Imagine how many yards the Dallas Cowboys would be running for if they could keep their running backs healthy.
Even with starter Marion Barber missing the last game because of an injury and backup Felix Jones leaving two games with injuries, Dallas has averaged a whopping 193.7 yards rushing per game, 23 yards better than any other NFL team.
OK, three weeks into the season, league-leading totals are pretty worthless. But here's a pretty significant statistic: The Cowboys have run for more than 200 yards each of the last two games, a back-to-back feat they haven't pulled off since 1979. In other words, it never happened in all the years Emmitt Smith was running for the most yards in NFL history.
So, what gives?
How can Dallas be so much more successful than last year, when it ranked 21st in rushing, with pretty much the same runners and blockers?
"I don't have the answer," offensive line coach Hudson Houck said Wednesday. "I wish I did."
A logical reason would be the team's preseason pledge to running more. However, that's not the case. The Cowboys actually have five fewer carries than three games into last year, yet they have 129 more yards.
The obvious difference is they're running more effectively.
The linemen are in their second year under Houck and are back at full strength with right guard Kyle Kosier recovered from foot problems that limited him to three games last season. Barber is more comfortable in his second year as the starter, while Jones and third-stringer Tashard Choice are better in their second NFL season.
Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett is doing things differently, too.
His basic formation uses two tight ends, Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett, and sometimes he goes with a third, rookie John Phillips. Other times he goes with fullback Deon Anderson. The results show Garrett is doing a good job mixing things up, sometimes calling the perfect play against a defense.
For instance, against Carolina on Monday night, he called for a left-side run when the Panthers were blitzing from the right side. Jones broke through for 40 yards. He had a 56-yarder against the New York Giants the week before and Barber had a 35-yarder that game, too.
All told, the Cowboys have seven runs of at least 20 yards and 18 of 10 yards or more.
Could that be the secret to the surge in production, that Dallas has become a big-play running team instead of a grind-it-out type?
"The interesting thing is, we can do both," running backs coach Skip Peete said. "With Marion and Tashard, we can grind it. Then with Felix there's a chance of a big play every time he touches it. It's very exciting to watch."
Dallas is going to get a stiff test Sunday against Denver. The Broncos have the stingiest defense in the NFL, allowing only 214.7 total yards per game. They are seventh against the run at 78.3 yards per game.
A bigger issue is the health of the Cowboys' running backs. With Barber and Jones hobbling, Choice is likely to start and could be the only one who suits up.
Jones is almost certainly out because of sprained ligament in his left knee. Barber could be back from a thigh strain. There's no telling yet whether he'll start, relieve or be inactive again. If he'll miss the game, Dallas probably would call up Chauncey Washington from the practice squad. Anderson is the only other ballcarrier on the 53-man roster and he has two carries over three seasons.
"It's a tenuous situation certainly," coach Wade Phillips said. "We're looking at what we can do or what the possibilities are. We certainly don't want to go into the game with one running back."
Choice is no typical third-stringer. He already has 100 yards on 22 carries, a solid 4.5 yards per carry, and he did a nice job as the primary running back over the final month of 2008 when Barber and Jones were hurt.
"Being put in that position last year and coming through and showing the team ... is really important, more for the coaches and then my teammates," Choice said. "Once those guys look at you in the huddle and know that you can play, it's a good feeling."
And they certainly do.
"We are very confident when he is out there," quarterback Tony Romo said. "He is a smart, smart kid."
Barber hurt his left thigh at the end of his 35-yard run and missed the last game. Phillips said Barber was limited in practice Wednesday, but not as limited as last week. How Barber looks Thursday will go a long way toward determining his availability Sunday.
Jones overcame a thigh bruise in the opener, then sprained a ligament in his left knee Monday night.
"I guess, realistically, I should rule him out (Sunday), but I'm still not," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "He has a lot of resolve and, at best, these things are very subjective."
After Denver, Dallas plays at lowly Kansas City, then has a bye. So there's a notion Dallas might let Felix Jones have a three-week break.
"That's being pretty conservative, at this juncture," Jerry Jones said. "That may turn out to be the case, but I'm not ready to say that now."