Why Darren McFadden Can Continue His Success
Player production in the NFL is often shaped by environment, the opportunity or the surrounding players. It’s not simply enough to be talented. All professional football players have talent. That’s how they got the job.
However, it doesn’t hurt to get lucky, like having the league’s leading rusher leave his team and a great offensive line behind for another free agent to take advantage of. Also, after joining said team, it helps when the starter gets dropped part way through the season following injury, skipped practices, and off-the-field issues.
It took a bit of luck -- or maybe bad luck for others -- but running back Darren McFadden has once again found himself as a lead back, this time as a member of the Dallas Cowboys.
McFadden is drawing attention with three solid performances since the Cowboys’ Week 6 bye, and there is no reason to believe he’s about to slow down.
Welcome to Paradise
Not only is a starting role difficult for an aging free agent to fall into, but there are even fewer “workhorse” roles where running backs are receiving over 20 touches per game. McFadden has been given the rock over 28 times per game over the last three weeks. That’s higher than the league’s two leading rushers: Adrian Peterson and Devonta Freeman, both averaging under 24 touches per game this season.
However, as rare as the workload may be compared to other teams’ rushing attacks, the Cowboys are simply playing to their strength. Pro Football Focus ranks the Dallas offensive line as the best line in the league and also the best run blocking line, and with star quarterback Tony Romo out, it is in the team’s best interest to keep the ball on the ground.
The Cowboys rank third in Adjusted Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which compares their rushing production to expectation-level and adjusts for schedule strength.
Yes, that rank is driven by McFadden’s performance behind this offensive line. His 111 rushing yards per game in these last three weeks are significant when you consider his last three opponents -- the Seahawks, Eagles, and Giants -- are ranked 3rd, 11th, and 16th, respectively, in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP.
However, his workload is still partially being driven by the team’s ability to move the ball on the ground more efficiently than through the air when compared to other teams throughout the league.
The Cowboys are ranked 27th by Adjusted Passing NEP, and Romo’s current replacement, Matt Cassel, is ranked 36th in Passing NEP per play among quarterbacks with 90 or more drop backs. This metric is used to show the inefficiencies in using him to pass compared to the average passer, as he is accruing -0.097 Passing NEP per play.
If the Cowboys are set on running the ball, one of the few things that could cut into McFadden’s heavy workload is the young backup, Christine Michael. The team acquired Michael from the Seahawks, after Seattle decided to use Thomas Rawls behind Marshawn Lynch this season.
While there was speculation that Michael would get significant work on his new team, he has only obtained 13 touches so far this season. Also, in Week 9 he wasn’t on the field for a single snap. Even if he returns to seeing the five carries he received in both Week 7 and 8, it is safe to assume he will not steal any extra work based on performance because Michael has not managed to break the top-90 running backs in Rushing NEP per play.
Lance Dunbar was the only other Cowboys running back besides McFadden this year to have a positive Rushing NEP before going on injured reserve with a torn ACL, but that was based on a very small sample size (five rushes), as he was used more as a receiver. Joseph Randle had a negative Rushing NEP before being waived, making McFadden the only proven option if there even was a competition. Randle's -0.02 Rushing NEP per carry is right about where the league average resides, as running the ball is an inefficient way to generate points.
The return of Dez Bryant may cut into the passing work McFadden was seeing with the backup quarterbacks: 20 total targets through Weeks 5, 7, and 8. However, even with Bryant receiving 8 targets on his way to breaking 100 yards receiving for the first time since returning from injury, McFadden was still handed the ball 27 times (still more touches than Peterson or Freeman average).
The Future Is Bright
While McFadden has only seen rush defenses ranked in the top half of the league in terms of NEP since the bye, the schedule is about to get much more favorable. Through the remainder of the 2015 season, McFadden is set to play Miami, Carolina, Washington (twice), Green Bay, and Buffalo. These teams rank 24th, 15th, 18th, 27th, and 26th respectively against the run, in terms of Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP.
Even against the Buccaneers and the Jets (ranked 7th and 5th), McFadden’s volume alone should keep him among the elites of the position in terms of rushing yardage per game. Both teams have had at least one game where their opponent ran the ball with their running backs 35 or more times, and while running behind a much better offensive line than most, McFadden will have a better chance of continuing his positive Rushing NEP against tougher matchups.
It will be interesting to see how the team performs and uses the run game when Romo and Bryant are both fully healthy. However, in the first two weeks with Romo, the lead back, Randle, saw his season-high workload. Those games also happened to be against the Eagles and the Giants, two defenses in the top-half of rush defenses according to NEP.
Besides an unanticipated explosion of ability and opportunity for a younger player on the depth chart, the only way McFadden might down this year is if the 28-year-old back succumbs to injury. That has been an issue when he has started off hot in the past, only finishing one season in his eight-year career by playing in all 16 games.
However, if he can stay healthy and the rest of the major pieces around him get healthy, he should maintain this production if not improve on it.