In 2015, Darren McFadden finished fourth in the NFL in rushing with 1,089 yards, and he did not become the Cowboys’ lead back until the sixth game of the season. Before the Cowboys drafted Elliott fourth overall, Alfred Morris was signed as a free agent in 2016 because he registered three 1,000-yard seasons with the Washington Redskins and he’s a good fit with the running system.
To be clear, neither guy is Elliott, who ran for 1,631 yards last season as a rookie and had 15 rushing touchdowns. His presence changes the dynamics of an offense because a defense has to know where he is on every single play.
“Obviously you lose a guy who’s very talented, but we’ve got a lot of guys who can run the football and run it very successfully in this league,” All-Pro right guard Zack Martin said. “We’re excited for those guys to get some touches, and I think they’ll be ready for the load.”
McFadden had five 100-yard games and two with more than 90 yards after taking over for Joseph Randle in 2015, and he did it with uneven quarterback play. Tony Romo started and finished just one game during McFadden’s spell as starter.
“It was a pretty good year,” McFadden said. “We still didn’t have our team at full strength, but it was a pretty good year. I don’t feel like I missed a beat. I didn’t play much last year, but I feel like I definitely can get back to that status.”
He was limited to 24 carries last season because of a broken elbow that kept him on the non-football injury list through the first 13 games.
“My body still feels good,” McFadden said. “I feel great, just getting out there running, just getting carries and getting warmed up. I’m definitely going to be able to handle a load.”
He might not have to. Since joining the Cowboys as offensive coordinator in 2014, Scott Linehan has relied heavily on one back. In 2014, DeMarco Murray had 392 carries for a league-leading 1,845 yards. McFadden had 239 carries in 2015 with Randle coming in second with 76. Elliott had 322 carries last season, with Morris coming in second with 69.
“I think it will be more than one guy, more than last year,” Linehan said. “That is certainly a possibility.”
Linehan said McFadden and Morris, as well as Rod Smith, can do things that are similar to what Elliott has done, but the offense could lean on different things each does well.
“It’s going to be business as usual. We are going to miss him, but those guys have played a lot of football,” Linehan said. “We like the camp that Alfred’s been having. I like the way Darren ran tonight. Between the guys we got, they are going to step up and pick up the slack, I am certain of that.”
Perhaps the biggest reason for this confidence comes from Martin and his fellow All-Pros, Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick. The Cowboys believe they have built their team the right way: from the line out.
But Martin said he is excited by what the Cowboys’ runners can do, even those not named Elliott.
“I think when they see it, they’ll realize who we’ve got,” Martin said. “But we’ve got guys who have done it before at a very high level and who we know can do it again at a high level.”