Dallas running back Lance Dunbar is in a role that plays to his strengths. The four-year pro has been the spark on a Cowboys offense that currently lacks the natural big-play ability of receiver Dez Bryant or the calculated approach of quarterback Tony Romo to find the open man downfield.
Through the first three weeks, Dunbar is tied with tight end Jason Witten for a team-high 21 receptions, a tally that leads NFL running backs and good for 13th-most league-wide. The undrafted free agent out of North Texas also leads the league with most receiving yards by a running back with 215. New England’s Dion Lewis is second with 179.
One question on everyone’s mind is simple: what took the coaching staff so long to utilize Dunbar’s talents?
"I don’t know," Dunbar said Wednesday. "Just me getting comfortable and gaining their trust, doing everything each and every day. Doing it come game time and it works. It’s my opportunity I had and I took advantage of it. That’s how you take advantage of an opportunity so you can do it."
Dunbar looked to have his breakout game on Nov. 28, 2014, a Thanksgiving battle with the Oakland Raiders at AT&T Stadium. He rushed for 82 yards on 12 carries for a 6.8 yards per carry. He was a shot in the arm for a listless offense that found itself down to the Raiders 21-14 at halftime. Right when Dunbar was earning his playing time, he injured his left knee and was done for the year. In 2014, though fully rehabbed, Dunbar only carried the ball 29 times and was targeted 22 times. The new favorite backup to DeMarco Murray was second-year Joseph Randle, who would eventually become the chairman of the running-back-by-committee to replace Murray in 2015.
Though the Cowboys offensive brass has gone away from the idea of Dunbar being a feature back, they have found ways to get him the ball in space in the short passing game.
"That’s one of my strengths," said Dunbar. "I do a lot of other things too, and that’s one of my strengths. And I know I can’t get the ball all the time. So, whenever I can, either catching or running the ball, I try to take advantage of it. Throwing the ball to me out of the backfield, I’m pretty good at it. So, I don’t have a problem with it."
Even though Dunbar only has two rushing attempts through two games, compared to his 23 targets in the passing game, he still feels like a voting member on the committee.
"If my number is called to run the ball, I feel I can," Dunbar said. "I practice all the time. I believe they have the faith in me. My name hasn’t been called. We have a lot of other backs that have jobs and I have my role."
"Catching the ball, running the ball, I’m just trying to make plays. I feel like I can do it either way. So, whatever the coaches have me do, I’m up for it."