Heat is on to replace DeMarco Murray

IRVING, Texas -- The illusion that Jerry Jones is running these Dallas Cowboys is over. Oh, Jerry remains the face of the franchise, but it's Stephen Jones who's in charge these days.

That's why DeMarco Murray no longer wears a blue star on the side of his helmet.

In the old days, Jerry would've given Murray a blank check during the season and he'd be in the south of France sipping on a mimosa this time of year. Instead, Murray spent Thursday negotiating with the Philadelphia Eagles before joining the Cowboys' NFC East rival.

Stephen Jones, though, has always been the responsible one. Sure, he signed off on some of those bad contracts the Cowboys gave players in the past, but Jerry was the point man on many of those deals. Stephen simply acquiesced.

Those of us who've covered the team for years have heard the story countless times about how Stephen slammed his father up against the wall in 1995, when Jerry was putting together a deal that would pay star cornerback Deion Sanders $35 million over seven years and give him $12.9 million to sign.

Well, Stephen no longer acquiesces.

He didn't go along with Jerry's thoughts about drafting Johnny Manziel in the first round last season, and he didn't go along with any thoughts of paying Murray more than the club felt he was worth after completing myriad studies.

And if that meant losing Murray to the Eagles, then so be it. History suggests Murray will fall apart physically over the next couple of seasons based on his historic workload last season, and Stephen Jones didn't want the Cowboys stuck with a player who couldn't live up to his big-money contract.

Frankly, that's the way smart organizations do business. New England has operated that way for years, and it's worked well for them. We're just not used to the Cowboys operating that way.

Now, the pressure is on Jones and Will McClay, the director of pro and college scouting, to find an adequate replacement for Murray.

Don't lie to yourself and believe the poppycock that the Cowboys can put any dude behind their offensive line and he'll produce 1,845 yards and 12 100-yard games like Murray did last season. No one with any sense expected Murray to have that kind of season in 2015. That was a once-in-a-lifetime season by a really good runner, but he could certainly gain 1,400 yards and average 4.4 per carry in 2015.

What you have to understand is Murray did more than tote the ball and gain yards for the Cowboys. He gave them an identity they haven't had in years.

Murray is the reason Tony Romo didn't feel the need to frequently check out of run plays on third-and-short. Murray is the reason coach Jason Garrett became bold late in the season, going for it on fourth-and-1. Playcaller Scott Linehan believed in Murray so much that he called enough run plays to keep the defense off the field and fresh so it could perform way above its pedigree.

If Romo were 25, then finding Murray's replacement wouldn't be such a big deal. But Romo will be 35 when the season starts, and reality says he has only two or three seasons left as an elite player. Wasting a year because the Cowboys couldn't find an adequate replacement for Murray would be an unforgivable sin.

The Cowboys don't want Romo feeling like he has to carry the offense -- and team -- again. We've seen that story, and it has never ended well.

Plenty of options exist for the Cowboys, but they can't screw this up.

Adrian Peterson might be available, but he's still property of the Minnesota Vikings. Maybe Ryan Mathews will be available since the deal he agreed to with Philadelphia has not been signed yet. But he's considerably more fragile than Murray.

Then there's the draft. This is supposed to be the best draft for running backs in years, but none comes with a guarantee.

Georgia's Todd Gurley will be recovering from a torn ACL, and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon must prove he's not the beneficiary of a terrific offensive line. They're probably the only two players worth taking in the first round. Miami's Duke Johnson, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota's David Cobb and Indiana's Tevin Coleman are each intriguing, but until they arrive, we know nothing about the level of their toughness or whether they can handle blitz pickups at the NFL level.

The Cowboys made a business decision. So did Murray. No blame needs to be assigned, but the decisions each man made has removed any doubt about the Cowboys' hierarchy: Stephen Jones is in charge.

For that, you should rejoice -- unless, of course, Murray's replacement is a bust.