Cowboys hoping for a full-house backfield
IRVING, Texas — The most colorful personality on the Dallas Cowboys roster will be lucky if he averages one carry per game. Houston Texans castoff Lawrence Vickers has quickly emerged as one of the most entertaining voices at Valley Ranch.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has seen enough from the battering ram this offseason to compare him to the great Daryl "Moose" Johnston, who helped clear the path for Emmitt Smith's run to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the '90s. Told of the compliment following Wednesday's minicamp practice, Vickers appeared stunned. (Now he knows how we feel each time Jones steps in front of a hot mic.)
"Wow, I'm going to use that as positive energy," gushed Vickers. "I remember Emmitt taking [Johnston] with him to introduce him at the Hall of Fame ceremony. For someone that great to give someone else so much of the credit meant the world to me. It's inspiring."
Vickers blocked for All-Pro tailback Arian Foster in Houston and now he'll get the opportunity to line up in front of second-year player DeMarco Murray, who had a remarkable stretch last season. Murray broke out in Week 7 with 253 yards rushing on 25 carries in a win over the St. Louis Rams. His 466 yards in a three-game span topped Smith's best of 446 in 1993. Fullback Tony Fiammeta played a significant role in Murray's success, but he ended up missing part of the season with a mysterious illness. Murray's season ended Dec. 11 when he broke his ankle against the New York Giants.
He's made a full recovery from the injury and says it's not something he thinks about at all during practice. Vickers plans to watch a lot of film with Murray in order to determine how he likes to use his blockers. Felix Jones will also be in the mix, but it's obvious Murray's going to be the featured back. The Cowboys envision a scenario where the two will line up in the same backfield, with Murray likely lining up in the slot. He excelled in the passing game at Oklahoma, and the Cowboys plan to emphasize that strength this season.
Murray will have to prove he's not a one-hit wonder like former second-round pick Julius Jones. During his 2004 rookie season, Jones returned from injury and amassed 819 yards and seven touchdowns in only eight games. Tony Dorsett showed up at Valley Ranch for a photo-op and everyone was quick to say Jones was the next big thing. If we'd only listened to Bill Parcells, who seemed to immediately recognize that Jones wouldn't be able to build on that success.
Jones was a brooding player who felt like everyone was out to get him. Murray seems to be a guy who isn't fazed by anything. Even when he was having that remarkable stretch last season, he didn't care about the adulation. Dorsett came to visit him as well, but Murray quickly deflected any talk of him being the heir apparent to the great Cowboys running backs of the past. He's spent this offseason fine-tuning his approach.
"A lot of times you'll see young guys have some success early," Cowboys running backs coach Skip Peete told FOXSportsSouthwest.com. "But then they have to work on consistency. When it comes to formations, the counter [play] and cutting ability, everything needs to be exactly like we want it."
Head coach Jason Garrett has said he feels good about the team's depth at running back, but it's hard to ignore how many injuries have occurred in recent years. Felix Jones has missed 16 regular season games since being selected in the first round of the '08 draft. The likely third-string running back, Phillip Tanner, missed time with a hamstring injury last November. The Cowboys were so thin at the position that 34-year-old Sammy Morris was brought in off the couch for the stretch run last December.
It will be interesting to see what impact new offensive coordinator Bill Callahan has on the running game. He presided over a balanced attack with the Oakland Raiders and had a heavy influence on the running game as the offensive line coach for the Jets.
Garrett has been known to abandon the running game at times for no apparent reason. As the running game coordinator, Callahan will play a huge role in coming up with a game plan, and it's likely he'll be willing to remind Garrett if he's relying too heavily on the pass during games.
Perhaps the presence of a highly regarded fullback will also serve as a reminder to stick with the running game. Vickers is aware the fullback position has been marginalized to a certain extent, but he's determined to carry the torch.
"You have to keep it alive," said Vickers. "The fullback will be here as long as they have running backs — that is, if you want the running game to be efficient. Hey, things go in circles. Baggy pants used to be the way to go, but then you saw the tight ones come back around."
Now if only that circle from the early '90s would come back around, too.