ARLINGTON, Texas – From the time he signed with the Cowboys in March, there's been talk of what Darren McFadden could be capable of behind the Dallas offensive line.
It would be unwise to jump to conclusions based on one game, but McFadden finally offered a glimpse of that potential on Saturday against the Vikings. Six days after an uninspiring debut against San Francisco, McFadden was one of the stars of the Cowboys' dress rehearsal game, tallying 37 yards on four carries in the first half.
"I think that what you saw was vintage McFadden," said Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones. "You saw that acceleration, you saw that he's a seasoned, veteran running back that can take what's given him."
The oft-stated hope is that the eight-year veteran can tap into the talent – not to mention the good health – that made him the No. 4 draft pick in 2008. Given his long injury history, the wait for him to recover from an offseason hamstring injury hasn't been a patient one.
"He had a little injury bug with us at the outset, but he has been practicing with us the past couple of weeks and he has done a good job," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett.
That frustration will be forgotten if McFadden can maintain his 9.2 yards per carry average against Minnesota.
"It just felt good running around with my teammates," McFadden said. "They opened up some holes and I had a chance to hit them. It was great to run around behind those guys."
Through a month of training camp, it's been easy to hand the starting job to Joseph Randle, namely due to the lack of competition. The third-year back was designated the starter against the Vikings, but it was his turn to be underwhelming with carries for 15 yards – though he did add a nifty eight-yard reception.
If McFadden can build on Saturday, though, the much-discussed running back battle may finally take shape during the build up to the season opener.
It wasn't a proposition that bothered Randle, who said he's content to let the coaching staff sort out the pecking order.
"We'll let the coaches do their job, and I think we'll keep doing our job – running the ball," he said.
With two weeks until the season opener, though, Jones sounded satisfied by the glimpses he's seen of all three of his primary ball carriers. Assuming they can stay on the field, Jones said he's confident in the trio to deliver.
"I expect that 21 has the talent to make some of the plays that we saw him make tonight. I certainly know that 20 can make them, and Dunbar can do the same," Jones said. "I know that I'll take – if they're healthy – I'll take their skill and what they can bring to our offense. I'll take that and go to the game against the Giants and won't ask for anything more."
Tony Romo didn't get injured in the loss to the Vikings, though he addressed the media with a bandage under his left eye.
"My stye's back. So I'm going to have to go get it … it's just lanced," he said. "So it'll be just like going to get it cut a little bit. I'm sure we'll be back to an ophthalmologist again this week."
Romo had the problem creep up at the start of training camp and was held out of practice for a day after he had it removed. Given the injury issues Romo has faced in the last two years, it didn't sound like a particularly troubling problem.
The back problems that have plagued him certainly don't look like an issue, either. In two quarters of work, Romo completed 5-of-8 passes for 88 yards and two touchdowns – the second of which saw him pull off some of his patented evasive maneuvers before firing a strike to Lucky Whitehead.
"I have talked about that plenty of times, about how obviously I am able to drive the ball and push and explode when I am trying to move," he said. "That is a great sign compared to last year."
One stat says it all about Morris Claiborne's opportunity to play a half of football on Saturday night. His two quarters against the Vikings were more preseason football than he's played since his rookie years, back in 2012.
"It's been a long time, but it just felt good to be back out on the field and be back out there with my teammates – just running around out there," he said.
Claiborne was healthy when camp opened back on July 28, but the Cowboys have been incredibly cautious with their former first-round pick. They began by limiting his practice reps, and even when he returned fully to practice, he was held out of the first two preseason games.
"So much of when a guy is coming off an injury and hasn't played yet is seeing what their demeanor is about," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. "What do they feel like and do they look comfortable?"
From that standpoint, Claiborne looked perfectly fine. He did draw an ugly defensive pass interference penalty for an 11-yard Minnesota game – a play that secondary coach Jerome Henderson said he could have made.
"I was like 'Throw it. Throw it. Please throw it,'" Henderson said. "And then he threw it, and Mo just got sped up. But I think he'll grow from that."
It was the only lapse of his night, as he fought off offensive pass interference to prevent a completion in the end zone. For a guy in need of both playing time and confidence, it was a step in the right direction.
"I'm just playing," Claiborne said. "I keep saying: I put in a lot of work, and God has truly blessed me to be where I'm at right now. I'm going to take full advantage of it."
Added Henderson: "I think he's in a good place right now."
Not So Special Teams
It's been easy to forgive the special teams errors that have plagued the Cowboys this preseason, given the amount of inexperienced players making those mistakes.
The Cowboys' veteran special teamers got to play together against the Vikings, however, which made it all the more disheartening to see Cordarrelle Patterson take a kickoff 107 yards to the house immediately after a Dallas touchdown.
"We certainly have to get better in that area," Garrett said. "The first couple weeks, were playing a lot of our more veteran special teams players, but they did get a chance to play a little bit more tonight. We'll go back and evaluate a little bit more on what happened in those plays."
With the most meaningful game of the preseason behind them, it'll be a big point of emphasis for the Cowboys to fix their woeful coverage units.