DeMarco Murray had a season for the ages last year, surpassing Emmitt Smith’s single-season team rushing record with 1,845 yards, leading the NFL in rushing and earning NFL offensive player of the year honors.
Although he was a valuable cog in the Dallas Cowboys’ 12-4 record and run to the NFC East title, the front office didn’t deem Murray as irreplaceable. That was evident in his seemingly easy decision to sign with Philadelphia for more money in free agency.
The Cowboys must replace his production in a run-oriented offense that they vow will not change.
Although “the who” remains in question, as least one of the competitors for the job, 2014 holdover Joseph Randle, believes the numbers can be duplicated, if not improved upon.
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“He had a good year last year, and I got to sit back and watch a lot, and I felt like there was a lot of meat left on the bone,” Randle said during a break from practices at organized team activities Wednesday.
Randle, who averaged 6.7 yards per carry in limited opportunities as Murray’s backup last year, is not necessarily predicting he will chew off the rest of the meat.
He is in competition for the starting job along with free-agent signee Darren McFadden and long-shot Ryan Williams. Speedy Lance Dunbar is the only other veteran running back on the roster, but he is probably locked into a role as a third-down back, change-of-pace runner.
The Cowboys will continue to look for options at running back via free agency and throughout training camp in August. There’s the long-rumored trade possibility for disgruntled Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.
But short of that, the Cowboys believe they have players on the roster to get the job done as a committee, if not individually.
McFadden took the initial reps with the first team on Wednesday, but Randle got his turn in what is going to be a fierce competition, running backs coach Gary Brown said.
“They are all getting chances with the ones, and they are performing,” Brown said. “They know there is a job to be won and they all want it. At the same time, they are going to work hard to get better. If they get better, the team gets better. We don’t have a winner right now. We will see what happens when the time comes.”
McFadden is the biggest name and seemingly the most intriguing as a former 2008 first-round bust of the Oakland Raiders. He rushed for 4,247 yards in seven injury-plagued seasons there before signing with the Cowboys in March.
McFadden, who has not averaged more than 3.4 yards per carry since 2011, believes he can have a breakout season in Dallas because of the league’s best offensive line, proven quarterback in Tony Romo and an overall better environment.
“I feel great,” McFadden said. “It’s a lot of opportunity for me here. I have a lot of great players around me. I know I come with a lot of tags. I just want to come out there and grind.
“I’m running like it’s my last time.”
The Cowboys are impressed with McFadden and believe he still has the explosive skill set that made him a first-round pick and the motivation to finally live up to expectations.
“I like what I see,” Brown said. “He had tremendous burst, tremendous speed. I can’t wait to see him in pads. He is smart and he is hungry. He wants to prove that he wasn’t the bust that people are talking about. We are going to give him the opportunity to prove that.”
Another factor for McFadden is that the Cowboys believe he is a one-cut runner who fits their zone-blocking scheme well.
“He is a great for the outside zone scheme,” Brown said. “He is a put-his-foot-in-the-ground type guy. He wants to get going forward.”
McFadden has competition from Randle, who is also explosive and has shown he can thrive in this scheme.
The key for Randle is proving he can handle pass protection, as well as earning the trust of his teammates on and off the field after two arrests over the past year, one for shoplifting and a second on a marijuana charge that was dropped. He was not charged in a domestic violence case.
“Everything you go through in life, you learn from it and I learned from it,” Randle said. “I’ve moved past it. I’ve grown up.
“Just be here day in and day out and earning Tony’s trust and all the older guys’ trust, the whole team’s trust, including the coaching staff.”
Not only does Randle believe Murray left some meat on the bone, but he also believes he is the man for the job.
“If they ask me to do that, I’m ready for it,” Randle said.
Clarence E. Hill Jr., 817-390-7760