ARLINGTON, Texas -- I've put in a request to the league asking for less access to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. By my count, we've heard from him three times in the past two weeks -- and he's delivered wildly different messages each time.
From what I can tell, Felix Jones pretty much became the starting running back in March, lost the job to the svelte Marion Barber during last month's one-day owners meeting and then regained it after a remarkable showing in OTAs on Wednesday. If you're in the market for good sound bites and awkwardly long eye contact, Jerry's your guy. If it's clarity you're seeking, I'd probably point you in a different direction.
A week after strongly indicating the Cowboys would likely stick with the rotation of Barber/Felix Jones/Tashard Choice, the Cowboys' master of suspense said Wednesday that "nothing's set in stone" and that he looked forward to a lively competition in training camp. Things really took an interesting turn when he suggested that undrafted rookie Lonyae Miller of Fresno State would also be in the thick of things. Miller averaged 5.6 yards per carry and had 20 touchdowns in college, but he was overshadowed by first-round pick Ryan Mathews.
But the most compelling storyline at OTAs this side of Dez Bryant is Barber's new look. The man who was nicknamed "the Barbarian" for his punishing style has lost at least 10 pounds and I've actually seen him sidestep defenders in practice. As most of you know, Barber cashed in on a superb '07 season with a lucrative long-term contract and the starting job. And he hasn't been the same since.
Barber was plagued by injuries in both '08 and '09. Felix Jones didn't become the starter, but he was obviously the lead back as the Cowboys crushed the Eagles in back-to-back games at the end of last season. All signs pointed toward Jones taking over as the starter in '10 -- until Barber hit the weight room with the Cowboys' highly regarded strength coach/heckler Joe Jurascek this offseason.
"I know this: He looks quicker," Jones said of Barber recently. "I think that is going to make him even more effective. He's just in great shape. He looks as good out here just in these initial practices as I've seen him look in his career. You could easily go from there and look at what his role might be, and it'd certainly be on par with anything he's done."
In recent days, I've talked to offensive coordinator Jason Garrett and running backs coach Skip Peete about the difficulty of making sure all three running backs get enough touches. Peete, the older brother of former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete, said the most important thing is that Barber, Jones and Choice are close friends. He said that when one of them comes out of the game, they're never resentful toward the player on the field. Fortunately for the Cowboys, Peete has some experience with divvying up carries among talented backs. He made sure that Tyrone Wheatley and Charlie Garner had plenty of carries when he was with the Oakland Raiders.
For now, Peete's trying to help Barber regain his '07 form, when he averaged 5 yards per carry as the "backup" to Julius Jones. It's a remarkable feat that Barber posted that number with nearly 200 carries, many of which were in short-yardage situations. He finished runs by bucking his head and dragging defenders for extra yards.
Now, the Cowboys are actually trying to convince him to give up on a run every now and then. Peete and Barber have spent time this offseason watching clips of plays where it didn't really make sense for Barber to fight for an extra yard. Barber might be able to make it second-and-7 rather than second-and-8, but he could expose himself to injury in the process.
"I remember talking to Barry Sanders about why he ran out of bounds when he was close to the sidelines, and he said, 'Why should I take that hit if it was unnecessary?'" Peete said earlier this week. "I feel the same way. You see a guy lower his shoulder to get the extra yard, but why do it if it's not going to benefit the team. It looks good on TV but you chance losing him. What does that do if it's only going to be second-and-7 instead of second-and-8? You didn't need to take that hit. If it's third-and-5, then you drive for the first down. You have to be smart."
I think that Barber knows that he's going to be spelled by Jones or Choice at any time, so he probably tries to get his money's worth on each carry. And when you start showing up in "Marion the Barbarian" marketing campaigns, you have an image to uphold. Well, the Cowboys are trying to convince Barber to stop trying to take unnecessary risks. Their marketing folks can delete the clips of Barber occasionally stepping out of bounds.
Some of you might want to know what Barber thinks about taking fewer hits. Alas, the man rarely speaks to reporters. I'm told Calvin Watkins of ESPNDallas.com captured some Barber comments on his video camera last season, but the footage has been placed in a vault for safekeeping. Barber's happy to let Jerry do all the talking, which is the way the owner prefers it.
I think Jones is leaving the door open for Barber to start because it's a nice incentive as he continues to sweat in the weight room. But Barber's best known for being a closer, and that's the guy the Cowboys want to see in 2010.