The No. 1 question going into training camp for the Dallas Cowboys centered on how their running back corps would fill the void left by DeMarco Murray.
And that remains a question at the end of camp, although coach Jason Garrett sounded pleased with what he’s seen from the group over the past month.
Third-year back Joseph Randle is making strides in becoming an all-around player, Darren McFadden is finally healthy and practicing, and Lance Dunbar is the perfect fit as a change-of-pace back.
“I feel good about their progress,” said Garrett, who rewarded the team by breaking camp a day earlier than expected Thursday.
“Darren McFadden hasn’t been in this system before, so you like to see him out on the practice field. He’s done a good job the last couple weeks, got a couple carries in the game against San Francisco. We should see him more this weekend — and really the same thing with the other guys.
“They’re young players who need opportunities. I think they’ve done a good job in camp and we want to give them chances in these preseason games to get ready for the regular season.”
The Cowboys intend to take a committee approach primarily with those three backs, but that raises questions to some.
Murray, after all, was the clear-cut workhorse last season, piling up 1,845 yards on 392 carries during the regular season while Randle and Dunbar were used sparingly.
Every week, though, the Cowboys’ coaching staff had seemingly endless debates on whether they were doing the right things by riding Murray so much. They felt Randle and Dunbar were more than capable of handling a bigger role, but decided to go all-in on Murray’s hot hand.
Now, the Cowboys are hoping the mix of Randle, McFadden and Dunbar can make up for the loss of Murray.
In the end, if those three can reproduce Murray’s 1,800 yards in some fashion, isn’t that essentially the same thing?
Pro Football Hall of Famer and NFL Network analyst Michael Irvin certainly didn’t think so when he visited camp earlier this month.
“No, because what it doesn’t do is tell the defense to come in and try to stop the run, so we can just filet you like a fish and leave you in the alley,” Irvin said. “You see what I mean? That’s the difference.
“So you would have to establish that you are a great running game and a great running team and three backs at 600 yards won’t establish that. I’m just giving you the reality.”
The Cowboys have a different perspective on the matter and, in fact, feel that spreading the carries around could make them a more dangerous offense. It forces teams to game-plan for three backs, rather than one.
Randle has shown flashes early in his career that he can be a difference-making player in the league, and is eager to prove he can handle the load.
The Cowboys have raved how mature and professionally Randle has handled himself so far in camp on the field.
“He’s been on point with not only his run stuff, but his pass-game stuff,” running backs coach Gary Brown said. “I always try to tell him … ‘who are you without the ball? I know what you can do with it, what can you do without it?’
“We want to be complete football players. We don’t just want to be runners. Guys who are just runners don’t last in the league very long. We can get anybody to go out here and just run. We want guys who can catch the ball, pass protect, protect the football, do the things that are necessary to make an offense run.”
McFadden, meanwhile, has shown the burst that made him the fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft. He said he feels he is past the hamstring issues that slowed him most of camp.
McFadden showed last season he can get through an entire season healthy, albeit in a more limited role with the Oakland Raiders. He had 155 carries last season, fewer than 10 a game.
But McFadden doesn’t think that’s the reason he played his first full season in seven years.
“You can go out there and get one carry and get hurt,” McFadden said. “I don’t feel like it has anything to do with it. You’re just going out there playing ball.”
Nobody has separated themselves yet and it remains a question of how good and effective this running game by committee can be.
Drew Davison, 817-390-7760