Lance Dunbar's time finally appears to be at hand

IRVING, Texas -- Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Dallas Cowboys plan to get Lance Dunbar more involved in the offense in 2015.

It’s along the line as those man-walks-into-a-bar preambles to a joke, but this time the Cowboys actually mean it. They plan to get Dunbar more involved in 2015.

They talked about it in 2012 after he earned a spot on the 53-man roster as an undrafted free agent. He had 21 carries for 75 yards and six catches for 33 yards. They talked about it in 2013, and were perhaps on their way to doing it later in the season, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury on Thanksgiving after he ran for 82 yards on 12 carries against the Oakland Raiders.

They talked about it again in 2014, but then DeMarco Murray happened.

"De-Mo wouldn't come off the field," running backs coach Gary Brown said.

Nor should he have come off the field. Murray set franchise records with 392 carries and 1,845 yards. He caught a career-high 57 passes. He even broke his hand and did not miss a game.

So Dunbar was limited to 29 carries for 99 yards and 18 catches for 217 yards in 2014.

This year, they swear, will be the year for Dunbar.

Murray has left for the Philadelphia Eagles. The Cowboys did not select a runner in the draft and their biggest free-agent play was Darren McFadden ($200,000 signing bonus).

The Cowboys' intrigue with Dunbar has been long-running. He might not be an every-down back, but he can be part of a committee. They like what he can do in space. They believe he can be a mismatch player for defenses. Before arriving from the Detroit Lions, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan had two running backs catch more than 50 passes in a season. Linehan sees Dunbar being able to do some of what Reggie Bush and Joique Bell did in 2013 in Detroit.

"Sometimes he doesn't play as many plays as some of the other guys, but when you look at his production within the plays that he has, it's usually pretty good," coach Jason Garrett said. "He's usually a difference maker. He's a really smart football player. He's talented. He's quick. He's fast and explosive, has great intuition and instincts for the game. We try to use him a lot of different ways, and when we have used him he's been effective for us. You're always trying to give those guys more opportunities."

Circumstances have hurt Dunbar mostly: health and Murray being at the top of the list. Dunbar has heard the message before and hopes the Cowboys mean it this time.

"We've been working on a lot of things with what I've been doing in the last few years but it hasn't really worked out," Dunbar said. "Just trying to get all the little details right. Hopefully the coaches decide that I can fit the role and produce in that role."

Heavy doses of Dunbar at 5-foot-8, 195 pounds limit the every-down plan, but he opens up a variety of options on third down. The coaches are not concerned about his pass protection (Garrett called him smart, remember) and Tony Romo has confidence in him to make plays when needed.

During two-minute drill work in a recent organized team activity, four of Romo's six completions went to Dunbar. In 7-on-7 work he had linebackers on skates with his ability to start and stop.

"Anytime I can get the ball quick in my hands, let me work with it, it should be beneficial to our team," Dunbar said. "I'm a quick guy. I like to get one-on-one matchups."

He remains something of a mystery because the promise has been made a few times only to not be fulfilled. The Cowboys won't have a runner sniff the workload Murray had last season, so they almost have to have Dunbar produce.

"I know what I can do," Dunbar said. "It's the little details and the coverages and how they're going to try to play me, what to do, how to react. But I feel like I've got everything down. I'm just working on the little things each and every day, so my time will come to where I can react the right way each time."