The 2003 Dallas Cowboys season ended with disappointment when Bill Parcells and his team made for a poor showing against the Carolina Panthers and the biggest letdown was the play of the offense. All year the number one ranked defense of the Cowboys carried an inconsistent offense that was lead by Quincy Carter and a committee of running backs. Cowboys fans had been hungry to see what Troy Hambrick would be capable of in a full time starting role after showing flashes of brilliance while serving as Emmitt Smith’s backup. His play proved to be disappointing and uninspired and veteran Richie Anderson took over as the main threat out of the backfield, albeit mainly in the passing game. Cowboys fans yearned for the days of the dominant Dallas running back remembering the dominance of Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith and cringed with the thought of heading into another season without a franchise player in the backfield.
The 2004 NFL draft had Cowboy fans excited and optimistic as the possibility of drafting a top running back presented itself. The 2004 NFL draft class had several promising backs and with the Cowboys possessing the 22nd pick fans were hoping that one of them would drop to Dallas. I settled into my seat in front of the television and waited with bated breath with every pick, praying that none of the running backs were taken. Theatrics and fireworks flew around the drama of Eli Manning and his refusal to play for San Diego and things quietly heated up for Cowboys fans as each team passed on the highly touted running backs. My mind was set on Steven Jackson, a stud from Oregon St. who had the ability to run between the tackles as well as outside and threatened to become a force in the passing game. The Cowboys’ pick drew near and I eagerly slid to the edge of my seat ready to leap in the air with joy when Dallas surely picked the heir apparent to the mighty Emmitt Smith. When New England chose a defensive tackle the just before Dallas I held my breath for those long fifteen minutes the Cowboys had to pick, each second ticking by in excruciating fashion. What was taking so long, and why was this not an automatic pick? Then it became clear that the Cowboys were working on a trade. When the commissioner announced the trade with Buffalo, I fell backwards in utter disgust. There was no way Steven Jackson, Kevin Jones or Chris Perry would be available in the middle of the 2nd round and it was obvious that Bill Parcells had let a golden opportunity pass him by.
With the 43rd pick in the second round Dallas selected Notre Dame running back Julius Jones. I knew of him and recalled that he was a decent back who was able to pull away from players if he made it into the secondary. He was not much of a straight ahead runner, but possessed the speed and elusiveness that a starting running back would need in the NFL. Even with my mind becoming more and more open to the prospect of Julius being the feature back we desperately needed, I could not help but think that Jerry Jones’ and Parcells’ decision would end up haunting us down the line.
Julius Jones immediately began making an impression in training camp and I approached the season with optimism and an open mind. This quiet running back could very well be the answer we have been searching for and at the very least he was an upgrade over what we had the previous year. Unfortunately, Jones hurt his scapula in week two and the Cowboys were forced to rely upon veteran Eddie George to carry the load in his absence. When Julius returned in mid-season, he returned with fireworks. On Thanksgiving Day, in the first game of his career against his brother Thomas, Julius carried the Cowboys on his back in a victory against the Bears. In the play of the day, Julius exploded into the secondary and nearly broke the ankles of the safety as he juked his way to the end zone. It was the type of running play Cowboy fans had been dreaming of since the heyday of Emmitt and seemed to signal the return of a top notch runner to Dallas. Julius would finish his rookie season with 819 yards in just eight games played and he only promised to get better the next year.
Unfortunately, Julius was never able to live up to the high standards Cowboys coaches and fans had set for him. After setting a public goal for himself of 1,700 yards and 20 touchdowns, Jones was once again hit by the injury bug and doubts began to form as to whether he was durable enough to last in the NFL. Even though Julius owned two of the top five single rushing performances in team history he entered 2006 with something to prove to himself, his coaches and the fans. The previous year the Cowboys had drafted Marion Barber who had shown the ability to step in and be a forceful change of pace behind Jones and began pushing him for playing time. After starting the season averaging over 100 yards a game, Jones’ production dropped dramatically and he was routinely substituted in favor of Barber near the end zone and in the 4th quarter. Although he finished the year as the first Cowboys back to gain 1,000 yards since Emmitt, it still seemed Julius was a disappointment. 2007 was going to be a make or break season for Jones as he entered a contract year and he openly expressed the desire to silence his critics and establish himself as a legitimate number one running back.
After the departure of Bill Parcells, Julius immediately began to voice his opinion that he was constantly hampered by the conservative approach of his former coach. He stated that at times he was forced to run like a robot and his creativity was diminished in the straight ahead running schemes the Cowboys employed his first three years. He promised that he was a new man in 2007 and approached the season with enthusiasm. Things never panned out the way he hoped they would. Jones had the worst season statistically of his career as Marion Barber saw more and more carries and Jones was unable to make the most of his limited opportunities. Throughout his time in Dallas Julius exhibited flashes of brilliance and left no doubt as to his physical abilities. But it seemed as though he never had that burning desire to play as hard as he could, giving everything he could every single down. Perhaps his lack of production was a result of him playing in a scheme that wasn’t built to his strengths, or perhaps he was under too much pressure to perform with Marion Barber coming up behind him. At times Julius ran with authority, such as in the playoff game against Seattle, but those times were few and far between.
Despite all his perceived flaws as a running back, his character has never been called into question. While it is easy to flame the player it is just as easy to like the man. He never complained publicly about his dwindling carries and always showed the utmost respect for Marion Barber. Julius was always a great teammate and a stand up human being, a result of the incredible family he grew up in. His fellow teammates stand by him and not one coach or player has ever had anything bad to say about him. That trait is rare in a NFL player these days and it was refreshing to see the past four years. Julius Jones will become an unrestricted free agent on February 29, and is expected to sign with another team where he can once again be the starting running back. Hopefully he will sign with a team that can make the most of his abilities and he will find more success than he saw during his time in Dallas.
Many fans have been calling for his trade for a few years now and most will be glad to see him go. Dallas has been spoiled with its Hall of Fame history of running backs and it seems that any player that does not live up to that standard is met with anger and is easily dismissed. While Julius’ time in Dallas was not the most productive or successful, if compared to many other teams’ history of running backs fans should be proud of who they had for four years. While Steven Jackson ultimately turned into the running back most thought he would be, Chris Perry and Kevin Jones never reached the success Julius Jones enjoyed in Dallas. It is easy to look back and think about what might have been but it is just as easy to look ahead with optimism and realize that things are never as bad as they first seem.