At this time last year, people following the Cowboys were starting to hear some impressive buzz about the work Miles Austin was putting in at training camp. The unknown wideout was blessed with the size, speed and hands that you need to thrive in the NFL but he came without a big-time college pedigree and without the contract of Roy Williams, so he was kept mostly on the sidelines until Williams missed the Week Five game against the Chiefs.
Austin, as you surely remember, caught 10 passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns that Sunday and went on to finish the year as a Pro Bowler and the biggest offensive weapon on the Cowboys. Thank goodness for Williams's injury because heaven only knows how long his contract and name would have kept him in front of Austin.
You'd think a lesson like that might resonate for a while. Judging by the split of the running back workload so far, however, not much has changed with the Cowboys.
Tashard Choice remains the third back in the pecking order as the Cowboys embark on the 2010 season, a decision that makes sense on the surface. After all, Marion Barber has the power to run over defenders and Felix Jones has world class speed and you want to make good use of those things when you're trying to put the ball in the end zone. In each of those respective skills, Choice is well behind the other backs. When you're thinking about a starting running back, though, it's important to keep the entire skill set in mind.
Choice's power and speed were more than enough for him to average more than five yards a carry last season and he's done quite well in the starts he's picked up over the last two years. He's also superior in receiving and pass blocking compared to either of the other backs, something that helps balance out the offense whenever he's on the field. Right now that's usually third down, usually a passing down anyway, but seeing him out there earlier in sets would force defenses to be prepared for the full bag of tricks regardless of down and distance.
There is also the injury issue. Both Barber and Jones are regular visitors to the trainer's table and that has kept the Cowboys offense from reaching optimal efficiency more than once. Choice hasn't played enough to know if he could withstand the rigors of a full season without getting hurt but, at the very least, expanding his role would help the other two guys be in the lineup every week.
This isn't quite as pressing an issue as the Austin-Williams debate was last year. All three of these guys are good backs and it doesn't much matter who is on the field for the first play of the game. It's more about the same kind of thinking that helped get the Cowboys into trouble in the past. Evaluate them all as if you knew nothing about how they got to Dallas and let production be the only guide.