It seems like ages ago, a myth from seasons past, when Jason Garrett implemented a three-headed backfield in a formation fans (and my ancestors) dubbed Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Hades and the underworld. The hounds were only released a few times and I doubt we will see the formation very often, but it could be a telling backdrop for the camp battle involving the Dallas Cowboys running back core that will make the 53-man roster. A battle that is just getting started.
DeMarco Murray and Tashard Choice faced early camp injuries, but have now returned to practice. It is still unclear if either will play in the third preseason game at Minnesota, but after the early and dominant performance by Felix Jones to solidify his hold on the starting role, and the flashes from Phillip Tanner and Lonyae Miller, what was assumed to be a camp battle for the 3rd-down back role has erupted into a battle royal for a roster spot.
To discuss what the Cowboys Cerberus, if not the game day formation then the three running backs on the game day roster, will look like in 2011 we must first understand how Coach Garrett intends to utilize them.
"We're going to use more than one back - that's the nature of the league in this day and age," Garrett said. "Those runners take a pounding. Ideally, you want to have a bell cow, a lead dog and have the other guys fit themselves in...(Jones) is playing awfully well, and we'll see how the other guys do."
More after the jump...
Well, if there ever was one, the question about who will be the starter seems answered, and the bell cow and/or lead dog (little confusing on the animal metaphors) will actually be Felix the Cat. And while there is fierce competition for the situational roles...is that the clue and writing on the wall? The more situations where a player can have a role the more likely they are to be given one. This may not bode well for some.
Tashard Choice is the incumbent and his knowledge of the system and displays as a runner in the past should have him in the mix. However, it has often been said that Choice is limited in his abilities to be plugged into a variety of situations. If you consider the rumors of Choice not providing enough in his special teams play and pass blocking, you have to wonder if he will get beat out of a roster spot. Sure, you have heard it all before, so has Choice...
"I've heard, ‘He can't block. He can't play special teams,'" Choice said. "That's fine. I'm just going to go out there and work and prove my worth. All I can do is be the best Tashard I can be."
But where there is smoke, there is often fire, and for Choice to be calling out the same flaws there is likely some truth to the rumors. Yet, even if Choice proves the critics wrong and he displays upon his return to camp an incredible ability to pass protect and new-found vigor on special teams, is he still versatile enough to be the 3rd down back?
In his final two years in college, DeMarco Murray caught 100 receptions for over 1,000 yards, often lined up from the slot as a receiver. He also became Oklahoma's leader in all-purpose yards and touchdowns, considerable amounts of which were earned while on special teams. He is also well known for his impressive pass blocking skills. The camp battle between the two is just getting started, but already Murray seems to have the edge...at least listening to Coach Garrett that is the impression I get.
"He proved in college he was a good every-down runner," Garrett said. "He proved he was a receiver out of the backfield, a protector on third downs, a kick returner. He just has a lot of versatility."
"This is overused, but we felt like he was a football player...He reacted instinctively as a runner, as a receiver, as a blocker, as a returner."
So if Murray does beat out Choice as the #2 RB due to his versatility and capabilities as a 3rd down back, does Choice present the situational options for the third running back on the game day roster?
Lonyae Miller has shown promise both as a blocker and special teams, but he is no more a receiving threat than Choice, and the camp flashes have not shown up during preseason games where he seems to lack the instincts and vision others have displayed, including undrafted rookie Phillip Tanner.
In the preseason games it first appeared that Lonyae was having bad luck and wasn't getting the running lanes Tanner was provided. But closer inspection will show Miller often put his head down too early and didn't find the hole as well as Tanner seemed to routinely do. Against the Chargers Phillip Tanner had good runs and a special teams tackle, and an impressive blitz pick up where he nearly knocked out the defender, but he also made the greatest play that never was - a TD run called back due to a penalty, though it would have also gotten nullified due to the new "Helmetless Rule." This kind of speed, balance, and power, not to mention guts, will not be easily forgotten. (BTW - check out David Arkin's pancake block in the second level to spring Tanner for a TD).
Video highlight of Tanner's run (with some nostalgia to boot)
This training camp battle is just heating up. I am not in charge of the Cowboys roster, but my early projections (and I am not alone) find Choice looking for a new job as Murray and Tanner fill in the roster spots after Felix. Once Choice shows he has recovered from injury, I would call the Arizona Cardinals to see if the season ending injury to rookie Ryan Williams has them interested in a trade.
This should prove to be another entertaining preseason storyline to an already memorable 2011 training camp.