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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.