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Offseason | 2024

Spagnola: Trying to sort out this committee thing


FRISCO, Texas – The Committee.

That's all we hear about these days. The Committee, the plan for how the Cowboys will handle the running back position come 2024, not necessarily by choice but by necessity. At least as of May 17.

But what does that mean?

How big is the committee?

Who is on the committee?

Who is head of the committee?

What are the individual member responsibilities?

A lot to digest.

Let's start here. When the Cowboys begin their first of three OTA practice sessions next week, here are the committee members at this point, and ranking them in no particular order with the exception of maybe NFL experience.

Ezekiel Elliott.

Royce Freeman.

Rico Dowdle.

Hunter Luepke.

Malik Davis.

Deuce Vaughn

Snoop Conner

Nathaniel Peete.

If NFL career starts mean anything, Zeke, turning 29 this summer, of course leads with 107 starts. Freeman is next at nine, but only one since 2018. The other six? Well, a grand total of, uh, zero.

And yards? Well, after Zeke (8,904) and Freeman (1,792, with 319 of those last year with the Rams), the other six have a grand total of 605 yards rushing, 385 of those belonging to Dowdle.

So to me, without knowing where the seventh-year veteran Freeman fits in, at this point the top three right off the bat would be Zeke, Rico and Hunter, with the possibility of carving out a role for Deuce and Malik.

But again, the Cowboys won't know any of this for sure until the start of training camp, and maybe not even then until they play their three preseason games against the Rams, Raiders and Chargers. And if you ask those in charge, including head coach Mike McCarthy, they speak of this "committee" approach in generalities.

Take this from Cowboys running backs coach Jeff Blasko:

"It may change weekly to be perfectly honest with you. It might be a situation where a guy is playing 40 percent, 40 percent, 20 percent (of the snaps) if it's three guys in the stable.

"It's something that's going to change weekly based more on who we're playing, what we're doing offensively, what we're doing schematically and who puts us in the best position to be successful."

But really, if the Cowboys go down this path, this is sort of where the NFL has been heading, using a multiple-back approach in place of the more traditional bell cow. Take Super Bowl champion Kansas City. Lead back Isiah Pacheco carried the ball just 205 times for 935 yards this past season. Next in line if you remember was QB1, Patrick Mahomes (75-389), followed by former first-round draft choice Clyde Edwards-Helaire (70-223). And to think KC won a Super Bowl and went 11-6 in the regular season with only nine rushing touchdowns, seven of those belonging to Pacheco.

How about upstart Detroit. Fifth-year running back David Montgomery, on his second team, led the Lions in rushing (219 for 1,015 and 13 TDs), with first-round rookie Jahmyr Gibbs pitching in with 183-945-10.

"It's becoming more of a committee approach," Blasko said.

Blasko had some research numbers to prove his point. His study finds that from 2000-14, the NFL averaged 17 rushers with at least 1,000 yards each year. But from 2015-23, the average for 1,000-yard rushers fell to 11.

Last year there were 12 rushers with 1,000 yards over the now 17-game season, but the last four of those barely reached it, by just 15, 12, 8 and the 5 yards belonging to the Cowboys' Tony Pollard (1,005). By probably like a carry or three. As a matter of fact, four other backs in the 1,000-yard category did not rush for more than 1,049 yards.

As for Zeke, as you might recall, the Cowboys have done this offseason what they should have done last offseason – re-signing Elliott for a significantly reduced one-year deal, with $2 million guaranteed and the possibility of earning another $1 million in incentives. Heck, that is all Zeke earned last year with the Patriots.

And doing so if for no other reason than his ability to run the ball inside the 10-yard line. Because as Blasko said of Zeke, and this is no surprise to any of us watching every one of his runs during his previous seven seasons in Dallas while gaining 8,262 yards and scoring 68 rushing touchdowns with another 12 receiving:

"He's a can of kick-ass in that department," Blasko said.

Well, the Cowboys certainly needed some 10-yard line in kick-ass last year. The team, on 55 such runs in 2023, gained a total of 90 yards, or an average of just 1.63 yards a carry. And in runs from goal-to-go situations, the Cowboys averaged 1.8 yards a carry, 43 for 79 yards. When it came to touchdowns, Dallas scored 12 of those rushing from no more than 10 yards out.

Maybe more telling than the Cowboys' inability in short-yardage situations near the goal line would be this: Kicker Brandon Aubrey made nine of nine field-goal attempts between 20-29 yards, meaning leaving points on the field from no farther out than the 11-yard line far too often.

"There were times last year a bigger bashing type would have help us out," Blasko said.

Well, for forming said committee, there is one sure role for Zeke. Get him on the field inside the 10-yard line. Since for his career we do know this: Of those 71 career rushing touchdowns, 51 were produced from no farther than 10 yards out. And of those 51, 39 from no more than the 2-yard line.

Give me some Zeke. Not everyone has a nose for paydirt.

Now, not saying Elliott needs to carry the ball more than 200 times in 2024. Get it. For as Blasko said, "We want to maximize his strength but not burn him out."

OK, great. We have one sure committee member with at least one defined role. But now who's the second member? Who is the third, and is this a rotating member if indeed the Cowboys, including the fullback, keep four on the 53-man roster?

Lots to sort out. Nothing set in stone. And, good gosh, what if injuries complicate committee-member snaps, possibly even membership? A good thing it's only May.

But this is the path the Cowboys have chosen. Again, for now. We'll see. But let's remember, the last year Zeke was here in 2022 there was a committee of two, Zeke with 231 carries and Pollard with 193. Is there a back worthy of handling more carries than Zeke? Who knows? There wasn't this past year in New England.

Dowdle's career high is the 89 of last season. Davis has just 38, all in 2022. Freeman's season high is 132, but that was back in 2019 with Denver. Last year with the Rams he had 77.

But as offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said, "We're very comfortable and confident it's going to work out for us."

Roles TBD, and as Schotty continued, "It's not cookie cutter," when coming to defined long-term roles. Meaning, not saying this guy only does this, that guy only does that.

Fine, but hey, think we know one committee member for sure, and one defined role at least.

The "can of kick-ass" guy near the goal line.

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