Today, as part of our 4-part series on the 4-parts of the Cowboys solution at RB, we take a look at Joseph Randle, the 5th round pick from 2013 from Oklahoma State (The first review was Ryan Williams and can be read here). He has shown enough moments of excitement in his 2 seasons to build hope in a large segment of the fandom, yet has also done enough dumb things off the field to erase much of that blind faith.
The hope is that in deep examination of his actual on-field work from 2014, we can confirm or deny just how important a piece the team has here and whether in a year we will all feel silly that we fretted the exit of DeMarco Murray one bit.
One thing that is definitely in Randle's favor is that when he did get a chance last season, much of his tape was between solid and really impressive. We will look at that below. The arguments against him are that the Cowboys asked him to do very little last year, as he played the 94th most snaps of any RB in the league despite being fully fit for the entire season. And then when he did play his paltry 94 total snaps - 5.8 snaps per game - he was seldom asked to do anything beyond the basic runs behind zone blocking. Almost no receiving, almost no blocking, almost no short yardage, and almost no man-blocking.
Some will argue that was completely because the Cowboys were trying to burn out DeMarco Murray who played 800 (the 3rd most snaps in the NFL), but others inside say that Randle did not gain the trust of his coaching staff for various reasons (both on field and off) and Lance Dunbar actually played more (8.75 snaps per game - despite having a far more limited skill set).
One thing that works in Randle's favor was an absurd stat line. When he got the ball, good things happened. The team averaged 4.6 yards a carry. DeMarco had 4.7 yards, Dunbar 3.4, but here is Randle at 6.7. 51 carries for 343 yards put his yards per carry amongst the league leaders. He didn't have enough to qualify, but if you lower the bar to 50 carries and then leave out Quarterbacks, Randle was #1 in the league at this YPC.
How did he do this? Well, he hit some home runs. And when you only have 51 carries and then break off runs of 65, 40, and 38 yards, you can run your YPC up from 4.1 to 6.7 on just 3 plays. That is a very neat trick, but we do wonder about the overall context of those runs and the sustainability of seeing that translate to a 200-carry workload.
I wanted to look into that type of season in the last 25 years in the NFL to see who else has had that sort of campaign and whether it led to anything substantial. Remember when we looked at the list of people who had seasons like DeMarco Murray (in terms of usage and production) and then the aftermath seasons which never seemed to produce anything close to an encore?
Well, I thought it was only fair to run the numbers on Randle and check the others. So, the sample size was RB's with at least 50 carries, but fewer than 500 yards (basically, the guys who had between 50-75 carries, or 3-5 runs a game). None of them had situations identical to Randle, so this is more just a curious look, rather than some conclusion, but here is the list of 6:
|Player||Year #1||Rushes||Yards||YPC||Year #2||Rushes||Yards||YPC|
|K Anders - KC||1995||58||398||6.86||1996||54||201||3.7|
|J Randle - Dal||2014||51||343||6.73||2015||???||???||???|
|B Hanspard - ATL||1997||53||335||6.32||1998||DNP||Injured||DNP|
|D Ward - Hou||2010||50||315||6.30||2011||45||154||3.4|
|M Pittman - TB||2005||70||436||6.23||2006||50||245||4.9|
|S Hicks - Tenn||2001||56||341||6.09||2002||DNP||Injured||DNP|
Again, it produced an odd list and none of them turned in a follow-up season of more than 250 yards. In fact, Skip Hicks never played another down in the NFL, Byron Hanspard missed the next season, and everyone else regressed because they did not have their home run plays again. That is why "Yards Per Carry" is generally a misleading stat. If a player was reliant on big plays (often late in games against an opponent that may or may not have still been giving effort) and did not run in short yardage situations (where a gain of 1 is a success, but it hurts your YPC number), then we realize how useless the number often is for part-time players.
That said, now let's focus on what Randle CAN do. He has a lot of talent and potential. Below, I have selected 11 plays that have different elements to consider. Let's begin.
This play above is what most people point to as belief that the Cowboys won't miss a beat. When Randle did get the call, the Cowboys call a ton of outside zone plays to either side and in just about every instance, he passed the tests because he is decisive, has a little turbo boost getting through the traffic, and then can plant the foot, cut back, and get another 5-7 yards after he takes what is blocked. He runs behind a line that will do much of the heavy lifting and it will be up to him to find the crease and get there. Randle is fine in these spots and confident in his task.
Here is a play that made many people start thinking that you could plug any RB into this job and be fine. Look at how insanely well this play is blocked. Again, a simple outside zone to the right and Randle simply follows the line and gets a hole you could drive a Ford F-Series through without scratching the door. The play starts at the 40 and the first time he has to do anything is about 20 yards down the field. I love the determination to find pay dirt, but the lead is Travis Frederick getting both Defensive Tackles blocked by himself.
The above play is very similar to the other two, but the OL did not get him the same space. So, he was asked to deal with a Linebacker at the line. Randle is not going to win this situation very often. He is skinny and while he can win tests of strength, it won't happen without his shoulders turned and with a weight mismatch. He has short yardage limitations, and while this isn't a great example of that - it is 1st and 10 - it demonstrates that most runners his size need to get downhill quickly and not lateral where they lose power. Doug Free didn't help him much here.
Let's run the play in the other direction. Look at Ron Leary get to the 2nd level, but if he could have chipped the DT that Frederick lost control of, perhaps there is more here. Seattle has the box filled up, but Randle battles to get 7 yards here which, of course, you will take every time. This OL runs these plays very, very well.
Here, above, might be Randle's best run of the year, because of the context. Not garbage time. This was 2nd Quarter in Seattle and a vital moment. Look at how this is blocked up and Zack Martin just cleans out the middle with some major bulldozing. Witten struggles to keep the backside closed, but Randle shoots through there just in time. Then, he gets Kam Chancellor all turned around in center field and finds a massive play. When they talk about planting that foot and going, there it is.
This one is my personal favorites from his campaign. The Cowboys were up 28-7 here, late in the 3rd, and the tape will show you that their defenders don't look completely engaged. Yet, again, look at how well this is blocked up by Martin and Leary, and then behold the elusive jump-cuts that allow Randle to find all the way to the goal-line. He is really good in the secondary which does not require massive straight-line speed as much as it requires that "wiggle" and foot quickness to make the smaller DBs to miss. I guess the bottom line on many of these plays is that the blocking is so good, Randle is not taking on many "bigs", but mostly just DBs.
Here is an interesting run, because Frederick gets in beaten to the inside and this should be a tackle for loss. Instead, Randle hits turbo again, gets away and turns it into a positive play. When both guards pull like this, it is vital the play is timed quickly because the DL has a chance to charge through without impediment in those holes the guards left behind. Again, I did not see Randle get the chance to run behind "G-Power" much in 2014, but this is a reasonable case that he can do it just fine. It requires a bit more patience and timing, as at times he has to go fast and then he has to wait again, all in the same play. Nice job to get a big chunk here.
23 personnel and the team needs to get a yard. Again, Frederick is having a tough time here, but on 3rd and 1, Randle figures out how to make that impediment miss and still get to the chains. He didn't see much early, but he figured it out. This is a real test for him and we didn't get to see much in short yardage, but this leads us to believe he has a chance.
One of the biggest issues with this group of Running Backs is who, besides Darren McFadden has ever shown they can pass protect against a Linebacker? Well, to be fair, none of them have ever done it consistently. But, I found this one case, late in the Colts game, where Randle absolutely did great. This was a Touchdown pass and he has to get the LB blocked in the hole to make the play happened. He lined up his man, through a shoulder into him, and got it done with ease.
Randle, surprisingly, wasn't used as a receiver much at all. Here is a release to the sideline where he gets a quick chunk of yardage. Nothing much here, but it shows his comfort level in catching the ball which is not a problem for him.
Many asked about screens with this offense. That seems like a Dunbar-exclusive deal, but here was one 3rd and 16 where Randle got to show some decent feel for it against a Giants defense that fell back to the sticks and conceded the yardage underneath for 14. It sure seems like they could do more of this with this line.
And here is an example of Randle's production being taken at times with a grain of salt. This is not a negative on his ledger, but this is Washington - late in the 4th Quarter and late in the season - where they are not putting forth any effort at all. It is Randle's biggest gain of the season and put 65 yards and 19% of his season production on one snap. Washington has one dive-bombing DB trying to get Randle in the backfield and when he misses, Randle strolls down the rest of the field. No linebackers, no safeties, minimal effort. All of the yardage counts and he certainly was not supposed to turn it down, but it does show you that not all runs are created equal. The Redskins look like a poorly coached college team on this play.
Conclusion Time: I had hoped that this exercise of looking at these players would clear things up, but really it has only served to confuse me on who will emerge with the job. I think Randle is capable for sure, but I also wonder about his ability to go from 5 snaps a game to 30 and maintain his impressive quickness and conviction on each play. I also wonder if he is trusted in pass protection and short yardage. If not, he is going to likely be the #1 option on normal run downs 1st and 2nd down, and then give way to McFadden/Dunbar (I assume) on 3rd downs.
I must stress that he has big fans (one guy tried to make the case to me over the weekend that Randle was a Top 20 NFL RB), but his biggest fans do not seem to be his coaches. They seem to wonder about his ability to "do it all" or just able to handle one thing over and over. There is also a level of distrust about his maturity and dependability as a professional athlete that he has to earn back to ever fully realize his potential on the field.
That said, he has impressive tools and a chance to play behind a line that does much of the work themselves. It would be a shame not to take advantage of that. There is no reason for us to rule him out as a RB1 candidate in the fall.