- Calvin Watkins, ESPN Staff Writer
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This offseason has been filled with improvement for the Dallas Cowboys.
Talent upgrades were needed at cornerback, safety, linebacker and pass rusher. The Cowboys addressed those needs in the draft and free agency.
But there was something else that needed to happen for this team. Running back DeMarco Murray had to get healthy.
Murray rushed for 897 yards and two touchdowns and had 41 runs for first downs as a rookie last season, saving the Cowboys' rushing game when Felix Jones went down with an ankle injury. Murray, in a backup role, rushed for a franchise-record 253 yards in a Week 7 win over St. Louis.
Before his season was cut short due to a fractured ankle, Murray did something no running back under Jason Garrett had done before: He carried the load.
Murray had five games with 20 or more carries, one game with 200 yards rushing and two more with more than 130 yards rushing. He also ran for the tough yards, grinding out 73 yards on 25 carries against Washington and 87 yards on 22 carries the next week against Miami.
That Garrett depended so much on Murray had to come as a shock to those who watched the Cowboys, up close or from afar.
Fullback Tony Fiammetta helped pave the way, but the bulk of Murray's yards were the result of the then-rookie emerging as a playmaker. So when the Cowboys talked about the importance of Jones and Mike Jenkins recovering from offseason surgeries, you can bet they kept a close eye on Murray's recovery, as well.
Asked when did he get the injury out of his mind, Murray matter-of-factly said, "I think once I start walking I did. They don't know that. But once I started walking it felt great. It was a minor surgery, a real easy surgery. I've had surgery before, so mentally I was there."
It's interesting to think about what might have been had the Cowboys not lost Murray to injury. Nothing against Jones, who had two 100-yard rushing games in December, but he finished with just 54 yards on 15 carries in the final two games.
"You always have would-have, could-have and should-haves and all that stuff, but I am just one guy," Murray said. "Felix is a great running back and he did good the last couple games I was out. You definitely want all of your pieces in when you're playing top teams, and unfortunately I wasn't there. But they did well."
The Cowboys need Murray to have a productive season.
Murray can't become Julius Jones.
In a five-game stretch during his rookie year of 2004, Jones, a former second-round pick, rushed 141 times for 597 yards and seven touchdowns. Now he did rush for 1,084 yards in 2006, but he never became what the Cowboys were looking for in the running game: A lead back that could carry the ball 18-25 times a game on a consistent basis. There are few backs that can do that. But after seeing Murray's 2011 rookie season, maybe he can be that type of player.
"Last year was a good year, but at the end of the day, that was last year," he said. "I'm not worried about last year. I had a good year, but I know this year is very important for me and for this team."
Now for the mail:
Q: Do you think the secondary will help the pass rush, and what about the safety spot? -- Bill Hellegaard (Gibson, La.)
A: The pass rush can help the secondary, and vice versa. The Cowboys' pass rush is pretty good, though we'd like to see more than six sacks from outside linebacker Anthony Spencer. Offenses at times can take away DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff, so somebody else needs to step up. The secondary needs to play better, and the Cowboys made that message clear by signing free agent Brandon Carr to a five-year deal and moving up to draft Morris Claiborne.
Q: Fellow New York native. I am a counselor and self-help/motivational expert with a love for the Cowboys. I was wondering what kind of staff members they may have that are there for the mental state of the team. Things like depression, domestic violence and other relationship issues are prominent in pro sports. I believe that this part of the formula is drastically overlooked. Would the Cowboys ever give an opportunity to someone that would be interested in taking on that part of said formula? -- Roger Howard (Syracuse, N.Y.)
A: Roger, the Cowboys have one of the best counseling programs in the NFL. Calvin Hill was hired several years ago to provide players and staff members with help for various issues, if necessary. When the Cowboys drafted Dez Bryant, team officials talked about their extensive player development program that helps younger players deal with life outside the NFL. Each week during the season players are encouraged to speak with counselors, if needed, for any problems they may have or to help prevent any potential problems.
Q: When are the people of Dallas going to realize and voice [concern] that Jerry Jones is the [problem] of the Dallas Cowboys and that's why they have not won since Jimmy Johnson left? The only reason they won a Super Bowl without Johnson is because that's how good of a team he left behind. -- Trevino Francisco (El Paso, Texas)
A: I can look at several teams in the NFL -- the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles -- who have made questionable decisions with their personnel since the Cowboys' last Super Bowl. Those teams haven't won a championship either. Now, Jerry Jones does need to do a better job in the draft. I believe he has done that the last two seasons in the early rounds with Tyron Smith and now Morris Claiborne. But it's the meat of the draft -- Rounds 3-7 -- where I think the Cowboys struggle at times. Free agency has also been an issue for Jones. Do you think signing Terrell Owens equaled success? What about the Roy Williams trade? Jones can do a better job, but sometimes franchises go through periods of good luck and bad luck.
Q: If [Mike] Jenkins comes back and competes well and has a solid year, do you think the Cowboys might franchise him for the 2013 season and give themselves an extra year to find another young corner since teams need three or four good ones now? -- Jeff Lee (Brussels, Belgium)
A: After all the stuff Jenkins has put the team through so far this offseason, I doubt he'll be here in 2013. Jenkins is a good player that has been inconsistent, and the Cowboys have challenged him by upgrading the talent at his position. If Jenkins plays well in 2012, I can see the Cowboys offering him a new contract, but i don't see them placing a franchise tag on him. Jenkins doesn't want to be here and has requested a trade. The Cowboys value Jenkins' skills, and although they are irked that he's not showing up at offseason workouts, they understand it's a business and that eventually he will be at Valley Ranch. The Cowboys don't need to pay Jenkins now. If he plays well this season, fine. But if he's not better than Brandon Carr or Morris Claiborne, there's no need to pay him. Let him test the market.
Q: Do you see the Cowboys integrating some 4-3 schemes within their 3-4 with the inside backers they have and given the depth along the line? And if Jenkins was traded, who do you see as fourth and fifth cornerback? -- Fred Earl (Elk Grove, Calif.)
A: The Cowboys do play some four-man fronts, moving Josh Brent and sometimes Sean Lissemore in with Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher. The Cowboys' base defense will always be a 3-4, but the depth along the line allows them to use the four-man fronts. I don't believe Jenkins will be traded, but if he is, I don't think the Cowboys have a fourth corner on their roster right now.
Mailbag: DeMarco Murray has potential to be a true lead back for Cowboys.