive for a mid-season total.
Murray himself had a 1.86 Rushing NEP, which ranked him 12th among running backs with at least 50 carries. His 0.01 Rushing NEP per play sat him in a tie for 13th with Arian Foster, Denard Robinson, Ben Tate, and Steven Jackson among running backs with at least 50 carries.
He did so through a 48.66% Rushing Success Rate, meaning that nearly half of his runs went towards creating positive Net Expected Points; this placed him fifth among qualifying backs. Chip Kelly clearly had good reason to steal Murray away from the Cowboys after last year.
For the year, Murray managed to lead the league in rushing yards with 1,845 yards on 392 carries. He was the only back to average more than 100 yards per game last year, as well.
In 2014, the Cowboys finished with a 13.91 Adjusted Rushing NEP, which ranked 9th in the NFL. Murray did his part in helping to achieve this, posting a 10.48 Rushing NEP, which was 8th highest among backs with at least 179 carries. He did so with a 46.68% Success Rate -- 7th among qualifying backs. This all contributed to him tying for 9th among qualifying backs with Foster with a 0.03 Rushing NEP per play.
Murray -- despite his NEP-killing fumbles -- and the Cowboys owned a top rushing offense last season.
Current Rushing Attack
After Week 7, the Cowboys have the 6th-ranked Adjusting Rushing NEP with a 13.53 (0.38 points behind where they ended last year), showing that they have adequately replaced Murray so far this year without using Michael. This past week, he potenitally saw his best opportunity slip away from him right in front of his very eyes.
The Cowboys lost their starter, Joseph Randle, early in the game due to injury. He only saw the field for six snaps, one fewer than Michael received throughout the entire game. Instead of Michael seeing at least a fair share of the carries, Darren McFadden was on the field for 61 snaps, taking 29 carries for 152 yards and a touchdown.
In this game, McFadden produced a phenomenal 6.53 Rushing NEP bringing his season long total to 4.66. He did so with a 0.23 Rushing NEP per play, which is also impressive. For the year, he now ranks 12th among running backs with at least 65 carries in Rushing NEP. McFadden also has a 0.071 Rushing NEP per play, which is 10th among qualifying backs. He is doing so due to a 46.97% Success Rate, placing him 5th among qualifying backs.
McFadden's brief career renaissance has him as the Cowboys' far and away best back, and Michael right now is their worst back. While his seven-carry sample is too small to guarantee failure, it is an alarming start to see his metrics compared to McFadden's.
He currently holds a -2.07 Rushing NEP with a -0.30 Rushing NEP per play on a 28.60% Success Rate. Again, seven carries are too few to make an judgment on him, but these are warning signs of lack of productivity ahead if he gets an opportunity for an increased role.
Most disturbing of all is that when Randle went down, only McFadden saw a workload increase. If coaches do not trust Michael (regardless of whether he's in Seattle or Dallas), then why should observers trust him to see significant work?
If Randle is injured, McFadden is the back to own in Dallas, and if Randle is healthy then he and McFadden will likely split the load, leaving Michael as the odd man out.
For the remainder of the season, the Cowboys face a mixed bag in terms of defenses against the run. They face 3 teams currently in the top-10 of Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP, the improving Dolphins, and a few teams near the bottom of the league in the category. While there are some big game possibilities, Michael is not projected to be the starter in any of the situations, making him nothing more than a stash still right now.
Additionally, the Cowboys have Dez Bryant and Tony Romo returning from their injuries in the upcoming weeks. While these will help take the defensive focus off of the run game, they also mean fewer touches for running backs, as Bryant is the best offensive weapon on this team.
Our projections rank McFadden as the 22nd best back for the rest of the year, Randle 27th, and Michael 63rd. Barring more injuries ahead of Michael, it is safe to apply the brakes fully on his hype train.