THE WULF DEN: POSITIONAL PREVIEW – RB/FB JULY 26, 2004 This is the second part of an eight-part preview of the positional battles Cowboy fans can look forward to in training camp beginning July 31st. In this second segment, we will explore the offensive backfield, where the recent addition of Eddie George has added some much needed depth and experience. Like the QB position, the Cowboys organization has been blessed with some remarkable players at the RB position. Many older fans, like myself, never thought they’d see the like of Tony Dorsett again. At best, we hoped for someone who could come close. So when Emmitt Smith continued to pound away at opposing defenses game after game, year after year, regardless of his lack of size or the injuries he suffered, we were blessed beyond our expectations. The fact that he became the all-time leading rusher in NFL history, surpassing the incomparable Walter Payton, was just the icing on the cake. But we were also set up for a tremendous disappointment, as we should never have expected to catch lightning in a bottle for a third time without a few struggles. Troy Hambrick played that part to a tee, running his mouth until he got his opportunity and then doing little to nothing with his big chance. But he’s gone now, scrambling to find a role in Oakland, and the Cowboys will have yet another starting RB this year. To complicate matters even further, the Cowboys shocked nearly everyone in the drafting world by passing on both RB Steven Jackson of Oregon State and RB Kevin Jones of Virginia Tech when both inexplicably fell into their laps at the 22nd pick. Instead, they opted to trade out of the first round to acquire a second and fifth round pick in 2004 and an extra first round pick in 2005, then turned around and used that 2nd rounder to take Notre Dame RB Julius Jones. Are you kidding me? Both of the RBs considered to be potential franchise-caliber guys are available, and they take neither one? This may have been one of the biggest curveballs in draft history. There were three people, however, who were not surprised by the pick: Bill Parcells, Jerry Jones, and Julius Jones. Bill and Jerry had talked about what it would take to trade out of the first round, and when the right deal came along from Buffalo they just couldn’t pass it up. But it wasn’t a spur of the moment thing, as Parcells had informed Julius weeks earlier that he was their man if he was available and they had not yet addressed the RB position. Up until the beginning of this past week, there were many—myself included—who were very nervous about our prospects at RB. If Julius were “The Man” then there would be no problem. But if he struggled at all or was injured, there was little to no depth behind him. But then came Eddie George, and many of us are sighing a breath of relief. Not because we expect him to be the next Emmitt, or even the long-term solution. But because he provides depth at a position where it was sorely lacking, and will be able to both push and mentor Julius. And we haven’t even discussed the moves that are taking place at FB. So as the beginning of Camp in Oxnard approaches, let’s look at what we can expect from the individual players, and the backfield as a whole this season. Eddie George When Bill Parcells met with Eddie George face-to-face this past Friday, he reportedly told the 8-year veteran, “I’m not going to just hand you the starting position, but I expect you to win it.” That should tell us all we need to know about Parcells’ expectations of George this year, as well as what role Eddie may play should he fulfill those expectations. Of course, there are a lot of nay Sayers out there, talking about George’s age, his toe problems of a few years back, and his diminishing yards per carry in recent years. But if one looks deeper, we learn that George has had no problems from the toe surgery he had, and that his diminished yards per carry began when the Titans chose to go to a more pass-oriented attack that did not include a FB or, in many formations, a true blocking TE. As for his age, yes, he’s certainly seen his best years. But he should still have plenty in the tank as well. This is a guy that is considered by many to be one of the best physical specimens in football, who has started every game in his NFL career, and who has carried the ball more than 300 times each and every season. Now let’s be honest—he’s likely not going to recapture his form from his early years in the league. But to expect him to continue to churn out the yards as he has the past four years is not out of the question, assuming he is not expected to carry the ball 25-30 times per game. Over the past four years, he has averaged 343 carries for 1,161 yards (3.4 avg), 9 TDs, and less than 3 fumbles per season, while also catching 36 passes for 288 yards (8.0 avg) and a TD. It is far more likely, however, that he gets 10-15 carries per game, meaning to expect him to put up 800 yards and 6 TDs on the ground while catching 25 passes is not being too presumptuous. If he puts up those numbers, and can combine with Jones to form a legitimate one-two tandem, the running game should be significantly better than last year. Anything that he teaches Jones and the rest of the youngsters on the roster about how to be an NFL player and how to conduct yourself both on and off the field will increase his value even further. Julius Jones Talk about pressure. I mean, it would have been bad enough to be following in the footsteps of Emmitt Smith, albeit a year removed. And don’t think that pressure is gone just because Troy Hambrick got his shot as the lead man last season. The fact is that most people didn’t believe T-Ham had what it took to be the lead rusher for the Cowboys, and they were proven right. But his pitiful effort last year has only increased the pressure of needing to find the next franchise RB. So, magically, the draft fell exactly the way Cowboy fans worldwide wanted, and both Steven Jackson and Kevin Jones were available. I was online in a chat room at the time of the draft, and to call the atmosphere electric as we waited for the Cowboys to make their pick would be an understatement. But as the time dragged on, the whispers began. “I don’t like this. It’s taking too long” “I bet they’re trading down.” “They can’t trade down.” But they did. They traded down with Buffalo for multiple picks this year and a first rounder next year. Now the value of that trade won’t be known for a few years at least, but one effect of the trade is to significantly increase the pressure on whatever guy they would grab to be the rookie RB. Enter Julius Jones, who many “experts” said was taken too early. The same Julius Jones who had to sit out the 2002 season because he was academically ineligible. The same Julius Jones whose brother Thomas was a high first round pick (7th overall), and then failed to produce. Of course, he may turn that around this year in Chicago, but the fact remains that it doesn’t exactly fill Cowboy fans with excitement that they may be in line for the same experience. So why should we have any positive feelings about this guy? First, he’s not his brother, and productivity and potential can’t be judged by someone else, no matter how closely they may be related. Second, Parcells saw enough in him—whether ability or character or a combination of the two—to be comfortable assuring him that he would be “his guy” if the cards fell right. That doesn’t guarantee anything, but Parcells does have a pretty good eye for talent and character. Third, when he returned for his senior season, he showed that he has what it takes to be the lead RB—even in an offense where other teams’ defenses knew he was going to run the ball. In his senior year, Jones played in all 12 games, starting 7 of them, and rushed 229 times for 1,268 yards and 10 TDs. That’s a whopping 5.5 yards per carry. He also had 10 catches for 53 yards, but catching balls out of the backfield has clearly not been his strong point. Still, if he were to get 10 carries a game for the Cowboys while trading off with George, it would mean 880 yards and 7 TDs. But Jones may also be able to contribute on special teams, where Parcells wants an improved return game. Jones returned both punts and kicks at Notre Dame, although he concentrated almost exclusively on kickoffs his senior season. As a kickoff returner over his four-year career, he returned 59 kicks for 1,435 yards (24.3 avg) and a TD. So the idea of carrying the ball 10 times and returning kicks could make Jones doubly valuable. If he should be able to generate that kind of production, it would definitely be considered a successful season. And, combined with the expectations from Eddie George, we could be looking at a RB tandem that produces nearly 1,700 yards and 13 TDs, even though neither may reach 1,000 yards. It would also give us a good indication of whether he’ll be able to carry the load alone next season, when George may be departing. Reshard Lee His chances of making the roster took a hit when Eddie George was signed. Before the signing, Lee was the leading candidate for the back-up RB position—particularly after Erik Bickerstaff went out for the season with a torn Achilles’ tendon. Now, he’ll have to shine on special teams to have a chance at the roster—and beat out Aveion Cason and at least two of the FBs in the process to do so. Still, injuries can happen, and Lee won’t know what he’s really competing for until we reach the final cut down day. At worst, he’s a leading candidate for the practice squad, and could be snatched off of waivers by a team desperately in need of a RB—like the dumbstruck and Ricky Williams-less Dolphins. So what has he actually done, other than looking good in a couple of preseason games. Well, after a couple of years as a QB at a junior college, Lee red-shirted in 2000 in his first season at Middle Tennessee State. But in 2001 and 2002, he split time with Dwone Hicks, another promising young back, and the production of that running attack led the nation. So, looking at those two seasons, we see that Lee played in 22 games, starting five his senior year. In those 22 games, he had 218 carries for 1,432 yards (6.6 avg) and 10 TDs. He also caught 21 passes for 165 yards (7.9 avg) and returned 25 kicks for 515 yards (20.6 avg). So he has some production as a RB, and he has the ability to return kicks. But how well he does both—as well as how he carries out his other special teams assignments—will determine whether he can secure a spot on the roster. Aveion Cason The Cowboys traded a draft pick in last year’s draft to get Cason, and he contributed as a change of pace back with a lot of speed out of the backfield. But he has never been considered a legitimate alternative as an every down back because he has limited size (5-10, 204), even though he is trying to add some weight this offseason. He has also not been able to play in all 16 games thus far in his career, playing in only 26 games in three years, and starting only 3. He is also coming off of season ending knee surgery, so he has a lot of work ahead of him. Still, as a change of pace, he has had some production, averaging 4.6 yards per carry on the ground and 11.6 yards per reception in the air. He also has scored 2 TDs each of the last two seasons. But, as with Reshard Lee, his ticket onto the roster this year will be on special teams. He’s had some chances as a kick returner, but Parcells was so dissatisfied with the production on that squad last year that he signed and drafted multiple players to fix the problem. So he’ll have to go a long way to make the roster again this season. Richie Anderson Anderson is a FB in name only, as he has traditionally been used as more of a hybrid H-back for most of his career. Last season, he also became the main threat out of the backfield in third down situations, and is expected to fill that role this season as well. In fact, Parcells asked him to lose some weight this offseason to better fill that role—something Anderson has already done. So consider him a true third-down back this year, and expect his production to be comparable to what he has done in recent seasons. Over the last four years, Anderson has averaged 32 carries for 125 yards (3.9 avg), as well as 61 catches for 464 yards (7.6 avg) and 2 TDs. Expecting those numbers again is fair, particularly with him likely filling the role of third-down back full-time. He is also a key veteran leader in the locker room, and he is one of the few backs whose position is guaranteed, barring injury. Jamar Martin This is Jamar Martin’s third year, which is usually the year that Parcells expects young players to either show what they have or let’s them go. But to be fair to Martin, he lost his whole rookie season with a torn ACL early in training camp, and played behind Richie Anderson last season. That resulted in only one start despite playing in 14 games. But he did play more towards the end of the season, and the real question will be whether he can not only be a solid lead-blocker, but also contribute regularly on special teams. Now there is a concern that Martin may not be in the best shape. If that’s the case, he won’t last long against the competition in camp this year. If he is in shape, however, he should at least be on even ground with third year FB Darian Barnes, who was acquired from the Buccaneers during this year’s draft. Both are big, blocking FBs, but Barnes likely has an edge in the special teams department. If Martin has an edge beyond true blocking ability, it is that he has more experience in the regular offense. He has a year under his belt in the current offensive system and with the coaching staff, and two years with the organization, even if he spent the first year on IR. Last year, he only carried the ball 4 times for a total of 7 yards—not stellar by any stretch—but he did pick up 2 first downs on those runs. He also caught 2 passes for 9 yards—again not very impressive—but one of those picked up a first down as well. So he’s the guy that can give you a tough yard for a first down if you need it. Make him the lead blocker for a power runner like Eddie George, and you can almost hear Parcells salivating. But with Barnes already an NFL veteran, and Polite regarded by many as the top FB prospect in last year’s draft despite going undrafted, and he’ll have his work cut out for him. Darian Barnes As mentioned previously, Barnes was brought in via a trade with Tampa Bay during the seventh round of this year’s draft, and was labeled as a special teams performer. It makes sense, considering he had 5 tackles and an assist, a pass defensed, and a forced fumble on special teams last season. Sounds good, particularly knowing how much stock Parcells puts in special teams play. But Barnes’ weakness is his lack of playing time in the regular offense. He has never carried the ball in his two years in the league, and has caught only one pass for 6 yards. He has size, of course, measuring 6-2 and weighing in at 250 lbs. But being able to apply that properly within the offensive system is another question. Special teams may be where he makes his bread and butter, but he’ll have to show an aptitude to help the offense as well to beat out Martin and secure a roster spot. Lousaka Polite Perhaps the most intriguing possibility lies with undrafted rookie Lousaka Polite, who has all the makings of a “Parcells Guy”. He has good size (6-0, 245), athleticism, and strength, as well as a wealth of game experience, having started 40 of 46 games for Pittsburgh over his career. But what makes him a “Parcells Guy” is his leadership, both on the field and in the locker room. He was consistently named offensive captain—even when guys like WRs Antonio Bryant and Larry Fitzgerald and QB Rod Rutherford were on the squad—and was known as a leader in the weight room and throughout winter workouts as well. His coaches talked about how well he knew the offensive system, but also how he was constantly pushing to become better. Sounds like a prototypical “Parcells Guy” to me. But being a leader and a good guy off the field will only get you so far. You have to be able to play the game as well. And Polite can play. In his four years with the Panthers, Polite carried the ball 180 times for 655 yards (3.6 avg) and 4 TDs, while also catching 59 passes for 485 yards (8.2 avg) and 2 TDs. Those are fairly impressive numbers for a FB, especially one who is expected to be primarily a lead blocker. As we’ve come to take for granted at this point, however, his way onto the squad will likely be on special teams. Polite has played only sparingly on special teams, and his senior season stats only include 1 tackle and 1 forced fumble. The question will be how effective he can be in this area, and how quickly he can pick up the offense. If he can do both, he could be the surprise of training camp. If not, he’s a prime possibility for the practice squad, assuming he can clear waivers—which is not a given. Closing Thoughts There are only a few givens in the offensive backfield. Richie Anderson will make the squad, barring a season-ending injury, as will RBs Eddie George and Julius Jones. But there are a couple of questions that have to be answered. First, who will be the lead blocking FB? In Parcells’ power running game, he has to have one. But he’ll want one that can not only play on the offense, but contribute weekly on special teams as well. Martin has the edge on offense. Barnes has the edge on special teams. Polite has the all-around game and characteristics to come in as a sleeper and steal the position. This should be a good battle to watch. Second, will the Cowboys keep four offensive backs or five? If they only keep four, then the winner of the FB battle will get the last spot, and Cason, Lee, and the other two FBs will be out of luck—with Lee and possibly Polite being released with the idea of placing them on the practice squad assuming they clear waivers. If they keep five backs, then the last spot will come down to purely being a special teams player. This would likely favor Cason or Lee, as they have the chance to win the job as kick returner. Of course, they also have quite a bit of competition from various WRs and CBs, so that may not be much of an advantage. The Cowboys’ recent history suggests only keeping four backs, but that could very well change if someone steps up big on special teams. So there we have it: better than last season—better even than a couple of weeks ago—with the anticipation of increased offensive output on the ground…especially with productive play on the offensive line. In fact, with the improved conditioning of LG Larry Allen, and a repeat of last year’s Pro-Bowl performance by LT Flozell Adams, the left side of the running game could be the best we’ve seen in many years in Big D. But that’s a discussion for the next installment. Wulfman Comments? Send a private message to Wulfman on this site.