By Matthew Postins
It’s pretty likely that Joseph Randle, the fifth-round pick out of Oklahoma State, will make his first NFL start on Sunday against Philadelphia. If he does, he bears watching because Dalas Cowboys running backs of recent vintage getting their first serious career action seem to have a habit of having big games, or even big stretches of games.
Yes, we’re talking about the guy he would replace, DeMarco Murray. But not just Murray, as you will see.
Murray didn’t actually get his first NFL start until Oct. 30, 2011, when Dallas traveled to – get this – Philadelphia. He had 8 carries for 74 yards. But it’s the game before that that everyone remembers.
Murray came in off the bench for his first significant action of his career. He rushed 25 times for 253 yards and a score as the Cowboys torched the St. Louis Rams. That jump-started a four-game stretch in which Murray rushed for 601 yards and scored twice.
The Dallas Cowboys would love that kind of output from Randle while Murray is rehabbing his knee. It’s probably too much to ask. But, as we alluded to earlier, it’s happened before.
Julius Jones, then a rookie, made his first NFL start on Nov. 21, 2004. His day? Thirty carries for 81 yards. Jones started the next six games and ended up rushing for 819 yards and 7 touchdowns for the season. That included a 198-yard game against Seattle.
A year later it was Marion Barber. Making his first start against Arizona on Oct. 30, 2005, Barber bowled over the Cardinals for 127 yards and two scores. Barber started only one more game that year, but he became the bruiser in the Cowboys’ backfield for the next five seasons.
Randle is right in the wheelhouse of when the Dallas Cowboys seem to start using rookie rushers. If you go back further you can see the same thing.
Tony Dorsett wasn’t a starter until 10 games into his 1977 rookie season. He rushed for 73 yards in that start and then rushed for 206 yards two weeks later.
Herschel Walker, sharing time with Dorsett, rushed for 64 yards on just 10 carries in his NFL debut in 1986. He was a 1,500-yard rusher two years later.
Emmitt Smith didn’t see his first significant action until Week 3 of the 1990 season, when he rushed for 63 yards. Two weeks later he gained 121 yards and he ended up rushing for 937 yards his rookie season. We all know how that turned out.
So why is this such a trend? That’s difficult to pinpoint. You’re looking at different types of running backs in several different eras of pro football. Even two years after Murray’s shocking game the NFL has changed to the point where passing the football is so in vogue that there are only a handful of backs you can count on for 20 carries a game.
One thing does stand out, especially when it comes to Barber, Jones and Murray.
A lack of film.
Before Murray destroyed the Rams he had 25 NFL carries.
Before Jones got a move on he had just five NFL carries.
And Barber? He had a whopping 35 NFL carries, 22 of which had come in the game before he ran roughshod on the Cardinals.
NFL defensive coordinators need film to break down tendencies, to recognize faults and to scheme against strengths. There was a dearth of film on these three players when they finally made their first significant contributions. Therefore coordinators had little to go on as they prepared.
If you can’t pass on tendencies and weaknesses to your defensive players, it provides the offensive player an element of surprise that disappears quickly once there’s enough tape out there for defensive coordinators to use against them.
Right now Randle has 11 career carries. All came last week in a game in which he was basically asked to dive into the offensive line to keep the clock moving.
Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis is probably hoping Murray is able to play this weekend. Davis has a book on Murray, leftover from the past few games Murray has played the Eagles.
He has nothing on Randle. That gives Randle, the Cowboys’ offensive line and the Dallas Cowboys offense overall an advantage. They’ll know where they’re going. The Eagles will be less likely to figure it out.
It’s no guarantee, of course. But if history is a guide Randle should have an interesting day in Philly.