Joseph Randle wasn’t about to take the bait.
Two months after putting his cleat in his mouth by declaring the league’s leading rusher, DeMarco Murray, left “a lot of meat on the bone” last season, Randle politely walked away when asked how many yards he intends to have this season.
“He’s learning to keep his mouth shut and go in there and play,” tight end Jason Witten said. “He’s on it.”
The better question is: How many carries will Randle have? Fantasy owners are dying to know.
Murray tied for seventh in NFL history with 392 carries last season as the Cowboys ran it 508 times and threw it 506.
While Randle likely goes into the regular season as the presumptive starter after Murray’s departure for Philadelphia, Randle isn’t likely to come close to Murray’s total.
“Slim. Probably slim. Slim,” running backs coach Gary Brown agreed. “We’re going to try to spread that out and keep guys fresh.”
For much of their history, the Cowboys have relied on a franchise running back. The Cowboys produced a 1,000-yard rusher in 25 of their first 55 seasons.
Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith own 19 of those, with Calvin Hill, Herschel Walker, Julius Jones and Murray also having topped the 1,000-yard mark in their careers in Dallas.
But this season the Cowboys expect to spread it around like they did in the 10 seasons immediately after Smith’s departure before Murray stayed healthy enough to handle the load.
The Cowboys didn’t draft a running back after signing Darren McFadden in free agency. They have stayed off the veteran free agent market, even after placing the oft-injured McFadden on the physically unable to perform list to start training camp with a left hamstring strain.
Stephen Jackson, Ben Tate and Chris Johnson stand among the veteran running backs publicly campaigning for work with the Cowboys. But so far, the Cowboys have stood pat, willing to give Randle, McFadden and Lance Dunbar a chance.
“That don’t have nothing to do with me,” Randle said of veteran running backs wanting his job. “[They are] at home watching. So we’re just trying to get better here, where we are.
“… Could’ve, would’ve, should’ve.”
McFadden remains the most accomplished running back on the Cowboys’ roster, with 1,038 carries for 4,247 yards and 25 touchdowns, but he missed 29 games in his first six seasons with 15 different injuries. He has injured both hamstrings since signing with the Cowboys in March.
Randle and Dunbar have combined for 185 carries for 831 yards and five touchdowns in their five combined seasons.
Still, the Cowboys have confidence the trio can get the job done as well as Murray did behind an offensive line that arguably ranks as the best in football.
“We feel that in Randle we have a player who has the potential to be the kind of back that would step in there and be a No. 1 back,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “If he were not here, then I wouldn’t feel as good as we go into the season about what might happen.
“Then I’m going to look over there at McFadden, because McFadden does have the potential — the potential — with the right numbers of carries and the right opportunity, he has the potential to be not only a steady back, but a steady back that makes significant plays.
“To some degree, that’s the kind of back — if you add those two together — that we had in Murray. I think these guys, when you add potential, they give you some of that same potential, both physically as well as their opportunity and their experience to get us there.
“McFadden is an experienced back. Randle is not as experienced, but he’s got a chance to get in and use some, I think, very instinctive, natural running back qualities to have us give the position give us everything it can give us.”
The Cowboys had 2,354 rushing yards in 2014, second in the NFL. The bulk of those yards were gained by DeMarco Murray, who has since joined the Eagles. A look at Murray’s numbers last season, and those of Dallas’ players tasked with replacing him in 2015: