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Cowboys taking running back roles down to the wire

IRVING, Texas -- After nine organized team activities, three minicamp practices, 20 training camp practices in Oxnard, California, two more in Texas and four preseason games, the Dallas Cowboys still don’t have an idea how their running back situation will shake out in 2015.

For a team that thrived on the success of the running game in 2014 with DeMarco Murray leading the NFL with 392 carries and 1,845 yards, the Cowboys will go into the regular-season opener Sunday against the New York Giants relatively blind.

They have hope the combination of Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar -- and potentially Christine Michael as the year gets going -- can come close to what Murray did last year.

It’s a stunning difference in how the Cowboys entered 2014 with their running game.

“I don’t think you ever know that answer,” coach Jason Garrett said.

It was impossible to know Murray would have a season better than anything Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith were able to do in their Hall of Fame careers but the Cowboys knew Murray would be their workhorse.

“I don’t think we ever said, ‘DeMarco’s going to get 22 carries in this game. We’re going to throw the ball to Dez [Bryant] 19 times,’” Garrett said. “You know?”

But, again, the Cowboys knew Murray would be the guy.

These things tend to matter in the NFL until they don’t.

Continuity is the most important part of offensive line play until a first-team offensive line doesn’t take a snap together in the preseason games, like the Cowboys. Now, it’s all about the work they get in practice and the experiences they had last year.

Having a dependable running back -- or running backs -- matters until you go through organized team activities, minicamp, training camp and preseason and don’t have a clear picture of how things will develop.

If the Cowboys’ picture was clear at running back, they wouldn’t have felt the need to add Michael. His résumé is not so plush that he is automatically better than Randle, McFadden or Dunbar. He can be a piece to the puzzle, however, taking four tailbacks to a game is a luxury, not a necessity.

“We feel good about all those guys,” Garrett said. “It’s not something that we feel is a deficiency. We feel good about Darren McFadden and how he’s played. We certainly feel good about Joe Randle and what he’s done for us and Lance Dunbar has been a very productive guy for us. We feel like bringing Michael in here will add to the mix and again we’ll compete each and every day for opportunities.

If those guys show that they’re worthy of opportunities in the game we’ll make sure we give them the chance to do that.”

This is how the Cowboys have chosen to replace Murray after they elected not to go higher than four years, $24 million to keep him off the free-agent market. They gave McFadden a $200,000 signing bonus, which was $40,000 less than what they gave Ryan Williams and he was cut before training camp started.

If they had a do over, they probably would have selected a running back at some point in the draft if not in the early rounds, but they can’t have a do over.

The camp competition never really took off because of a hamstring strain for McFadden, an oblique strain for Randle and an ankle sprain for Dunbar. The “hellified” running that running backs coach Gary Brown promised when all three got on the practice field together never materialized.

With only three full practice days left before they play the Giants, the competition isn’t settled.

“We won’t outline anything before the game,” Garrett said. “We’ll give each of those guys a chance over the course of the week to show us that they’re worthy of opportunities.”

Running backs by committee can be successful. This running back by committee could be successful but “could,” is not the kind of solution for such a big question as the season approaches.

As of Week 1, it’s all about hope and faith rather than anything that has been seen since last spring.