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Tuesday, November 1, 2011
DeMarco Murray should be lead horse

By Tim MacMahon
ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- Good luck getting a straight answer from Jason Garrett until the Sunday when Felix Jones suits up again.

Heck, Garrett wouldn't reveal whether DeMarco Murray would start last week, when the rookie was fresh off a record-setting rushing performance and a pink slip was being prepared for Tashard Choice. He certainly isn't going to provide details in advance of his plans for splitting the workload between the incumbent starter and the Dallas Cowboys' most productive back.

TBD
DeMarco Murray doesn't have to be the "starter," but he should get the bulk of the carries in the Cowboys' backfield.

Maybe we'll find out this Sunday. Maybe we'll have to wait another week or two for Jones to fully recover from the high ankle sprain that sidelined him the past two games, opening the hole Murray exploded through to break franchise records held by Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett.

"We just feel fortunate that we have two guys like those two who can play for us," Garrett said. "I think everyone understands that you need more than one back in this league and each of those guys will have a role when Felix comes back, and hopefully we can put them in the best position where they can help us the most."

Well, there's a simple solution to that. Make Murray the lead horse and let Jones be the change-of-pace back the Cowboys envisioned when they drafted him.

What matters is how the carries are split, not who starts.

That was the case in Garrett's first season as offensive coordinator, when Julius Jones served as the ceremonial starter and a more deserving Marion Barber made the Pro Bowl as a backup. It was the case again last season, when a broken-down Barber was the primary starter but Jones played more snaps off the bench.

It doesn't matter which back gets the first carry as long as the better back gets the bulk of them, especially since Murray has made it clear that he doesn't care if he's a starter.

It's even clearer that Murray is the Cowboys' best back.

Say what you want about the St. Louis Rams' sorry defense, but 253 rushing yards is a ridiculous number for one game. Murray's 25 carries in his breakout performance covered only two fewer yards than Jones gained on 63 carries in the season's first five games.

Forget the talk of Murray being a fluke or a one-game wonder. You don't find many 4.41 40 guys who break tackles on a frequent basis. He would have racked up well more than 100 yards against Philadelphia, too, if the Cowboys didn't have to abandon the game plan of feeding him the ball. Despite getting only eight carries, Murray gained 74 yards, more than Jones had in four of five games this season.

That's not to say that Jones can't be a weapon. Just not as a feature back.

Of course, the Cowboys didn't draft Jones to be the lead horse. If that's what they wanted at the time, they would have taken Rashard Mendenhall with the No. 22 pick in 2008. (We feel obligated to mention that the Cowboys could have also had Chris Johnson, Matt Forte, Ray Rice or Jamaal Charles with that pick.)

Their big mistake at the time was believing that Barber would be the long-time lead horse. The logic of using a first-round pick on a complementary player can be questioned, but the Cowboys' vision for Jones was 20/20. He's a dynamic playmaker in a change-of-pace role, just like he was while playing in Darren McFadden's shadow at Arkansas.

Fragile Felix is a less-is-more kind of back. He's best in short bursts, especially if the defense is dragging its tongue after chasing another back and being challenged by the Cowboys' passing game.

Look at Jones' production in 2009. He averaged 5.9 yards per carry and got a little less than 10 touches per game. He was fresh for December and January, when his production peaked.

That's the perfect role for Jones. It's a luxury the Cowboys can afford now after getting a third-round bargain in Murray.

If you need any more help, Jason, just ask after your next news conference.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.