Analysis

Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris on life behind Ezekiel Elliott

EDITOR'S NOTE: This piece was published before the NFL suspended Ezekiel Elliott for six games due to a violation of the league's personal-conduct policy.

OXNARD, Calif. -- As shadows fell across the field following practice in the first week of training camp, Alfred Morris reflected on his fight to secure a place on the 2017 Dallas Cowboys.

"Everything happens for a reason," he said. "I'm a true believer in that."

The line -- delivered with conviction -- was an exact echo of what Morris' teammate, fellow running back Darren McFadden, had said earlier that day when asked about the ups and downs of his career: "Everything happens for a reason."

McFadden, a 10th-year veteran with a first-round pedigree, ranks 12th among active rushing leaders with 5,423 career yards. Morris, a two-time Pro Bowler who's posted three 1,000-yard campaigns in five NFL seasons, ranks 15th with 4,956 yards. So they'd be forgiven for taking a less philosophical view of where they've ended up: planted firmly behind 22-year-old star Ezekiel Elliott on the Cowboys' depth chart.

Consider that McFadden, who rushed for 164 yards in his second NFL game back in 2008, last broke triple-digits on Dec. 19, 2015, when he ran for 100 exactly as he was wrapping up his first season in Dallas. Morris last reached that mark two weeks later, when, as a member of the Washington Redskins, he also hit 100 on the nose in a Cowboys loss. Ironically, Morris' effort helped lock Dallas into the pick it eventually used to draft Elliott, who went on to lead the NFL in rushing and vie for Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2016.

To put it mildly, the position group is much different than it was when Morris, 28, joined the team on a two-year contract in March of 2016. Not that it gets him down.

"Last year, my role started one way and ended up a different way," Morris said. "So, that's out of my control. I can just focus on becoming a better me each and every day. With the competition that we have, the depth chart that we have, it's only going to make me a better player. It's only going to make all of us better players."

Just over a year after signing with the Cowboys, his long-term future with the team appears to be something of a question mark. In March, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported the team would try to trade him. Obviously no such move materialized, though it's not hard to see how he might ultimately be squeezed out in Dallas.

But Morris has been in a similar situation before, beginning his career in Washington as a sixth-round pick out of Florida Atlantic in 2012 who had to play his way into the top job.

"I've always been an underdog," said Morris, who was the 12th running back selected in that draft. "Even when I was starting, I still was an underdog. No one respected me, really. I was always fighting. Not to prove anything. I knew I belonged [there]. And I still belong here."

It's certainly no coincidence that this year, Morris said he's undertaken significant special teams work for the first time in his career.

"It's very, very different for me," he said. "But at the same time, it's kind of a part of the role I'm playing right now. And I do my best to kind of grasp it and understand it. ... But I'm enjoying it, though, and I'm getting better."

The soon-to-be 30-year-old McFadden, who missed much of last season after breaking his elbow while trying to keep his cellphone from falling, was just one year removed from a 1,000-yard campaign when his contract ran out this offseason. And yet, in March, McFadden re-upped to play behind Elliott again this year rather than seek more snaps elsewhere.

"I grew up a Cowboys fan, man," McFadden said. "We have a great team here, and I know what this team is fully capable of doing. Just being here and having this opportunity is a blessing."

Now, Elliott is facing a potential suspensionstemming from the NFL's investigation into multiple incidentsinvolving the running back, including a domestic violence accusation made against him by a woman identifying herself as his former girlfriend to authorities. Should Elliott miss time, McFadden can, of course, step in and carry the load. But he's also positioned to provide another service: guiding the young star off the field.

Though McFadden blanched at the term mentor -- "When you hear that, it makes you sound old," he said -- he said he embraces a leadership role, and Morris confirmed McFadden has tried to guide Elliott. Like Elliott, McFadden was drafted fourth overall, entering the league with what McFadden called "a lot of weight and pressure." Also, McFadden -- who made headlines for his involvement in a pairof bar fights during his time at Arkansas -- learned from early experience to steer clear of off-field trouble.

"Once you see all the negativity and things floating around your name, that's something -- for me as a person -- I didn't like that at all," McFadden said. "It helped make me try to minimize the bad decisions that I made and just try to always walk that straight and narrow."

McFadden said he tries "to keep it positive" when he talks to Elliott. "We don't try to get into the specifics of things. At the end of the day, he knows when he makes a mistake. ... He [doesn't] like it.

"Just by being a peer, you can talk to guys, it's a different relationship than you have as a coach. It's not something I'd rather get into, but being a peer and a friend, you can talk about different things that you may not talk about with your coaches. That's something we do in our spare time."

While they share a draft slot, McFadden's career began under much shakier circumstances than his young teammate's did last year. Elliott's entry to the NFL -- Dallas' 13-3 campaign of 2016 -- was eased by one of the best offensive lines in the league. McFadden's rookie year was spent on a 5-11 Raiders team marred by the contentious, late-September firing of head coach Lane Kiffin. Through seven injury-plagued seasons in Oakland, McFadden topped 1,000 yards just once in 2010 -- only matching that feat again when he left for the Cowboys and their powerful line. Still, McFadden said he tries not think too much about how things could have been different.

"Being in Oakland, I learned a lot out there," McFadden said. "It helped form me and shape me into the player that I am today. So I'm very happy and thankful for that. It's just great to be on a team that has the upside to it."

The competition at running back is far from settled, with Rod Smithpushing for snaps and veteran Ronnie Hillmanbeing added to the mix ahead of the Hall of Fame Game. Still, Morris said, he and his backfield mates enjoy an easy rapport.

"I love our group," Morris said, speaking the day before Hillman's signing was announced. "We just have fun. Yeah, we know it's serious. Yeah, we know we gotta work. Yeah, we know we're competing. But at the end of the day, we crack jokes, we have fun. We give each other a hard time. ... [We're] always just happy, man, regardless of the situation."

With Elliott's fate up in the air, McFadden and Morris could yet see meaningful carries as the Cowboys begin their defense of the NFC East title.

"I'm a feisty guy," McFadden said. "I leave it up to the coaches. ... I'm out there preparing every day like I'm going to be the No. 1 guy. So I'm just going to be ready whenever my number is called."

For his part, Morris -- who feels confident he'll "get another opportunity, whether here or somewhere else" -- said he chooses to "focus on the positive."

"I still got a job, I still have the opportunity to do what I love to do each and every day. So, I'm good," Morris said. "I don't have to worry about what is out of my control. Whatever happens, happens. I'm in a good place. I'm just happy to be here, man."

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