For five years, running back Lance Dunbar was one piece of a crowded backfield with the Cowboys. He’d shown flashes of his ability both as a rusher and receiver, but due to injuries and the players around him, never had an opportunity to reach his full potential.
That’s why as an unrestricted free agent, it was refreshing for Dunbar to hear Rams head coach Sean McVay’s plans for him.
“When I met with him, he viewed me the same way I view myself. And that meant a lot to me,” Dunbar said in a recent interview with therams.com. “I can pass protect. I can run routes. I can catch out the backfield. Whatever they need me to do, I’m able to do.”
“In the NFL, they like to put labels on you and handicap you, and say you can only do certain things,” Dunbar continued. “But I know I’m capable of doing a lot. And I just want to show everything I can do.”
Dunbar’s career numbers are limited because of the circumstances he’s faced. He’s been behind two Pro Bowl running backs in DeMarco Murray and Ezekiel Elliott. But he’s also experienced two season-ending knee injuries, both of which came when he was being featured in the Cowboys’ offense.
The first occurred in Dunbar’s second season in one of his best professional games — Nov. 28, 2013, Cowboys vs. Raiders in Dallas. To that point, Dunbar had mainly been used in a reserve role, but he was the featured back in this particular matchup.
“I didn’t get many opportunities [and then] in one game, out the blue, they put me in and I was going off. I had like 12 carries for 80 yards in one half,” Dunbar said. “And then I got hurt that second half and that was the end of my season as it was just getting started.”
Dunbar recovered and made it through the 2014 season healthy. But his opportunities that year were once again limited, in large part because of Murray’s success as the Offensive Player of the Year.
Once Murray signed with the Eagles in free agency, Dunbar once again had more opportunities as the 2015 season began. Used as both a kick returner and an offensive weapon out of the backfield, Dunbar had 21 receptions for 215 yards and 67 yards on five carries through just four games.
“I had more opportunities, and they kind of went to me more that year,” Dunbar said. “And the injury happened, and I was out the rest of the season — right when I got started again.”
Week 4 against the Saints, Dunbar once again suffered a season-ending knee injury — one that left him having to rehab for the better part of the next year.
“It was tough. It was real hard,” Dunbar added. “But I’m mentally tough. I’ve been through a lot. And I know the only way to get past those days is moving on and believing in yourself. First, you’ve got to believe in yourself. And the you’ve got to put action behind it, and work each and every day.”
That’s just what Dunbar has done, recovering well enough to get through the entire 2016 season healthy. He was, however, essentially behind Elliott, Darren McFadden, and Alfred Morris on the depth chart. And so now he’s come to a team where he should have an opportunity to compete for a larger role.
“I love playing football,” Dunbar said. “I don’t want to be sitting on the sidelines — I want to play.”
He’ll have an opportunity to do that under his original position coach, Skip Peete, who held the same position with the Cowboys from 2007-2012.
“It’s more comfortable coming into a situation where I know a guy that knows me personally,” Dunbar said. “We’ve worked together before, so I know he’s a great coach. And I think he’ll help me out.”
That will come once the offseason program begins in early April. For now, Dunbar is glad to be healthy so he can train as much as possible to improve his strength heading into his first year as a Ram.
“I’m excited about this opportunity,” Dunbar said. “It’s a change and it’s a lot right now. It’s a big opportunity for me. I’m excited to see what the future has for me.”