Dallas Cowboys: Felix Jones

IRVING, Texas -- Another lively chat Wednesday with more than 100 questions from you guys wanting to know this, that and everything about the Dallas Cowboys.

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Who would be the best first-round pick for the Cowboys?

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    49%
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Discuss (Total votes: 11,576)

In the chat we talked about:

  • The return of Anthony Spencer.
  • The chances of Johnny Manziel coming to the Cowboys.
  • The chances Kony Ealy comes to the Cowboys.
  • The Morris Claiborne "trade" talks. I put quotes around that on purpose.


  • To read the whole chat, click here.

    Let's talk about the whole 'need vs. best player' debate some more:

    Kyle from Virginia asked: With Will McClay playing a bigger role in this draft, do you see Dallas taking the best player available regardless of position more often this year or just filling their needs? I am hoping they are focusing on the long-term, not just the upcoming season.

    Here is my answer: I'm not being a wise guy here, but the answer is: Yes. We always speak in this perfect world of taking the best player available, but you have to factor in need. The key is to not make the need overwhelm the evaluation process so you're inflating a player's worth. I do believe the Cowboys look at the draft as a multi-year deal not specific to one year, but need will always play a part in the process. It just has to. You can't eliminate it.

    To elaborate, much of the draft operates in a gray area. Ideally everything is crystal clear. I'm sure in the past I've said, 'You always take the best player available.' Heck, I probably said it two weeks ago, but I'd like to add two caveats:

    You always take the best player in the first round. You always take the best player when the best player's grade is much higher than the player you are going to take.

    It's clear the Cowboys need defensive line help, though I think the signings they've had in free agency helps steer them away from reaching for a player at No. 16. If they are unable to get one of their top defensive linemen at No. 16, be it Anthony Barr, Aaron Donald or whomever, then don't reach for the next-best defensive linemen if you don't believe he is better than somebody at another position.

    That's why I've had the Cowboys taking Zack Martin in the mock drafts I've been asked about. The Cowboys look to be in no-man's land at No. 16 when it comes to the top defensive linemen. Too low for Donald and Barr. Too high for Ealy or Easley. If they trade back in the first round, then it becomes a little more palatable to take one of the lower-ranked guys.

    In 2009, the Cowboys should have drafted LeSean McCoy in the second round. They had a first-round grade on McCoy but instead of taking him they traded down to get third- and fourth-round picks from the Buffalo Bills.

    At the time the Cowboys had Marion Barber on a big-time deal and drafted Felix Jones in the first round in 2008. They also liked Tashard Choice. They probably thought they were stacking it up at the position if they took McCoy. So what? You had a chance to get a first-round player with a pick in the 50s. Do it.

    We want everything to be black and white when it comes to the draft, but it's not that easy.

    Cowboys' 1991 draft earns high marks

    April, 9, 2014
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    IRVING, Texas -- There was a time when the way the Dallas Cowboys ran their draft room was the envy of the league.

    One of those years was back in 1991 and Mike Tanier of Sports on Earth ranked the Cowboys selecting Russell Maryland and Alvin Harper that year as ninth best on the all-time list of teams with two first-round picks.

    The Cowboys actually had three first-round picks that year thanks to a deal with the Washington Redskins, but traded Kelvin Pritchett to the Detroit Lions for picks in the second, third and fourth rounds.

    In Maryland, the top overall pick, the Cowboys got a vital piece to their vastly underrated defensive line. In Harper, the No. 12 pick, they got a complement to Michael Irvin who Norv Turner knew how to maximize.

    In trading Pritchett, who had a solid career, the Cowboys got linebacker Dixon Edwards, guard James Richards and defensive end Tony Hill. Edwards was a starter, but Hill lasted two seasons and Richards didn’t make the team.

    The Cowboys had two first-round picks in 1992, 2005 and 2008 as well.

    In 1992, they took cornerback Kevin Smith (No. 17) and linebacker Robert Jones (No. 24), who became starters on Super Bowl teams. In 2005, they took outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (No. 11) and defensive tackle Marcus Spears (No. 20). Ware became the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks. In 2008, the Cowboys selected running back Felix Jones (No. 22) and cornerback Mike Jenkins (No. 25). Neither signed a second contract, although Jenkins had a Pro Bowl season.

    Felix Jones vs. Rashard Mendenhall

    March, 10, 2014
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    The sudden retirement of running back Rashard Mendenhall brings to mind what might have been with the Dallas Cowboys in the 2008 NFL draft.

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    The Cowboys selected Felix Jones with the 22nd overall pick out of Arkansas. Jones was supposed to be a complement to bruising running back Marion Barber.

    Mendenhall went next to the Pittsburgh Steelers and there was a thought he was a better running back. Yet, Mendenhall was drafted to become an eventual starter while Jones was selected as a backup.

    You never select first-round picks as backups but that's what the Cowboys received in Jones, who battled numerous injuries in his four seasons with the team.

    With Mendenhall retiring, I’m sure Cowboys fans wished they would have had his 4,236 rushing yards with 37 touchdowns instead of Jones’ 2,912 yards and 11 touchdowns on 617 carries.

    Last season, Jones rushed for nine first downs on 48 carries with, ironically enough, the Steelers.

    Mendenhall retires at 26, the same age as Jones, where it’s supposed to be the prime age of a running back's life. Instead we're reading Mendenhall tiring of the NFL lifestyle and yearning to do something more meaningful with his life on a personal level.

    Mendenhall fought through injuries himself in his NFL career and was more productive than Jones. It's easy to second-guess the Cowboys' decision to get the Arkansas running back because of the lack of production obtained.

    Jones displayed some skills that he could become a starter in this league given the chance, but his body couldn’t hold up on a consistent basis. In 2010, Jones rushed for 800 yards with 228 coming in the last three weeks of that season.

    After that you figured maybe Jones could emerge as a full-time starter but poor health never gave him a chance, so he moved on to Philadelphia and then to Pittsburgh, where he currently resides.

    Jones isn't ready to retire, but his career could have been viewed differently if selected in any other round than the first one.

    The Cowboys picked Jones for his ability to make defenders miss with his speed and elusiveness; the Steelers grabbed Mendenhall as the future every down back.

    There were more successes with Mendenhall than Jones but now with one of them retiring, the other doesn't seem like his career will go much further.

    IRVING, Texas -- Wade Phillips has the second-best winning percentage of any coach in Dallas Cowboys' history. Better than Tom Landry's. I think Phillips might know that.

    On Thursday, Phillips tweeted this:



    And later followed up with this addendum:



    Like most things with Phillips, he lacked context.

    When Phillips took over in 2007 as head coach, he inherited a team from Bill Parcells that was ready to win. QB Tony Romo was going into his first year as a full-time starter. The defense had DE DeMarcus Ware at his best. WR Terrell Owens was putting up big numbers.

    The Cowboys went 13-3 and had the best record in the NFC. Phillips was the perfect antidote to Parcells and the players responded. Well, they did to a point. The Cowboys were not the same after beating the Green Bay Packers to move to 11-1 and effectively clinch home-field advantage.

    They got lucky to beat the Detroit Lions the following week. They lost two of their last three games, but they were in shutdown mode against the Washington Redskins with nothing to gain from a win.

    Other than momentum they had lost.

    The Cowboys lost to the New York Giants in the divisional round at Texas Stadium, and the Giants went on to win the Super Bowl.

    That's basically when the Romo narrative started. Maybe you heard that Romo went to Cabo during the wild-card weekend. Did it affect the outcome of the Giants' game? Of course not, but the perception machine was rolling, and has been rolling ever since.

    SportsNation

    Which coach would you rather have?

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    Discuss (Total votes: 5,740)

    You can track most of the Cowboys' woes to that lost opportunity. If they simply beat the Giants and make the NFC Championship Game, things would be different. Could they have beaten the Packers for a second time at Texas Stadium? It's the best what-if of the Romo era.

    In 2008, the Cowboys acted as if they were predestined to not only make the playoffs but win the Super Bowl. Go back and watch the "Hard Knocks" episodes, and you see a team full of itself. They finished 9-7, missed the playoffs and were a mess late in the season.

    Phillips could not pull it all together and looked inept as he attempted to deal with the fallout from the Adam "Pacman" Jones' incident. Phillips earned a reprieve in 2009 when Dallas posted an 11-5 record, won the NFC East title, and recorded a playoff win -- but that was the high point.

    The Cowboys went 1-7 to start the 2010 season, including an embarrassing home loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars and a gutless loss to the Packers (45-7) the following week. After that game, Jerry Jones made the switch to Garrett, and the Cowboys are 29-27 since and have not made the playoffs.

    Garrett did not inherit a team ready to win the way Phillips did in 2007. By the time Garrett took over, the Cowboys were growing old on the offensive line, and there were too many people (especially those in offices at Valley Ranch) who believed they had the best talent in the league.

    The head coach of the Cowboys has tremendous sway with Jones. The Cowboys did not take Randy Moss in 1998 at least in part because then-coach Chan Gailey didn't want Moss.

    On that premise, the 2008 draft -- with Dallas' two first-round picks -- was a mess because the Cowboys didn't even attempt to re-sign those first-rounders (Felix Jones and Mike Jenkins) when their contracts expired. The 2009 draft was a colossal failure in part because Jones was convinced that it could be a "special-teams draft," which is as ludicrous as the "draft for backups" the team had when Barry Switzer was the coach in 1995.

    This is not in defense of Garrett. He has made plenty of mistakes on the field and in the draft.

    Phillips has had a tremendous career in the NFL that has spanned decades. He is a terrific coordinator, but is he in the same conversation as guys like Dick LeBeau, or even Monte Kiffin? I'm not sure a Phillips defense scared offenses the way LeBeau's defenses in Pittsburgh and Kiffin's defenses in Tampa Bay did. Phillips was a good head coach but could not get his teams in Denver, Buffalo or Dallas past a certain point.

    Phillips knows his resume inside and out. He can cite team stats and all the Hall of Famers he has coached.

    He can claim his tweet was more about the number of games he and Garrett have coached, but it looked more like a passive-aggressive shot at the guy who replaced him, and a way for him to remind everybody of his record.

    By the way, his winning percentage is .607. Landry had a .605 winning percentage.

    Cowboys' Twitter mailbag, Part 1

    February, 14, 2014
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    IRVING, Texas – Part 1 of the Cowboys' Twitter mailbag is ready. Part 2 comes on Saturday.

    In this post we talk about if the Dallas Cowboys would really pick Michael Sam, Will McClay's role, drafting a quarterback early and/or a wide receiver early.

    Away we go:

     

    Who the Cowboys pick in 2008 re-draft

    January, 14, 2014
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    IRVING, Texas -- ESPN’s Mel Kiper recently conducted a re-draft of the first round in 2008, and Felix Jones and Mike Jenkins were not among the top 32 picks, nor were they among the 14 players he considered in the first round.

    The Cowboys have had serious drafting issues over the years, but 2008 represents two misses in the first 25 picks.

    The Cowboys could have had Chris Johnson, Ray Rice or Matt Forte with the 22nd overall pick but took Jones in part because he came from a two-back system in Arkansas and showed he could do more with less. Johnson has had a 2,000-yard season and has had more than 1,000 yards in every season. Rice and Forte have four 1,000-yard seasons apiece.

    Jones topped out at 800 in 2010 and the Cowboys chose not to re-sign him after the 2012 season.

    The Cowboys moved up to get Jenkins with the 25th pick in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks.

    Jenkins is remembered more for tackles he chose not to make rather than gutting out a 2011 season in which he played with a badly damaged shoulder. He was named to the Pro Bowl in 2009 after he had five interceptions.

    The Cowboys signed Orlando Scandrick to an extension in 2011 and moved up to take Morris Claiborne with the sixth overall pick in 2012 as Jenkins rehabbed from the shoulder surgery mostly away from Valley Ranch. The Cowboys made no effort to re-sign Jenkins, and he ended up with a one-year deal from the Oakland Raiders in 2013.

    Teams can’t miss on first-round picks. They have to get two contracts out of them, but the last first-round pick they have extended with a multiyear deal before the rookie deal expired was DeMarcus Ware (2005). Anthony Spencer, their first-rounder in 2007, was given the franchise tag in back-to-back years but is a free agent this March. Dez Bryant (2010) figures to break that trend soon.

    Kiper had the Cowboys choosing wide receiver Pierre Garcon, who went No. 205 overall to the Indianapolis Colts, and defensive tackle Kendall Langford.

    The Garcon pick is interesting because it likely would have meant the Cowboys would not have dealt for Roy Williams in the middle of the 2008 season and thus saved themselves from a disastrous deal. Langford has been solid for the Miami Dolphins and St. Louis Rams.

    Fear not, however, because the Cowboys do have Kiper’s No. 24 pick on their roster. He had Brandon Carr, who was a fifth-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs, going to the Tennessee Titans. Of course, Kiper also mentioned Carr’s play the past two seasons has been “middle of the road.” Among the players Kiper also considered for the first round was wide receiver Danny Amendola, who was an undrafted free agent by the Cowboys that year.

    So there’s that.

    Cowboys hope for another takeaway feast

    November, 20, 2013
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    IRVING, Texas -- Only three teams have more takeaways than the Dallas Cowboys this season. The Seattle Seahawks have 26, the Kansas City Chiefs have 24 and the Carolina Panthers have 23.

    [+] EnlargeBrandon Carr, Eli Manning
    AP Photo/James D. SmithBrandon Carr was responsible for the game-clinching interception in the Cowboys' opener against the Giants, who turned the ball over six times.
    In the midst of a horrible statistical season defensively, the Cowboys have forced 22 turnovers in their first 10 games.

    The Cowboys got it all started the right way in their season opener against the New York Giants with six.

    The Cowboys had three takeaways on the Giants’ first 10 snaps. DeMarcus Ware had an interception of Eli Manning on the first play. Barry Church forced a fumble on the sixth play and Will Allen intercepted Manning on the 10th.

    On the second play of the second half, Church returned a fumble 27 yards for a touchdown. Later the Cowboys scooped up a muffed punt, and in the fourth quarter Brandon Carr iced the win with a 49-yard interception return for a score.

    It was the 24th time the Cowboys forced six or more turnovers in a game in team history and the first time they had as many as six since Dec. 14, 2003, against the Washington Redskins.

    Manning threw 15 interceptions in New York’s first six games -- all losses -- and he has been intercepted just twice since. He has only three touchdown passes in the Giants’ four-game winning streak.

    The Cowboys get to see Manning again Sunday at MetLife Stadium for the rematch. Is it fair to expect a similar turnover game? Probably not.

    "You always feel confident," coach Jason Garrett said. "That’s always a point of emphasis for us, to take the ball away. Just because we did it before that doesn’t give us an advantage of doing it now. You have to go out there and do the things necessary to get the takeaways. Typically it has a lot to do with executing and beating your guy and making plays on the football."

    Some of the Giants look at the season-opening loss to the Cowboys as one they let slip away, despite the six turnovers. The Cowboys felt the same in the first regular-season game at AT&T Stadium in 2009. Tony Romo was intercepted three times and Felix Jones had a fumble, but with 3:46 to play they had a 31-30 lead and the defense could not make a stop.

    Lawrence Tynes kicked a 37-yard field goal on the final play to beat the Cowboys, 33-31.

    Without Murray, Dallas RBs to be tested

    October, 14, 2013
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    IRVING, Texas – DeMarco Murray did not talk with reporters on Monday to address the condition of the sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee, but a source has indicated that it is unlikely the running back will play Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.

    Without Murray, the Cowboys will have to figure out a way to run the ball effectively, which is something they did not do during the 2012 season.

    In the six games without Murray because of a sprained foot, the Cowboys ran for 368 yards on 123 carries, good for three yards a carry (if we round up from 2.99). Felix Jones' high mark during that run was 71 yards on 16 carries against the Eagles, but twice he failed to rush for 20 yards in a game.

    Rookie Joseph Randle would get the first crack at the full-time job for however long Murray misses. Lance Dunbar has a hamstring injury and has yet to run since getting hurt in the Denver game. Phillip Tanner is the only other back on the 53-man roster. The Cowboys are contemplating adding a running back to the practice squad if Dunbar is unable to play against the Eagles.

    Randle had just 17 yards on 11 carries against the Redskins, but Jason Garrett will not condemn the numbers because of how Washington was selling out to stop the run late in the game.

    “You’ve got to be careful about evaluating those rushing attempts and the yards we had and the average we had in the ball game,” Garrett said. “There were circumstances involved in that. Having said all that, we’ve got to be able to run the football better. We have to be able to run the football well when DeMarco Murray is not our runner. That’s last night, but that’s also in recent history. We just have to put the next guy in there. We gave Joseph Randle some chances in the ballgame. He did some positive things. He was strong running the football. But he took care of the ball well. He was in some of those situations at the end of the game where it’s difficult. They have eight and nine and 10 man fronts up there, trying to get the ball back. I thought he handled himself well there. It didn’t seem too big for him. But as much as anything else, running the football has a lot to do with your whole offense -- your ability to knock them off the ball up front, your tight ends blocking, your receivers blocking as well as the runner.”
    OXNARD, Calif. -- The word "juice" is often repeated when people talk about Cowboys running back Lance Dunbar.

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    "He gets better every single day and it really goes to the kind of young man he is, how important it is to him," coach Jason Garrett said. "He just works at it and he has great juice, got a bounce in his step all the time, has a smile on his face. He loves to play football."

    Dunbar has made an impression on Tony Romo, as well.

    "I think the nice surprise really was Dunbar coming onto the scene last year a little bit," Romo said. "He’s had a great offseason. I’m excited about just having the ability to move (the ball with him). DeMarco (Murray) is such a special player that the ability to have a guy who can come in and hopefully do some things that still help us and have some juice, Dunbar has that. Then, we have some other guys who are competing, as well, afterward that’ll be good to see, (Joseph) Randle and (Phillip) Tanner."

    In nearly two weeks of training camp practices, Dunbar has displayed speed and quickness and kept Tanner and Randle at bay and is currently the No. 2 back behind Murray.

    "It's more of a feel thing," said Dunbar, who attended North Texas. "Last year I was out there and didn’t know where I was going, just running around out there. Now I have a feel for the offense and the way the O-line blocks it and I understand the scheme, so it’s a little easier."

    Dunbar spent last year waiting for his chance behind Felix Jones and Murray. The Cowboys kept him around in the offseason and have given him a chance to become a third-down back who Romo can trust to dump passes off to out of the backfield. Dunbar has done that portion of his game well, and he's showing the coaches and scouts he can hit holes quickly and take hits.

    Dunbar's diminutive size (5-foot-8, 188 pounds) puts him at a disadvantage in the pass-blocking game because he's got bigger defenders charging at him. But Dunbar sometimes will use a chip block and release quickly from the line of scrimmage and dash up field to make a play.

    So it's easy to understand why the Cowboys use the word juice to describe him.

    But what does it really mean?

    "Speed. Explosiveness. Another gear, I guess you could say," Romo said. "A little start and stop. Quick stop. All those things. He has that, and that’s a good thing."

    Camp Confidential: Dallas Cowboys

    July, 25, 2013
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    OXNARD, Calif. -- The feeling Tony Romo had early in his career when he was just trying to make the Dallas Cowboys' roster is the same one he feels today as he chases a Super Bowl.

    “For me, I tell this to some buddies and high school kids a lot of the time, it’s all relative to the way you look at it,” Romo said. “They’ll be like, ‘Wow, you play in the NFL or whatever.’ The same feeling I get going out on a Sunday is the same feeling a high school kid gets going out on a Friday night. They’re excited. They’re energetic. They’ve put in a lot of time and effort. It means a lot to them. It means everything to them. To me, that aspect of it doesn’t change, no matter where you’re at. Sometimes your surroundings change a little bit. Sometimes the just desperate feeling of trying to make the team; that doesn’t change now. It’s just a different goal. Now it’s not trying to make the team. Now it’s trying to win a championship. Now it’s trying to get better so we can take the next step. Now it’s just that feeling that you have. But it’s still that desperate kind of act of wanting to take that next step. There’s just another step always. It’s going to be the same thing even after we get that job done.”

    Despite missing the playoffs the past three seasons and losing Week 17 de facto NFC East title games in each of the past two seasons to the New York Giants and Washington Redskins, the Cowboys rewarded Romo with a six-year contract extension this offseason worth $108 million, including $55 million guaranteed.

    They also guaranteed Romo more say in the offense.

    At 33, Romo is the oldest Cowboy and is entering his seventh full season as the starting quarterback. He has seen all that a quarterback can see from opposing defenses and in the offseason was able to communicate his ideas to coach Jason Garrett, offensive coordinator Bill Callahan and the rest of the staff.

    Once the season starts, Romo will spend time with the coaches during the week going over the game plan.

    “I think anytime the more you are involved, I think there is no question the more comfortable you are with anything,” Romo said. “I think that just goes with the territory. You gain a lot over the years with experience. You understand a lot offensively. You start to understand what has made us successful. You understand what can make our lives easier, what can make my job easier, and you just go hammer things out."

    Last year when Romo asked for a certain play or two in the game plan, it might not get called for a few games. That won’t be the case this year with Romo putting in that “Peyton Manning time” owner and general manager Jerry Jones alluded to in the offseason.

    [+] EnlargeTony Romo
    Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Tony Romo will have a greater responsibility this season as he will have an active role in the Cowboys' offensive game planning.
    “What I want to do as a head coach, what our coaching staff wants to do, is just create more of a forum for him to be able to do that, keep those lines of communication open,” Garrett said. “His job is to play quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. It’s not an easy job. That’s his job. We feel like his involvement will help him do that job better and help our football team even more.”

    Perhaps even get the Cowboys back to the playoffs.

    THREE HOT ISSUES

    1. Dez Bryant's dominance. No player has caught the eye more in training camp than Bryant, who is entering his fourth season. Over the second half of last season he was one of the best receivers in the NFL with 50 catches for 879 yards and 10 touchdowns.

    Since arriving in 2010, Bryant has always been able to make the highlight catch, but he became more reliable in his route-running and decision-making, which helped in his jump in productivity. He even made plays while hurt, displaying toughness by playing the last three games with a broken index finger that required postseason surgery. He has had no problems with the injured finger in camp.

    As good as Bryant was, he has his sights on becoming the NFL’s best receiver.

    “This is what I truly believe: I always feel like there’s always room to get better,” Bryant said. “I think just by going in, getting everything I already know, cleaning it up, sharpening it up the best way I possibly can and just learning more and more the coaches give me, I feel like I’ll be taking a step each and every day.”

    2. Monte Kiffin puts stamp on defense. Kiffin is 73 years old, but he doesn’t act that way. On the first day of training camp, he implored the crowd to get loud to excite his defense. When he has been displeased, he has thrown his hat to the ground. When he’s not happy with himself, he has given himself a slap in the head.

    “He’s a fired-up guy,” linebacker Bruce Carter said. “You never know what you’re going to get with Coach Kiff. He brings a lot of excitement to the defensive meeting room. Guys are really adapting to him well.”

    A lot of eyebrows were raised when the Cowboys hired Kiffin after his so-so run at USC. Kiffin believes having more time with the players than he had in college will help ease the adjustment from the 3-4 to the 4-3.

    The key hire might have been defensive line coach Rod Marinelli. He worked with Kiffin in Tampa Bay and led a turnover-driven defense in Chicago for four years. Kiffin’s knowledge, combined with Marinelli’s expertise, give the Cowboys an edge they did not have the past few years on that side of the ball.

    3. Jason Garrett, walk-around coach. Offensive coordinator/assistant head coach Bill Callahan will call plays, freeing up Garrett to handle game situations and the entire team.

    When Garrett took the job on a full-time basis in 2011, Jimmy Johnson advised him to work as a “walk-around” head coach, but he held on to the play-calling duties. Whether they were taken away from him or he gave them up is up for debate, but the Cowboys’ hope is Garrett’s coaching ability will be enhanced.

    While Jones has backed the coach and talked of a future beyond the final two years of Garrett’s current contract, this is a win-now season for Garrett. He has gone 8-8 in each of his first two full seasons and lost both season finales with playoff spots on the line. Jones’ patience would be put to the test with a fourth straight non-playoff season.

    Garrett has been around the NFL a long time as a player and coach and understands the life.

    Without having to overlook every nook and cranny of the offense, Garrett has been all over the practice fields in Oxnard, Calif.

    “I have always felt that he found a way to see everything,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “He doesn’t miss much; he never has in the past and he won’t in the future. He’s a guy who’s on top of every detail and knows what’s going on. That’s what makes him a great coach, and that’s why we all respond to him.”

    REASON FOR OPTIMISM

    The Cowboys lost five major components of their defense to injuries last year and had DeMarcus Ware playing with one healthy arm, which led to the dismissal of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Lee, Carter, Barry Church, Orlando Scandrick and Ware are healthy now, which will help a defense that has to get better at creating turnovers.

    The Cowboys do not seem overly concerned about the long-term effects of early training camp injuries to defensive tackle Jay Ratliff (hamstring) and defensive end Anthony Spencer (knee).

    Using frames of references from the defenses Kiffin and Marinelli have run, the Cowboys appear to have the right pieces for the 4-3. The Cowboys view Lee and Carter the way Chicago viewed Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. They look at Ware and Ratliff the way Tampa Bay used to view Simeon Rice and Warren Sapp.

    A healthy defense should make Kiffin’s first year a success.

    REASON FOR PESSIMISM

    On a team that has not made the playoffs the past three seasons, the Cowboys’ key pieces still look largely the same: Romo, Jason Witten, Ware, Ratliff and Miles Austin.

    [+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
    Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsThe Cowboys are counting on veterans, including a healthy DeMarcus Ware, to lead Monte Kiffin's defense this season.
    Because of salary-cap constraints and the desire to re-sign Romo, the Cowboys were not able to be major players in free agency. Their biggest pickups were linebacker Justin Durant and safety Will Allen. In the draft, they traded down from the 18th pick to No. 31 to take center Travis Frederick, whom many rated as a third- or even fourth-round pick.

    The Cowboys are banking on core players who have won one playoff game and missed the playoffs more than they have made it.

    OBSERVATION DECK

    • If there was any worry about Ware’s recovery from offseason shoulder surgery and the move from outside linebacker to defensive end, they were calmed very early. Ware had a three-sack practice on the second day of camp and has given left tackle Tyron Smith fits.
    • While Ware is healthy, his counterpart on the other side is not. Spencer will miss two to four weeks of camp because of knee surgery. Spencer had a breakout year in 2012 with 11 sacks and was added to the Pro Bowl. He missed time in the offseason as well but does not believe it will affect his knowledge of the defense with the move to defensive end.
    • The offensive line was a question last year, and it is a question again this year. Guards Mackenzy Bernadeau (hamstring) and Nate Livings (foot) have not been able to practice. Ronald Leary, who is expected to compete for a starting job, has not practiced because of a calf injury. For a unit in need of continuity, the beginning of camp has not gone well.
    • The loss of defensive end Tyrone Crawford for the season because of a torn Achilles is a big one. The Cowboys wanted the second-year player to be a big part of their rotation at end and tackle this year and possibly be a starter in 2014. Without Crawford, the Cowboys will have to scramble for help, but so far they have not shown any interest in the more veteran names available.
    • The Cowboys will go without a fullback on the 53-man roster when the season opens, relying more on two-tight end formations. In Witten, the Cowboys have one of the best tight ends in the game. They have rookie Gavin Escobar, drafted in the second round, and James Hanna, last year’s sixth-rounder, as the top backups. Escobar has benefited from extra work early in camp and could become a decent intermediate target for Romo.
    • If there is an unknown player to watch as the regular season approaches, it is second-year running back Lance Dunbar. He made the Cowboys last year as an undrafted free agent and saw his role increase a little as the year went on. With Felix Jones now in Philadelphia, Dunbar is the leader to be the true third-down back. Several of the veterans have noticed his speed and quickness and believe he could have a solid season as a pass-catcher.
    • Right tackle Doug Free saw his pay cut in half in the offseason, down to $3.5 million, but he is off to a better start to training camp. Free struggled last year and ended up splitting time late in the season with Jermey Parnell. That has not been the case this summer, and not just because Parnell has been slowed by a hamstring strain. Free has been more firm in the run game and as a pass protector.
    • With so many games decided by a field goal in the NFL, teams need a top-flight kicker. The Cowboys have one in Dan Bailey. He has had eight winning or tying kicks in the last two minutes in his first two seasons.

    Garrett says Boys committed to run game

    July, 21, 2013
    7/21/13
    10:00
    AM ET
    OXNARD, Calif. -- To say the Cowboys had a bad rushing attack in 2012 is an understatement.

    The Cowboys finished 31st in the NFL with a 79.1 yards per game average. The 355 team carries also ranked 31st, marking the first time the Cowboys had fewer than 400 rushing attempts in a season since 1990.

    That season, the Cowboys had 393 carries and finished 7-9.

    Fast forward to 2013. With a new playcaller, Bill Callahan, a younger backup running back in rookie Joseph Randle and a new center, rookie Travis Frederick, the Cowboys expect better things.

    Coach Jason Garrett commands it.

    "We just have to run the ball better," Garrett said Saturday. "We didn't run the ball well enough last year and everybody understands that, and we understand that as a coaching staff and as an organization. We have to run it better; we have to run it more. When you run the ball well, so many things open up for you. It's amazing how you run the ball well, the opportunities to throw the ball will present themselves. The opportunity to play better defense presents itself. You're better in the red zone. You tend to take care of the ball better -- all of those things. We understand that, and we made a huge emphasis on it in the offseason and we'll continue to make that emphasis here in training camp."

    What can also help the run game is health. Last season, the Cowboys started three different centers, starter DeMarco Murray missed six games with a foot injury and backup Felix Jones also played hurt.

    The Cowboys trailed big in several games during the course of the season, including 10-0 at Seattle, 24-7 against Chicago, 23-0 to the New York Giants and 28-3 to Washington, which also prompted Garrett to call more running plays.

    "The impact of the running game on your football team is significant," Garrett said. "We just have to do it better, and there will be a huge focus on it every day in camp."

    Fantasy Week: DeMarco Murray

    July, 10, 2013
    7/10/13
    3:43
    PM ET

    Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray is up in Bristol today, appearing on a variety of TV and radio shows. He's going to be on NFL Live at 4 pm ET. They call it the "car wash" up there -- they bring you in and run you through every show they've got. It's good stuff, and if you're a Cowboys fan or a Murray fan, I hope you're enjoying it.

    Here on the NFC East blog, it's Fantasy Week, so my first thought was to check and see where Murray ranked among fantasy running backs in our preseason rankings. The answer: No. 21. Low-end No. 2 running back in a 12-team league. In a weak year for top-level running backs. And what this tells us is that Murray is no longer considered, by our fantasy football experts, to be a top-level running back. He was a late first-round/early second-round pick a year ago. This year, he's looking at middle of the third round.

    PODCAST
    Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray talks about how good he can be when completely healthy and discusses what the Cowboys need to do to improve in 2013.

    Listen Listen
    Why? Well, as you know, Murray's had a bit of a tough time doing two very important things that a fantasy running back must do: Staying healthy and scoring touchdowns. The Cowboys have played 27 games since Murray became their starting running back in late October of 2011. Murray has missed nine of those 27 games because of leg injuries. He's also scored a grand total of six touchdowns, never more than one in the same game. So the 83.1 yards per game he's averaged as a starter is a decent enough figure, but it's not enough to get him any further up this list until we see some sustained proof that things can get better.

    Can they? The Cowboys drafted Joseph Randle this year, and he's a threat to take over if Murray gets hurt, just as Murray was a threat to Felix Jones in 2011. Murray has incentive to stay healthy, for sure. And the Cowboys are changing some things about the way they design and implement their offense this year, with quarterback Tony Romo being more involved during the week and offensive coordinator Bill Callahan taking over play-calling duties on game day. There's also the chance of improved interior offensive line play with the help of first-round pick Travis Frederick, which would help Murray run better and possibly avoid injury.

    But in the end, the biggest questions aren't about the Cowboys, but about Murray himself. He seems like a back who enjoys contact, and backs like that, while super-tough, tend not to last very long in the NFL. Murray was one of the guys on the film they showed us at the league meetings in the spring when they introduced the new rule about running backs leading with the crowns of their helmets in the open field. He's an angry, aggressive runner who puts himself in position to get hurt. It's hard to imagine that changing, regardless of what changes on the Cowboys' offense around him.

    My fantasy advice? I think Murray in the third round has a chance to be a nice value pick, especially if you're thin at running back because you got shut out of the top guys and decided to go with a quarterback and/or receiver early. Murray is only 25 and clearly quite talented, and if he does stay healthy he's a fine No. 2 fantasy back at the very least. But if you get him, make sure you get Randle, too. And if Murray starts out with one or two really big games, look to trade him while he's healthy. Because he could produce for you, but it's tough to imagine a high-profile fantasy back right now who comes with more risk.

    Cowboys position series: Running backs

    June, 24, 2013
    6/24/13
    11:30
    PM ET
    The second in ESPNDallas.com’s 10-part position series.

    Roster locks: DeMarco Murray, Joseph Randle

    On the bubble: Lance Dunbar, Phillip Tanner, Kendial Lawrence

    Long shots: None

    PODCAST
    Galloway & Company's Glenn "Stretch" Smith is excited about the Cowboys running game.

    Listen Listen
    What’s new? The Cowboys bid farewell to first-round bust Felix Jones while continuing to insist that he wasn’t a bad pick. Yet they believe they made an upgrade at the No. 2 back by selecting Oklahoma State’s Joseph Randle in the fifth round.

    The Cowboys had a third-round grade on Randle, whose size (6-foot, 198 pounds), slashing style and versatility reminds them a lot of Murray.

    Think that comparison is too optimistic? Check out their numbers while playing for Big 12 rivals.

    Murray in four seasons at Oklahoma: 3,685 yards (4.9 per carry) and 50 TDs rushing; 157 catches for 1,571 yards and 10 TDs.

    Randle in three seasons at Oklahoma State: 3,085 yards (5.5 per carry) and 40 TDs rushing; 108 catches for 917 yards and three TDs.

    Unfortunately, Randle reminded the Cowboys of Murray for another reason during organized team activities and minicamp. He was sidelined by an injury, recovering from thumb surgery that he delayed so he could play in Oklahoma State’s bowl win.

    That opened up more reps for the other rookie, Rockwall native Kendial Lawrence, an undrafted free agent who rushed for 1,025 yards and 12 touchdowns at Missouri last season. The shifty Lawrence has enough potential to be on the Cowboys’ payroll this season, whether it’s the 53-man roster or practice squad.

    PODCAST
    Nate Newton joins Fitzsimmons & Durrett to discuss Dez Bryant, Tony Romo and the Cowboys' offensive line as training camp approaches.

    Listen Listen
    Camp competition: It’s hard to envision Dunbar losing the No. 3 job. He’s the quickest of the Cowboys’ backs and can help as a kick returner. Murray, among others, made a point of mentioning how much Dunbar had improved in his first NFL offseason.

    Tanner is competing against Lawrence and players at other positions for a roster spot. Tanner, a Dallas Kimball product who made the team as an undrafted afterthought a couple of years ago, is unquestionably a Jason Garrett “right kind of guy.” He needs to be a special teams force and/or show better vision as a runner than he did last season to give himself job security.

    2013 hope: Start with Murray staying healthy.

    Murray’s guarantee that he’ll play 16 games is swell and all, but he made that made that statement while sitting out offseason workouts due to a hamstring injury. After durability questions caused him to drop to the third round, Murray has missed nine games in his first two NFL seasons.

    If Randle is as good as the Cowboys’ scouts believe, his presence could help Murray stay fresh. The Cowboys wouldn’t need Murray to be a workhorse with Randle playing a third of the snaps.

    We’ve all seen how good a healthy Murray can be when he has room to run. This is a back who racked up 601 yards on 72 carries during his first four games as the Cowboys’ feature back. It’s ridiculous to project those numbers over a full season, but it’s not a stretch to say that Murray has Pro Bowl potential with a clean bill of health and good blocking.

    The Cowboys are counting on the Bedlam Backfield to be one of the NFC’s better one-two punches with Murray as the headliner. And don’t count out Dunbar making a handful of impact plays in a change-of-pace role that exhibits his dynamic explosiveness in carefully selected small doses.

    Future forecast: The Cowboys should be set at running back for the next two seasons. They’ll have a decision to make on Murray when his rookie deal expires after 2014.

    There are some in the organization who believe that only the special tailbacks should get significant second contracts in today’s NFL. Murray has two seasons to prove that he’s in that class.

    Of course, Randle’s performance in those two seasons could also affect what the Cowboys are willing to offer Murray. If he has proven he’s ready to be the lead horse, perhaps the Cowboys draft another backup and move on.

    One thing is for sure: This position shouldn’t be a priority next offseason.

    Eight in the Box: RB status check

    May, 24, 2013
    5/24/13
    11:07
    AM ET
    NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

    How does each NFC East team look at running back, and what still needs to be done?

    Dallas Cowboys

    After a season in which they ranked third in the league in passing yards and 31st in rushing yards, the Cowboys seek greater balance in their offense. Any balance, actually. The starting running back remains DeMarco Murray, whose toughness and physical style give the Cowboys an extra dimension when he's on the field. Murray's problem is staying on the field, as he's had to miss nine games over his first two NFL seasons due to injury. The team let Felix Jones leave as a free agent and drafted Oklahoma State's Joseph Randle in the fifth round. It's no coincidence that Randle is a back who didn't miss a single game in his college career. The Cowboys needed someone durable and reliable to back up Murray, who's already struggling with hamstring problems this offseason, and neither Lance Dunbar nor Phillip Tanner showed enough in limited work last year to prove he was the backup they needed. What the Cowboys need at running back is to get and keep Murray as healthy as possible and to get Randle up to speed so he's ready to step in when he's inevitably needed as the fill-in starter.

    New York Giants

    The Giants let starting running back Ahmad Bradshaw depart via free agency, a difficult choice necessitated by salary and health concerns. That likely leaves the running game in the hands of 2012 first-round draft pick David Wilson, who opened eyes as a big-play threat and a kick returner in his rookie season, and Andre Brown, who functioned as a reliable goal-line back before an injury ended his season. Either should be able to handle full-time starter duties, and it's likely the team will split carries somewhat between them anyway. What the Giants need to do is establish whether Wilson and/or Brown can handle the pass-blocking duties at which Bradshaw excelled for so long. If one of them demonstrates superior performance in blitz pickup, that's likely to give him the edge for playing time over the other. With fullback Henry Hynoski out now with a knee injury, and with excellent run-blocking tight end Martellus Bennett now a Chicago Bear, the Giants remain on the lookout for reliable blocking backs. The recent injury to Tim Hightower shows that, and it remains to be seen whether Ryan Torain, Da'Rel Scott or seventh-round draft pick Michael Cox can be part of the solution.

    Philadelphia Eagles

    Every prediction about Chip Kelly's offense claims certainty that the Eagles will use the run game and the screen game more this year than they did in the past. LeSean McCoy remains the starter, and one of the best running backs in the league when healthy. Bryce Brown showed when McCoy got injured last year that he could handle starter's responsibilities brilliantly, but his fumble problems obviously must be overcome if he's to be trusted with significant carries. The Eagles signed Cowboys castoff Felix Jones for depth, and they still have Chris Polk, so the candidates for carries are plentiful this offseason. What remains for the Eagles is to establish the manner in which they'll distribute those carries (and catches) among their backs in an offense that will try to run as many plays as possible every game.

    Washington Redskins

    Sixth-round pick Alfred Morris came from the back of the depth chart last offseason to overtake Hightower, Roy Helu and Evan Royster to claim the starting running back job, and he quite literally ran with it. A perfect fit in Mike Shanahan's one-cut zone-blocking run schemes, Morris finished second in the NFL with 1,613 rushing yards as a rookie and delivered a 200-yard, three-touchdown masterpiece in the regular-season finale/division-title game against the Cowboys. Shanahan does love to play the volume game at running back, and he still has Helu and Royster as well as late-round 2013 draft picks Chris Thompson and Jawan Jamison. What remains for the Redskins is to figure out the pecking order behind Morris and work to find ways to use the talent they have at running back to ease some of the physical pressure on quarterback Robert Griffin III. It's also important to note that Washington was able to re-sign fullback Darrel Young, a key figure in a run game that led the league with 169.3 yards per game in 2012.

    DeMarco Murray has quality support

    May, 17, 2013
    5/17/13
    9:52
    AM ET
    One of the biggest challenges the Dallas Cowboys faced this offseason was finding a comfort level with DeMarco Murray's backups.

    It appears that wasn't the case last season when Murray went down for six games with a severely sprained foot. Murray wanted to come back sooner, but the foot didn't respond quick enough to treatment. So with Murray out, the Cowboys went with Felix Jones as the starter.

    In those six games, Jones scored just two touchdowns and had one game with over 50 rushing yards (71 against Philadelphia). When Murray returned, he rushed for at least 50 yards four times, 70 yards three times and scored three rushing touchdowns.

    Murray said he's confident in backups Lance Dunbar and Phillip Tanner's abilities to produce if he gets hurt in 2013. Yet, last season was a struggle for a Cowboys rushing attack that finished 31st overall.

    This offseason, the Cowboys let Jones test the free agent market -- he eventually signed a one-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles -- and drafted Joseph Randle in the fifth round. Tanner and Dunbar remain on the team as backups to Murray.

    "I benefit from someone who they can trust," Murray said. "When I went down, I don't think there was a lot of trust. I think doing the right things during the week of practice gains trust, and I don't think they saw that last year. Those guys weren't as consistent as they could be."

    The Cowboys need quality backups for Murray given his health status the last two seasons (missed nine games due to injury), so the running game won't struggle the way it did last season.

    Randle seems to be the quality backup the team is looking for, because if something happens to Murray, the objective is to move him to No. 1 on the depth chart.

    "I'm a competitor," Murray said. "I'm going to compete against everybody. ... I'm going to try and help (Randle) out as much as I can. At the end of the day, we're a team. I'm trying to get better individually and collectively as a unit and a team."

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