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Pressure's on for Darren McFadden

IRVING, Texas -- Darren McFadden dealt with expectations as a Parade All-American, when he decided to play college football in his home state, at Arkansas. He was certainly subject to expectations when the Oakland Raiders made him the fourth pick of the 2008 NFL draft, a big-play running back who was supposed to resurrect the silver and black.

None of that compares to the expectations he's about to experience when the Dallas Cowboys begin their season in a few months.

In Arkansas and Oakland, McFadden was viewed positively; in Dallas, he's not. See, with the Razerbacks and Raiders, McFadden represented hope. With the Cowboys, he represents a dream unfulfilled because he's being asked to help replace DeMarco Murray -- a thankless task if there ever were one.

After all, Murray rushed for 1,845 yards on 392 carries this past season and led the Cowboys to a 12-4 record and their first NFC East title since 2009. Murray was part of the new version of The Triplets -- Murray, Tony Romo and Dez Bryant -- who would return the Cowboys to their glory days of the early 1990s.

That dream ended the moment Murray signed his five-year, $40 million deal with Philadelphia, with $21 million guaranteed.

McFadden, part of the Cowboys' Plan B, signed the next day for nearly $6 million over two years. Murray received a $5 million signing bonus; McFadden pocketed $200,000.

Half of Cowboys Nation is thrilled Murray is gone. The other half is depressed. Nearly all will agree acquiring McFadden is a downer.

It's easy to see why, if you compare him to Murray. McFadden played an entire 16-game season just once in his first seven seasons, and he gained a thousand yards once. He has had 13 100-yard games in his career; Murray had 12 the past season.

"I'm not gonna worry about what people put on me, as far as when DeMarco ran the ball for the Cowboys," McFadden said. "I'm Darren McFadden. I'm coming in to run the ball and be the best player I can be."

There's no way McFadden will be the only running back the Cowboys add to the roster this offseason. They'll add another in the second or third round, as this is considered one of the deepest running back drafts in years.

Then Garrett will let McFadden, the draft choice, Joseph Randle, Ryan Williams and Lance Dunbar compete for playing time behind one of the NFL's best offensive lines -- until the top three emerge.

Murray is gone, but the running game remains the epicenter of the Cowboys' offense, and that's not going to change. It's the Cowboys' offensive approach that allows the defense to play above its pedigree, and it keeps Romo healthy. With Romo's back injuries -- he had surgery each of the past two offseasons -- every hit might be the one that ends the 34-year-old's career.

The runner matters. Don't buy into the silliness that as long as they have two or three guys who combine for 1,800 yards, it's the same as having Murray out there.

The Cowboys need a runner that opposing defenses respect, to force them to use a safety as the eighth defender near the line of scrimmage. An ordinary running back isn't going to force teams to use single coverage against Bryant or Jason Witten.

McFadden will get a chance to be that guy, but based on his career, there's no evidence he can handle that role. He has averaged fewer than 3.5 yards per carry each of the past two seasons, but Oakland has been abject on offense the past few years, so extenuating circumstances could exist.

Oakland fullback Marcel Reece has been to the Pro Bowl each of the past three seasons, but McFadden has never run behind a Pro Bowl offensive lineman. Murray ran behind three the past season.

The Cowboys hope a better offensive line, the energy that comes from playing for the team he rooted for as a child and being on a winning squad will allow McFadden to maximize his talent.

Perhaps, on some of those runs Murray gained 20 or 30 yards, McFadden will take to the end zone because he still has top-end speed and good vision. He's not going to be physical at the end of runs -- Murray's trademark -- but he can be part of the solution to life after Murray.

Maybe, along the way, McFadden will eclipse the low expectations.