OXNARD, Calif. – The Cowboys arrived in Oxnard two and a half weeks ago with running back by far the most anticipated training camp position battle.
Finally, the competition is starting to take shape.
The two backs expected to challenge Joseph Randle for carries, Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar, returned to practice Saturday on a limited basis. It was McFadden's first practice of camp after he spent the first 17 days on the Active/Physically Unable to Perform list. Dunbar missed the previous 10 days with a sprained ankle.
And with Randle recovered from an oblique strain, the three offseason candidates to replace the departed DeMarco Murray were finally on the field together in pads. It's possible all three get back to full participation before the second preseason game at San Francisco a week from Sunday.
"They'll determine what their role is," running backs coach Gary Brown said. "I'm sure they're going to go out here and fight for their role. Whatever role that they end up having, they're going to take that and run with it and be the best that they can possibly be."[embeddedad0]
Forget determining a starter for a moment – recently the Cowboys have had difficulty fielding enough backs for practice. Undrafted rookie Gus Johnson injured his shoulder as the fill-in starter for Randle, McFadden and Dunbar in last Thursday's preseason opener against San Diego. On Saturday the team signed two more backs, Ben Malena and Michael Hill, for depth.
It's a delicate balance: The Cowboys want to ensure players such as McFadden, who has a history of soft-tissue injuries, are fully healthy and ready to compete. They also want to see these backs compete.
One thing hasn't changed, though: Team officials have maintained they aren't desperate to sign a veteran free agent running back just because their current backs have sustained relatively minor injuries in the month of August.
Talent acquisition is 365 days a year, as executive vice president Stephen Jones has said for months – meaning the front office would never close the door on bringing in more help if needed. But the team remains willing to give the current group a good, long look in preseason.
"As far as I'm concerned, we're right on schedule as far as having a back or backs ready to go for the New York Giants (in the Sept. 13 opener)," team owner/general manager Jerry Jones said. "I'm not in any way anxious, in any way."
McFadden, a seven-year veteran, says he hears but chooses not to listen to the constant public chatter on the state of the running back position.
"I only worry about what I can worry about here and control what I can control," McFadden said. "I just have to roll with it. That comes along with social media and different things. It's something I'm not really concerned about. I'm going to work hard regardless."
When Murray signed with the Eagles in March, the Cowboys envisioned new opportunities for Murray's backups, Randle and Dunbar. They also signed McFadden to a two-year contract believing their system and offensive line would allow him to thrive.
"I think he has a chip on his shoulder," Brown said. "He wants to prove that he was worth the (draft) pick he was. I know he had some problems in Oakland with health and things of that nature, but he's here now, he's excited, he seems like he's reinvigorated, and he's ready to go."
And the competition we're finally close to seeing on a full scale?
"I think competition makes everybody great," Brown said. "So I think now that there's some competition out here, you're going to see some hellified running."