2 Dallas COWBOYS

An explosive, every-down back is needed, and Felix Jones says he's ready
September 05, 2010

WHEN THE Cowboys drafted Felix Jones and Tashard Choice to round out their backfield in 2008, their running game seemed perfectly balanced. Jones, the 207-pound whirling dervish from Arkansas, would be the home run threat that 215-pound between-the-tackles back Marion Barber was not, and Choice would provide a receiving threat, as well as all-around depth.

In the two years since, something very big has happened. Literally. Jones, tired of taking a beating (he missed 12 of his first 32 NFL games due to injury), bulked up to 220 pounds during this off-season. Surprisingly, he's now even bigger than Barber. And the Cowboys want to expand his role in the offense if he can stay healthy. It's no wonder they want him to touch the ball more—among all NFL backs who carried the ball more than 15 times last season, none averaged more per carry than Jones's 5.9 yards.

It seemed odd during training camp to see a lightning-quick back bordering on blocking-back size. But the new-model Jones looked good—sculpted and much more solid—while appearing to retain the quickness that makes him so valuable. "I spent a lot of time in the weight room this year, working on my upper-body strength and power," Jones says. "I want to be able to give out more punishment than the defense gives to me, and it hasn't been that way so far in the NFL. But I want to do that without losing any of my speed. Overall, I want to be a more explosive back."

It seems reasonable to expect that if Jones stays in one piece and plays all 16 games this season, he could carry the ball almost twice as much as Barber. (In 2009, Barber had 214 carries to Jones's 116.) Dallas would like to run more and bleed the clock; last year the Cowboys ran the ball 436 times (43% of their offensive snaps). Their goal this season is to decrease the number of plays in which quarterback Tony Romo is exposed to injury. He threw, ran or was sacked on 619 offensive snaps in '09. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett wouldn't mind if Romo's total touches got slashed to 550.

Jones has averaged just 7.3 carries a game in his first two seasons. To think he can run the ball 15 to 20 times a game is a huge leap of faith for the Cowboys. But Dallas wants to see if Jones and his quickness can give the offense a four-quarter dimension that it hasn't had in years—maybe since Tony Dorsett left town 22 years ago.

"Every football player wants to play, but I'm not going to demand 20 carries," says Jones, a quiet kid from Tulsa—indeed, it's hard to imagine him demanding anything. "I'm willing and ready to carry a heavy load, but I just want to work within the team to be the player they need me to be. We've got a real tight group at running back; no one's demanding anything. We help each other get better. Today, Tashard saw me make a mistake in my blocking technique, and he came over right away and corrected it. So we're not going to have a problem with who gets the ball."

Training camp, of course, has never been Jones's problem. As hard as he worked in the off-season to get stronger, he also wanted to ensure that he makes it through a full campaign. "I've had those nagging injuries that bothered me," he says. "That can't continue to happen."

Jones grew up a Cowboys fan in Tulsa and was, naturally, an Emmitt Smith fan. When Jones actually got the chance to meet Smith at a practice during his rookie season, he found himself awestruck. Smith gave Jones some instruction on how to meet a linebacker head-on and block him, but Jones doesn't remember what he said. "I was in shock," he says. "It's amazing that sometimes, when Emmitt's around, he'll come up and give me some advice about the position or how to run. I still act like a little kid when I'm around him."

But the time to be a fan is over, and the time has come to produce as a playoff-team running back. There is the little matter of Super Bowl XLV being held at Cowboys Stadium this year. No team has ever played the championship game on its own field.

"Playing the Super Bowl at home is the kind of pressure we appreciate," Jones says. In Dallas it's the kind of pressure that never goes away.

PROJECTED STARTERS

WITH 2009 STATS

COACH WADE PHILLIPS

OFFENSE

2009 Rank: 2

QB TONY ROMO

G 16

ATT 550

COMP 347

PCT 63.1

YARDS 4,483

TD 26

INT 9

RATING 97.6

RB MARION BARBER III

G 15

ATT 214

YARDS 932

AVG 4.4

REC 26

YARDS 221

AVG 8.5

TTD 7

FB DEON ANDERSON

G 16

ATT 0

YARDS 0

AVG —

REC 1

YARDS 5

AVG 5.0

TTD 0

WR MILES AUSTIN

G 16

REC 81

YARDS 1,320

TTD 11

WR ROY WILLIAMS

G 15

REC 38

YARDS 596

TTD 7

TE JASON WITTEN

G 16

REC 94

YARDS 1,030

TTD 2

LT DOUG FREE

G 16

HT 6'6"

WT 320

LG KYLE KOSIER

G 16

HT 6'5"

WT 309

C ANDRE GURODE

G 16

HT 6'4"

WT 318

RG LEONARD DAVIS

G 16

HT 6'6"

WT 355

RT MARC COLOMBO

G 9

HT 6'8"

WT 320

DEFENSE

2009 RANK: 9

DE MARCUS SPEARS

G 16

TACKLES 25

SACKS 2½

INT 0

NT JAY RATLIFF

G 16

TACKLES 40

SACKS 6

INT 0

DE IGOR OLSHANSKY

G 16

TACKLES 40

SACKS 1½

INT 0

LB ANTHONY SPENCER

G 16

TACKLES 67

SACKS 6

INT 1

LB BRADIE JAMES

G 16

TACKLES 113

SACKS 2

INT 0

LB KEITH BROOKING

G 16

TACKLES 106

SACKS 3

INT 0

LB DEMARCUS WARE

G 16

TACKLES 57

SACKS 11

INT 0

CB TERENCE NEWMAN

G 16

TACKLES 57

SACKS 0

INT 3

FS ALAN BALL

G 16

TACKLES 31

SACKS 0

INT 0

SS GERALD SENSABAUGH

G 15

TACKLES 66

SACKS 0

INT 1

CB MIKE JENKINS

G 16

TACKLES 49

SACKS 0

INT 5

SPECIAL TEAMS

P MAT MCBRIAR

PUNTS 72

AVG 45.1

NET 39.9

K DAVID BUEHLER

FG 0--0

XP 0--0

POINTS 0

PR AKWASI OWUSU-ANSAH (R)

RET 22

AVG 12.5

TD 3

KR AKWASI OWUSU-ANSAH (R)

RET 16

AVG 29.7

TD 2

New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

2010 SCHEDULE

2009 Record: 11--5

September

12 at Washington

19 Chicago

26 at Houston

October

3 BYE

10 Tennessee

17 at Minnesota

25 N.Y. Giants (M)

31 Jacksonville

November

7 at Green Bay

14 at N.Y. Giants

21 Detroit

25 New Orleans (T)

December

5 at Indianapolis

12 Philadelphia

19 Washington

25 at Arizona (S)

January

2 at Philadelphia

(M) Monday (T) Thursday (S) Saturday

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL Rank: 3

Opponents' 2009 winning percentage: .543

Games against 2009 playoff teams: 7

ANALYSIS

Dallas faces just one playoff team, the Vikings, in the first two months of the season, but then gets last year's Super Bowl participants in back-to-back weeks. Last year the Cowboys had their first winning record in December-January since the 1996 season; they'll need to repeat that feat with three division opponents in their last four games.

SPOTLIGHT

Doug Free, Left tackle

FLOZELL ADAMS, who was cut loose in the off-season, missed only 10 starts at left tackle in the last 11 years for the Cowboys. And even though his mobility had declined significantly in recent years, there's certainly some risk in handing the job to Free, a backup at right tackle in 2009 until he took over for starter Marc Colombo when the latter went down with a broken leg last November. Dallas's fourth-round pick in '07, Free last played left tackle in '06, as a senior at Northern Illinois. But starting 46 games on the left side in places like Bowling Green, Ohio and Kalamazoo, Mich., is one thing. Starting at FedEx Field on national TV in Week 1 is another. And bouts with the Bears' Julius Peppers and the Texans' Mario Williams in Weeks 2 and 3 will be major tests. The only thing at stake in the Cowboys' decision to hand him the job, of course, is the blind side of franchise quarterback Tony Romo.

"I try not to think about the pressure," Free said as Dallas camp broke last week. "The way I look at it is, I played left tackle a lot in college, and it's a position that's very familiar to me. I focus on the fundamentals of the job and what I have to do to succeed."

By all accounts he did well in training camp, showing better lateral quickness and more athleticism than the worn-down Adams. "He's going to be fine," Romo says. "I'm not just saying this because he's going to be there and [so] I have to. I really like what I've seen. I'm comfortable with him there." Without a quality backup to Free, Romo's got little choice.

PHOTOBOB ROSATOBULK MOVER The speedy Jones added more than 10 pounds of muscle in the off-season. PHOTOKYLE TERADA/US PRESSWIRE
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)