IRVING, Texas - Got to give credit where credit is due, and admit this didn't dawn on me until . . . .
Walking back towards the locker room after one of those five mini-camp practices, Bill Parcells sauntered by after coaching up his return guys, and sort of under his breath without breaking stride says to me, "How'd you like those running backs?"
Big smile follows, with an approving nod, as in "best group I've had since I've been here."
No kidding. Not even close, come to think of it.
Those running backs he speaks of are Julius Jones, Marion Barber, Anthony Thomas, Erik Bickerstaff and Tyson Thompson - a second-round pick, a fourth-round pick, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher/2001 offensive rookie of the year, a possibility and a young project with all the speed in the world.
Now Parcells didn't exactly go out on a limb when he would later say his talent at running back is "better than anytime I've been here." That's only two years. He might have said the best for the Cowboys since 2000.
And that's not some blasphemous statement. I'm well aware Emmitt Smith, only the NFL's all-time leading rusher, was still here in 2002, when he broke the NFL's career rushing record and in 2001, which was the final 1,000-yard season of his illustrious 15-year career.
But we're talking the entire package back there, and if you look at the running backs (plural) the Cowboys employed over these past four seasons, well, at least at this point, it would not even be close.
Take last year, and when you do, obviously you won't forget Jones only started the final seven games and played in just one of the first nine (Game 2). Let's see then, that was Eddie George, running as if he had a piano on his back; Richie Anderson, a fullback masquerading as an all-purpose running back at age 33; and second-year guy ReShard Lee, who the head coach didn't trust in the backfield.
No wonder the rookie Jones worked three consecutive 30-carry games when he returned.
Let's go back another year. That would be 1 A.E. (After Emmitt). The starter was Troy Hambrick, a career backup, which still is his role in Arizona if he doesn't get himself cut by not attending the Cardinals off-season practices. He wasn't even drafted into the league.
Then there was Anderson, the fullback and third-down back. Aveion Cason was back there, as was the rookie Bickerstaff, who had like one carry (at fullback) in college and had not played any football since 2001. And who could forget Parcells sinking to bringing Adrian Murrell out of retirement. The guy hadn't carried the ball since 2000.
Must have left Don Perkins, Calvin Hill, Duane Thomas, Tony Dorsett, Hershel Walker and Smith turning on their couches.
Now then, to carry on, in 2002, Emmitt was in his final year with the Cowboys, Hambrick was the backup, with all of 199 career carries, and then there was Michael Wiley. Remember him? The Ohio State running back the Cowboys were going to turn into a slot receiver? That was it.
And if you haven't covered your eyes yet, in 2001, it was the same trio, only Hambrick went into the season with all of six career carries and Wiley 24, and neither had rushed the ball into the end zone in their careers. Nice complements for your 32-year-old running back.
No wonder Parcells was smiling. And he wasn't even factoring in those two years before he got here. For a franchise which has prided itself with having franchise quarterbacks and top-shelf running backs, what in the world was going on? Poor voice of the Cowboys, Brad Sham, having to inform you guys "Carter handing off to Hambrick."
Get outta here.
Now at least on paper, those days seem gone, or at least the Cowboys darn well hope they are. Having Jones potentially for 16 games must make you drool after
seeing him rush for 803 yards and seven touchdowns in those final seven games. (That factors out to a 1,815-yard, 16 touchdown season over 16 games.)
"I know what Julius can do," Parcells says.
You bet he does.
Then there's Barber. OK, he's only a rookie, and only a fourth-round draft choice at that. But there appears to be something to this kid. He's bigger than you think, 6-0, 212. He's pretty nifty, too.
"The player Barber reminds me of that I had once before is a kid named Leon Johnson," Parcells said of his former Jets running back. "When we first got Leon (1997), he was your backup runner, third down back. He could return kickoffs, he could return punts, he had good hands, very versatile type player. Barber kind of reminds me of him somewhat.
"So that's kind of the role I hope he can play. To help me 20 to 25 plays on offense and 20 or 25 plays on special teams."
Now Thomas is a little bigger alternative back there. He's 6-2, 225. He's got some experience, having played four years in the NFL, with 37 starts.
But you get the feeling Thomas is going to have to sell himself to Parcells, that it's not an automatic he makes this 53-man roster, even if he was given a $400,000 signing bonus and promised a $600,000 base salary for one year. And even if he does, then it's neither automatic he's active on game day.
Just listen up.
"Now Anthony Thomas, I look at him as a between-the-tackle runner a little bit, OK," Parcells said. "A pretty tough guy, so my vision for him right now would be a thumper kind of running back-short yard and goal line.
"But that's not going to be enough. He's going to have to venture out into the special teams area, which is something he's not been asked to do in his past career much. So if he can't get into doing something on special teams, then there won't be enough jobs for him."
Either to make the roster or to dress on game day?
Then there is the two other youngsters, Bickerstaff, trying to return from last summer's surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon, and Thompson, who played only one season of Division I football. Bickerstaff showed promise in 2003, and had some "thumper" qualities if you're looking for a change of pace. But torn Achilles are hard to recover from, especially for a running back.
Thompson is raw, having played two years in junior college before this past season at San Jose State. But he's got some skills, especially speed, something that can't be coached. He ran the fastest 40 of all the rookies back in April.
"The other kids, they definitely got to fit on special teams," Parcells said, "and hopefully get - show enough that they are going to get the ball once in a while."
But as you can see, it's a whole lot different back there from last year, or the year before, or each of the two years before that. You got a young Julius, I'm guessing a rambunctious Barber, a Thomas looking for redemption and two youngsters desperately trying to make their way.
"I am pleased with what our backfield situation is in terms of how the running backs look like now," Parcells said. "That's much improved over anytime since I've been here, without a question, just on running skill."
Or anytime in the past four years, really, for that matter.
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