When you get the scapegoat title in sports you just have to play through it. Nearly every significant player on an NFL team has been the one under fire at some point. Coaches and quarterbacks are probably tagged with it the most. If you don't make good with your opportunities, than you better be ready to be the subject of ridicule in newspaper columns, radio shows and water cooler conversations.
Felix Jones was the first Cowboy to be titled a "bum" by fans and pundits this season. Literally. Jones came into the first day of training camp in Oxnard unable to pass the team's mandatory conditioning test (a test that is rumored around the league to be lenient on veterans like Jones). His failure to be in shape combined with his lackadaisical demeanor and the fact that he was entering a contract year, all led to Cowboys faithful giving up on him long before the schedule even started.
Up until last week's game in Baltimore, Jones was all but tagged as some sort of valueless pariah to the team, who should not only be allowed to leave as soon as his contract expires, but should be encouraged to. I completely admit to buying into the notion that Jones just didn't care. But the question is whether or not that was ever fair?
The failed conditioning test was the perfect excuse to scapegoat Jones, but it must be understood that Jones was on the mend from shoulder surgery over the entire offseason coming into training camp. Professional athletes are still expected to meet requirements, but it's not always as cut and dry as we want it to seem. For a coach who doesn't like excuses, Jason Garrett was willing to provide one for Jones when he talked about him on Wednesday.
"I think the biggest issue with Felix was the injury that he had and missing the entire offseason," Garrett said. "It was difficult for him to run and get himself in the condition that he needs to get into to play running back in the National Football League. But that was a long time. He's played a lot of football since then."
Garrett also shot down a common belief about Jones this season.
"Weight was never the issue for Felix."
I'll admit to getting the notion that Jones was not practicing with the same intensity as the rest of the team in Oxnard. But, I also won't pretend to be a seasoned coach or scout who would notice if a player practiced hard exactly when he needed to, and perhaps the failed conditioning test left me a skewed view of him throughout camp.
The other big issue working against Jones has been that he is in a contract year; a title that has taken on a very pejorative meaning in sports the past 10 years. In some cases, those like LeBron James and Albert Pujols have conditioned fans to prematurely dislike great players as a way to cope with their departure before they even leave. One could argue that's what Texas Ranger fans are going through with Josh Hamilton. But with less significant players like Felix Jones, fans and media often bask in the fact that the financial decision (which is not ours to make) is seemingly an easy one. "Don't give him the money." "Let him walk."
What the Cowboys would spend that extra money on is impossible to know, but the unknown always seems more exciting than what they have. Calling Jones "a bum" and reveling in the fact that it is his contract year logically doesn't make that much sense. The notion that Jones isn't trying in a year that could cost him upwards of millions of dollars is farfetched at best.
But if Jones is putting forth his best effort and the production has still been so lackluster, then what is the problem? There are two options: Either Jones just isn't very good or the opportunities have not been there.
So let's take a look at the opportunities that Jones has had.
In the season opener against the Giants, he had zero carries and was thrown to zero times.
In the Seattle game, Jones had one carry for one yard. He had four receptions for 40 yards, including a 23-yard play. He did, of course, fumble the opening kickoff return, which, along with the failed conditioning test, became the two most prominent moments of his season and the two reasons he was the subject of such ridicule.
In the grind-out game against the Buccaneers, Jones was again only given one carry and he was tackled before the line of scrimmage for a loss of one yard. He had two catches for 28 yards, including a 15-yard play.
Against Chicago, the Cowboys only handed the ball to running backs a total of 12 times. Jones received one of those carries. It was a 13-yard burst up the middle for a first down.
In four games he had been handed the ball three times. How could we judge him off that? Jones is labeled as a quick-burst back that will make plays for first downs if given enough opportunities. One could actually argue that it is impressive that, considering how small his role within the offense has been, Jones has still managed to have three plays of over 10 yards this season.
When DeMarco Murray went down in the first quarter against Baltimore, Jones was given the ball 18 times and ran for 92 yards and a touchdown. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry, which actually raised his season average to 5.0 compared to DeMarco Murray's 4.4.
We might ask Jones to be microwave-type player that should take advantage of every carry he gets, but if you ask him, it's all about opportunity. Jones was asked what it felt like to know that he would be the starting back on Sunday against the Panthers.
"It gives you some confidence to go out there and know that you're going to provide and help your team, so you've got to be ready," he said. "I was ready when I was coming in, but I'm even more ready right now.
"It gives you a boost of confidence to go out there and play."
If opportunity creates confidence for Jones then there have been reasons for him to lack confidence this season.
I'm not ready to anoint Jones just yet. There is still much left to be seen to determine whether or not he deserves any type of contract from the Cowboys next offseason.
At times this year I was one of Jones' harshest critics, but I am at least willing to entertain the possibility of having to eat crow.