The sting from the recent playoff loss to the Giants had not yet cleared Valley Ranch when the talk had already shifted to the upcoming draft. The Cowboys, having traded a late first round pick the previous year to Cleveland (used on Brady Quinn), were entering the draft with two first round selections.
Early speculation was that the team was looking to add a corner and a receiver in the first round. But talk quickly shifted to a potential blockbuster deal in which the Cowboys would look to deal with the newly departed Bill Parcells in Miami, acquiring the first overall pick in the draft.
It seemed to be a perfect fit. Miami was so full of holes that one player was not going to make them any better and the Cowboys were seemingly that one player away from making another Super Bowl run. Then of course there was the obvious Razorback connection between Jerry Jones and the probable number one pick, Darren McFadden.
The only problem for Cowboys fans was a young bruising runner named Marion Barber. It was clear that any deal to Miami would include Barber, who had made a name for himself as a hard-nosed runner. He was once referred to as the "toughest runner in the league to bring down" by Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
I will admit that after watching Adrian Peterson run over the league as a rookie, I was at least curious what a player like McFadden could bring to an already talent laden team in Dallas. But after a quick daydream I stepped back into reality.
Barber came out of nowhere in 2006 to lead the NFC in total touchdowns with sixteen, and followed that up with a pro bowl selection in his third season. So why would the Cowboys be considering moving him for an unproven college kid?
The answer is more about the direction of the league and less about Barber’s running ability. With the new wide open NFL, more and more teams are moving to the running back by committee. Barber was no exception as he has been splitting time with Julius Jones since coming into the league in 2006.
Naturally, there were questions about whether Barber could carry a full workload and still remain effective and healthy throughout an entire season.
It was the split with Jones that allowed Barber to be the punishing runner he was without breaking down as the season wore on. Jones started and played most of the first quarters with Barber getting two to four series in the first half. This allowed him to remain fresh as the opposing defense began to wear down in the second half.
It seems that the question of durability was key for Jerry Jones and team management as they contemplated what to do prior to the draft. Barber was also a restricted free agent, making it now or never for Dallas if they wanted to lock up Barber before he hit free agency.
To the joy of most Cowboys fans, the team decided against a major move for McFadden and locked up Barber with a seven year forty-five million dollar extension, including sixteen million guaranteed.
So while the contract issues got resolved, many people were still wondering, with Julius now gone to Seattle, if Barber could handle the added pounding of being the full time starter.
Wade Phillips, admitting that he is a “defensive-guy,” has left much of the offensive planning to second year offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. Coming into last season Garrett decided to stay with the combination of Jones and Barber with Barber coming off of the bench.
It was one of the many correct decisions Garrett made as the offense exploded, leading the team to a 13-3 record and the number one seed in the NFC.
But as the team came down the stretch of the regular season, the offense began to slow down, after averaging over twenty-eight points per game they scored only thirty-two in the final three games.
So as Dallas began to prepare for the NY Giants in the divisional round of the playoffs, Garrett decided that the offense needed a boost and he chose to start Barber over Jones.
Barber responded in a big way, rushing for 101 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries in the first half. But it was the second half in which Barber and the whole Cowboys offense stalled. Barber could only manage 28 yards on 11 carries, as the eventual Super Bowl champs began to bring pressure as Dallas fell behind.
It was the stagnant second half that had some calling for a big name back like McFadden to compliment Romo and the passing attack, instead of the two back combo the Cowboys had been using since Parcells took over in 2003.
To compliment Barber after the loss of Jones, the Cowboys decided to draft another young Arkansas running back, Felix Jones, with the 22nd pick of the first round. Since the draft took place before Barber received his long term deal, many were questioning why Dallas took Jones over another top prospect—Rashard Mendenhall out of Illinois.
While Mendenhall was considered a work horse back, Jones had been touted as a third down, change of pace back unable to carry a full workload. This was something that did not concern the Cowboys as they had planned on that being Jones’s role from day one.
So as training camp nears and the Cowboys offense looks to build on last year's break out season, there are still some questions about Barber’s ability to withstand the punishment that comes with the way he runs.
The key will be how Garrett decides to use Barber and Jones. If he were to stay the course, which he has shown he doesn’t like to do, Barber would receive the lion share of the carries and Jones would spell him often, with Jones getting two or three series a game.
There has been talk during OTAs that the two could share the backfield in some packages. Presumably passing downs, as it is unlikely that either would be asked to lead block for the other.
It seems that keeping Barber fresh should be the number one concern for the Cowboys. He is clearly an elite running back in the NFC and needs 20 to 25 touches a game. He has a nose for the end zone and is great on blitz pickup, not to mention his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
Jones should fit in nicely as he spells for Barber and may see some time as a slot receiver as the season goes on.
What will be interesting to see is who gets the snaps on third down. Barber has excelled as a third down back, always willing to sacrifice his body for a few extra yards. Now, with him getting the bulk of the carries, it may be Jones on the field for third down. But first he must prove that he is able to pick up the blitz that so hampered the 'Boys in their playoff loss to the Giants.
In either case, Felix Jones needs to be productive, because if the Cowboys want to defend their NFC East crown and end thier playoff drought, they are going to need a healthy Marion Barber down the stretch.
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