August afterthoughts lead Dallas' surge

ARLINGTON, Texas -- If training camp didn't present Jerry Jones such prime marketing opportunities, the Dallas Cowboys might consider just skipping the whole charade next season.

It's clearly an overrated aspect of preparing a potential NFL playoff contender. At least, that's one conclusion that could be reached based on the recent boom in production by a pair of playmakers who didn't take a single practice rep for the Cowboys this summer in the Alamodome.

Rookie running back DeMarco Murray watched from the sideline while nursing a sore hamstring during the Cowboys' stay in San Antonio. Receiver Laurent Robinson was buried on the San Diego Chargers' depth chart at the time.

Fast forward a few months. Murray and Robinson have gone from August afterthoughts to primary reasons the 7-4 Cowboys are in prime position to make a push for the NFC East title.

"You just look at the stat sheet week to week and you're hard-pressed to find guys that are outplaying these guys," cornerback Terence Newman said after Murray and Robinson played major roles in Thursday's 20-19 win over the Miami Dolphins. "I would say I wouldn't want anyone else on my team other than those two."

That's really not exaggeration on Newman's part.

Nobody has rushed for more yards than Murray since the middle of October, when he became the lead horse after starter Felix Jones suffered a high ankle sprain. Murray fought for 87 yards on 22 carries against a tough Dolphins defense, giving him 761 yards on the ground (6.2 per carry) during the Cowboys' 5-1 run to put them atop the division standings.

Nobody has more receiving touchdowns than Robinson in the past five games. He's scored seven times in that span, including the only two touchdowns Miami has allowed in November. Robinson has made sure the Cowboys haven't missed Pro Bowl receiver Miles Austin too much, scoring five times while the team's No. 1 receiver sat out the past three wins with a strained hamstring.

These guys are the epitome of coach Jason Garrett's next-man-up mantra. In the process, they've earned their status as key cogs in a star-studded offense.

"I'm just happy about the opportunity and trying to take advantage of it and make plays when the ball comes my way," said Robinson, who had four touchdowns in his first 41 NFL games.

Tony Romo and Robinson almost instantly formed an uncanny chemistry, which the fifth-year journeyman receiver calls the "I-AA Connection," a nod to their college roots. Romo has attempted five throws to Robinson in the end zone, all of which have resulted in six points.

Isn't it strange how a man with a minimum salary so quickly established a rapport with Romo? Makes you wonder why Roy Williams couldn't do it after arriving in a blockbuster trade and signing a five-year, $45 million contract extension, huh?

The easy pitch-and-catch for a 5-yard touchdown in the second quarter against Miami was an exception. Three of Robinson's scores, including his 18-yard catch in Thursday's third quarter, have come when Romo found Robinson after scrambling to buy extra time.

"Say what you want about Tony creating a lot of those," perennial Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten said. "There's something to be said there having chemistry and understanding after going into a system that's four or five years old and you're coming in the middle of the year at a skill position. That's not easy to do."

Murray burst onto the scene by breaking Emmitt Smith's single-game franchise record with a 253-yard performance in an Oct. 23 rout of the St. Louis Rams, despite not starting. He cemented his status as the Cowboys' workhorse with 139- and 135-yard games in early November wins.

But Witten has never been more impressed with Murray than he was during the late stages of the Thanksgiving battle against a dangerous Dolphins team. After not finding much room all day, Murray carried on five consecutive plays during the final drive, gaining 27 yards and chewing 2:28 off the clock to set up rookie kicker Dan Bailey's last-second field goal.

Murray is the closer the Cowboys thought Marion Barber -- who landed in Chicago with Williams after the Cowboys waved goodbye when the lockout was lifted -- would be when they gave Barber a seven-year, $45 million extension in the 2008 offseason. That's what wowed Witten on Thursday.

"This is the best game I've seen him [play]," Witten said. "It's hard to do what he did, getting those tough yards, knowing there's eight, nine guys in the box."

It's hard to believe that the Cowboys are riding a couple of August afterthoughts to the front of the NFC East race, but that's reality.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.