IRVING, Texas – Jerry Jones made himself perfectly clear after the draft: The Cowboys weren't trying to play "We told you so" with DeMarco Murray – or anyone who says the team can't duplicate a 12-win season without the franchise's single-season rushing record holder – by not drafting a running back.
They liked several in the early rounds. They were surprised Alabama's T.J. Yeldon was selected so early in the second round. Same with Northern Iowa's David Johnson in the third round.
In fact, if dynamic pass rusher Randy Gregory hadn't lasted to No. 60, a versatile back such as Miami's Duke Johnson could have been their pick.
But the front office believed they covered themselves to some degree by signing Darren McFadden in free agency. They have faith in their Pro Bowl-rich offensive line and sturdy blocking from Jason Witten and the tight ends. And with so many needs on defense, they weren't about to reach for an offensive skill player.
The Cowboys are optimistic about McFadden and the current running back depth chart that includes Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar and Ryan Williams. But executive vice president Stephen Jones has said repeatedly this offseason that player acquisition is a 365-days-a-year process. They're clearly keeping their eyes open for new talent, with free agent veterans Ben Tate and Felix Jones participating in a scheduled workout on Thursday.
Although no clear-cut committee is established yet, the Cowboys have taken steps to strengthen everything else around the running game this offseason:
Offensive Line: Eyebrows raised when Jerry Jones said the overall running attack is better now than last year when Murray tore through the defenses for a league-best 1,845 yards. His departure hurts, but the Cowboys expect their 24-year-old Pro Bowl linemen Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin to improve as the offense's foundation. The Cowboys didn't rest on that strength – they built on it by drafting tackle/guard Chaz Green and tackle Laurence Gibson and signing improbably-undrafted tackle/guard La'el Collins. That's good news for the backs. As Williams said excitedly, "We can all run behind them."
Pass Rush: Besides removing weight off Romo's plate, the brilliance of last year's run game was it served as a de facto second defense. The Cowboys won time of possession in 13 of 18 games, counting playoffs, and held the ball longer at least 10 minutes longer than four opponents. It was the perfect safeguard for Rod Marinelli's hard-playing, injury-plagued defense. This year, help is on the way. Sean Lee is back to help the middle of the defense, and the reinforcements up front – rookie defensive ends Randy Gregory and Ryan Russell, a developing DeMarcus Lawrence, and Pro Bowl-caliber rusher Greg Hardy when he returns from suspension – figure to help the defensive backs in coverage. The more the defense gets off the field, the less burden falls to the run game for controlling the clock – and the more possessions go to last year's fifth-ranked scoring offense (29.2 points per game).
Tony Romo: This isn't an offseason addition, but a welcomed improvement. The 35-year-old quarterback is ribbing teammates that he's the only guy getting younger at Valley Ranch. That's because he's moving around much better than the past two offseasons when he was recovering from two separate back procedures. Although he'll be on something of a pitch count, Romo is expected to participate in the upcoming OTAs and minicamp, something he hasn't really done consistently since 2012. As good as he was last year – he finished third in the league MVP voting with a career-best 113.2 passer rating – a full offseason should help Romo enter the season sharper than last year's Week 1, when he clearly was regaining his timing. The rest of the team will benefit.
All these elements should help the run game. But no matter who has the ball, expectations internally remain high.
"I still feel like we're going to find somebody that's going to have, not the majority of our carries, but a good bulk of our carries," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. "I think that person's going to rise to the top. What's interesting and exciting is we're going to find out. That's why we have this time and that's why we have (training camp in) Oxnard. That's what we do.
"We have a lot of optimism about it, but we have big expectations that regardless who's in there our execution is going to be at a high level."