Where is the Big Back? And the Safety? Questions Still Abound in Cowboys Land

DeMarco Murray may be good
but he won’t replace Marion Barber.

In the weeks leading up to the draft, I made are regular point that the Cowboys were two solid drafts from being a top-flight contender again.  Too much age, too many contracts and too many wasted draft picks had produced too many holes.

A review of the lineup showed Dallas to be at least seven or eight players short of an air-tight starting 22.  Two safeties were needed, a young corner to work in behind the aging and brittle Terence Newman, a young inside backer to work in behind the aging and entering his walk-year Bradie James, a plus defensive end to add interior rush next to Jay Ratliff, a right tackle, a young guard to groom behind Bigg Davis and maybe even a center.

The contract situations of Roy Williams and Marion Barber arguably swelled that number to ten players.  With only seven picks in a normal draft, it’s not feasable to expect the Cowboys to plug all the holes, unless aggressive free agent action factors in.  Dallas’ cap situation worked against that.  The new CBA with his high floor made it less likely the Cowboys could find quality players at reasonable prices.

Thus far, Dallas appears to have plugged some of the key holes with draft picks and with emerging youngsters.  Tyron Smith looks like a solid pick at right tackle.  David Arkin has a ways to go, but looks like he can fill a guard spot before too long.  Dwayne Harris was the star of Thursday’s pre-season game and vies to be this year’s Sam Hurd, an unheralded rookie to plays his way onto the field.  Fellow late pick Josh Thomas is getting settled and may add depth to the cornerback spot.  Josh Brent’s emergence adds some muscle to the D-line while Victor Butler’s rise adds some potential zip to the pass rush.

Surprisingly, Dallas’ biggest need on offense may be at running back, despite spending a 3rd round pick on Demarco Murray.  Murray is another speed and receptions back, in the Felix Jones mold.  What the Cowboys appear to lack at the moment is a hammer, a Marion Barber-type who can absorb a hit, roll away and gain the necessary extra yards in 3rd-and-short and in goal-line situations.  That Barber has looked good in that role for Chicago only makes the need more apparent.

This isn’t to argue for Barber’s retention.  His swollen cap number had to be sliced.  It is to argue for checking the waiver wires and trade options for somebody who fits this need.  Lonyae Miller had the big-back hype entering the game, but did little to fill the role.  Dallas kicked LaRon McClain’s tires before he signed with the Chiefs.  Expect the Cowboys to scout more McClain-sized backs in the next few months.

On defense, the biggest question mark remains at safety.  Abe Elam looked okay as the centerfielder in Rob Ryan’s blitz packages, but Gerald Sensabaugh made the kind of assignment gaffes that were so painful and familiar in 2010.  These were the same type of mistakes the defense committed in the Blue-White scrimmage five days before.  Sensabaugh and his secondary mates may simply need more time to absorb Ryan’s new terminology and schemes.

Or, this may be a case of Dallas filling five holes, but still showing three?  That’s life in the NFL.  Most every team has some holes.  The better ones are more effective at hiding theirs.  Right now, Jason Garrett and Rob Ryan has obvious soft spots to cover with spackle, duct tape and bondo.   That’s why they’re paid the big money.

Rafael Vela

Rafael Vela

Senior Analyst Cowboys Nation.com at Sports Talk Line
Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ TheBoys.com in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for SportsTalkLine.com
Rafael Vela

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  • ChiaCrack

    two words folks, PHILLIP TANNER!

  • The Turk

    When the FULL PLAYBOOK is not at your disposal in SHORT YARDAGE or GOAL LINE defenses can focus on the pass because they do not have to respect the RUN

    Jat Rattliff or one of FB’s has to step up

    you need at least 250LBS to move the pile

  • R.Z.

    you have an over value memorie of Marion Barber. I just don’t see it

    • joey2zs

       I guess you’ve never played fantasy football.  For most seasons Marion Barber was a very valuable player to have on your team, despite the fact he never racked up high yardage totals. 
      I’ll let you figure out why he was valuable and why the Cowboys need a short yardage specialist.

  • StillHateTheGiants

    Isn’t that type of RB apt to show up on the waiver wire before pre-season is done?

  • Lee1936

    Hi Rafael,
    You say:
    “Too much age, too many contracts and too many wasted draft picks had produced too many holes.  A review of the lineup showed Dallas to be at least seven or eight players short of an air-tight starting 22.  ”

    Well said!  You are absolutely right. The NFL is about talent acquisition. The GM’s job is to acquire and stockpile talent.  Not only were we short of starters, we were short of backups. Our coaches may be above average (I’m not sure) but they are not playing with a full deck of talent–not this year.  

    I’m always amazed at the many delusional DC fans who always think our team is ready to contend for the super bowl.

    • greatwhitenorth

      I would probably qualify as one of those delusional fans.  Except that imperfect teams win the Super Bowl about half of the time.  Talent is a huge part of the NFL, you’re right.  But the most talented team rarely wins the whole thing.  The Packers were playing backups at many key positions last year.  The Saints won the Super Bowl with a defense that I wouldn’t trade for this year’s version of the Cowboys.  The Giants won with mediocrity on 5 units and overpowering excellence on one.

      I’d say that the NFL is about acquiring a certain level of talent, plug-and-playing decently at the other positions, and then coaching/match-ups/fortune -ing your way to the big one.  I don’t think it’s delusional to say the Cowboys have the necessary talent and that enough of the plug-and-play guys are on the roster or are available.

      • joey2zs

        To echo GWN… it’s not delusional to believe an 11 and 5 team with a playoff win that stood pat in terms of talent from one season to the next… and had an offense with the 2nd most yards in the NFL and a defense that gave up the 2nd least points would contend for the Super Bowl the following season.  You saw what happened last season… an utter debacle.
        You wouldn’t be delusional to expect the same results, better results, or worse results.

      • Lee1936

        Hi Greatwhite,
        I usually like your stuff, but on this, you miss the point.  OF COURSE other factors besides talent are in play.  Nobody ever won a championship on talent alone.  Chemistry, teamwork, character, schedule, coaching, and the lack of distractions and irreplaceable injuries are also factors.  

        The Packers’ injuries last year were anomalous, and indicate the quality talent they had acquired for backups.  If you think that our GM’s ongoing 15-year failure to stockpile adequate talent is not a significant factor in team performance, I disagree.  There’s no substitute for talent.

  • kameleon_o

    Raf, if we’d drafted Leshoure in the 2nd round instead of the guy who’s too injured to practice, what direction and what players do you think the Cowboys would have targeted in the 3rd round?? Would they have gone O-line or LB??

    • Rafael Vela

      A lot of people would be calling Leshoure “the guy who’s too injured to practice.”  He tore an Achilles and is out for the year.  

      • kameleon_o

        Anyone could get hurt in TC. No one’s complaining about that. If we’d drafted him he might be fit as a fiddle right now. Everyone knew that Carter was hurt when they drafted him. Who know’s when he’ll be healthy?? I just want to know who they’d have targeted in the 3rd round if they’d taken Leshoure

        • Rafael Vela


          I’ve done some looking but have not gotten data on that. Still trying though.

          • kameleon_o

            Cool. Thanks

          • Ziggy387

            It’ll be fun to watch Stevan Ridley developed. The Pats took him 2 picks later, and he was a guy many Boys fans has identified as a target. 

          • American Fan

            Hey Raf, in that article you linked to in the post about Barber, it didn’t sound like the Bears would be able to keep both MBIII and Chester Taylor…how ’bout kicking Chester’s tires if he’s cut?  Would he fit the “move the chains” or no?

  • What do all these backups positions that the article says are “needed” have to do with the starting 22?

    • greatwhitenorth

      Welcome to the NFL, where more than 22 players make up a team.

  • JJ

    I try, not successfully, to balance the desire for instant success with the ability to assess potential in 2-3 years.  Frankly, the Wade Phillips era from a player acquisition standpoint was average.  Most didn’t think Victor Butler would do well but he appears ready to breakout and possibly unseat Spencer.

    The point being, I don’t think the big back issue is at critical point yet.  I believe that Murray is hurt and will contribute.  The bigger question is “Do the Cowboys have a 3rd RB in which they are happy?”  Watching the game again, I saw a RB in Miller that was slow to the hole and had no vision.

    I saw an interior DLine getting pushed off the ball.

    I saw safeties getting burnt for not recognizing a release of a WR even when it wasn’t a play action pass.

    However, there was great movement with the LBs.  There was hope in some of the young OLineman and WR.  

    If the secondary can somehow jell, the DLine play stout and the young OLine and WR grow up quick….good things can happen.  I just don’t know if the “big” RB, while important, is as critical as what we see on the defense.

  • fiverings37

    sit Sensi, Brooking , James and Spencer, they can back up.  Trade Igor. Time for a youth movement. Clearly, these vets can no longer get it done. Enough is enough! Let’s go!!

    • greatwhitenorth

      yep, lets bench 5 starters on a defense with little to no depth!  Here’s to a 5-11 season!  Maybe we’ll find Andrew Luck at the end of the rainbow.

  • Philjbundy

    A good line will make-up for a smaller back. Look at how good Emmitt was in the red zone.

  • Cash

    I don’t see why the Cowboy’s are so facinated with drafting injured guys. Our 2nd and 3rd picks have yet to practice due to previous injuries. I can only shake my head.

    • kameleon_o

      And in the case of Murray it looks like he’s going to be one of those type of players like Felix who’s always nicked up or has a strain of some sort. It seems like we’ve been drafting spares or guys destined to be out of the league in a few years too often in the 2nd and 3rd rounds lately

      • FakeBillyTubbs

        Sean Lee fell to the second round because of injury, and it looks like he’s a player.

        • Cash

          “looks like”

          He hasn’t proven anything yet. A secound round player should be able to contribute on day one in my opinion and there were plenty that did for other teams.

          • WTC

            it’s been ONE season … you can’t judge a draft until after 3 years.  

          • Cash

            Who says? A second round pick should contribute right away It’s happening for the teams that draft well and consistently make the playoffs.

    • illcowboy

      Exactly.  Perpetually injured guys are no help to a football team.  I hope these aren’t two more wasted draft picks.  I wish Jerrah would quit trying to get steals all the time.  There’s nothing wrong with getting a second round talent with a second round pick.

  • My hot opinions:

    – This should be Newman’s last year
    – This should be Spencer’s last year
    – This should be Sensabaugh’s last year

    We’re going to need to knock some draft picks out of the park in 2012.

    • greatwhitenorth

      Your conclusion is true, but my opinion is that Spencer will be back next year. And if not, Butler will replace him.  So the secondary should be the primary concern in the draft next year (though I suspect that Jerry will still take a LB and WR in rounds 2 and 3…)

      • kameleon_o

        I like Butler, and am not much of a Spencer fan, but I just don’t see Butler being a full time starter. He just looks like a situational pass rusher to me.

  • JeffArrowood

    What of the fullbacks:  Can either one be our short yardage sledgehammer? Can Jason scheme around the absence of one?

    Felix looks much stronger this year; he looks able to shed tackles unlike before.  Provided he can remain healthy, he looks poised to be Dallas’s next star RB.

    • Teacher

      That’s just what I was thinking as I read this post — do we really need a big back if a fullback can BE that guy?  Is the fullback only able to block and catch outlet passes in Garret’s offense but not able to get that tough yard on 3rd and 1?

      • oskieoskie


  • JJ

    I’d take the big back issue any day.  Right now, the secondary and lack of a veteran at WR (particularly if there is injury) are chief concerns.

  • Jim Vance

    The Murray pick still baffles me. I don’t quite see what the Cowboys saw in this guy as an addition to the team except maybe to challenge Felix or serve as a backup.

    Add that he has a lot of miles on his tires from college and a bum knee, and then couple that with some of the openings the Cowboys ignored and I’m still scratching my head on this one.

    I’d love to see this guy become the next Adrian Peterson, but thus far this year this pick has brought us zip. 

    • I’m a Cowboy

      I was torn when I saw the Murray pick come across the screen. One side of me was with almost every other cowboy fan who wanted to see back to back OL in the first two rounds. So when we were all surprised with Carter pick in the second I wanted to see an O Lineman in the 3rd.

      The other side was quietly happy we got a dynamic player I really enjoyed watching in College.   A very smooth runner with good vision and the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield or even split out wide.  The only think that worried me about this pick was Murray’s propensity to get injured (I hope your right and that streak of injury pron OKies staying healthy once in the pros continues).

      Now that the season has started and we see good back up lineman play from Costa and Arkin.  I hope to see the player I looked forward to seeing in college and he leaves our opponent’s coaches and fans scratching their heads asking how do we stop Jones and Murray when they are both in the game.

  • Dee523192

    give felix choice and murray a chance guys smaller than them do they get in the endzone because their oline blocks well

  • cowboyny

    I am concerned about running the football down in the redzone and in short-yardage situations. Teams know all about Garrett’s deceptive playcalling tricks, due to the team’s inability to run inside the Tackles. How can this be fixed or patched up?

    -More of a push up front.
    -Better Production out of the lead FB spot.
    -Having a short yardage runner emerge or signing a FA to fill the role. Right now the team has no answers, where maybe a FB could fill the role.
    -Here is a name to consider-Michael Bush. The Raiders have a ton of backs on their roster and cannot keep all of them, where Bush becomes UFA next offseason. Maybe our surplus along the DL could help us land Bush to fill the role.

    As for Safety, I have no faith in Sensabaugh being in the right positions. He was very effective in his first season when he played the SS postion. Asking him to QB the unit, was met with disasterous results. Although Elam is better suited in the box, he maybe the better FS option out of the two. Yes, he has some warts in his game, but will be in the right positions to make a play. I have still not ruled out adding another FA Safety. Deon Grant has starting experience at both Safety Spots and would at least be a better option behind our current backups at the position.

    • illcowboy

      I’m not thrilled Sensabaugh is back myself.  Maybe one of the young guys can wrestle the job away from him.  And I wouldn’t mind having Michael Bush for the right price.  Like all of our backs, he’s effective when he’s in there.

  • AustonianAggie

    Yeah the running back issue is unresolved. New England managed to win a Superbowl with out one, but their best Superbowl team featured Cory Dillon

  • Mandmeisterx

    Leonard Weaver?