Looks can be deceiving in evaluating Cowboys RBs; coaches insist 2.9-yd average doesn't matter

Wade Phillips was talking about how players did in the last preseason game when he brought up how well running backs Marion Barber and Felix Jones have been doing.

Really? They combined for 17 yards on six carries against San Diego. They're averaging 2.9 yards per carry over three preseason games. Their longest run is nine yards.

But Phillips and running backs coach Skip Peete insist none of that matters.

Phillips said he's watching "the way they run, the moves they make, the power they're running with, the decisions they're making."

Peete has a similar checklist: "Does he get up in there? Is he timid? Does he have the ability to make someone miss? Does he lower his pads?"

And by those measuring sticks, the Cowboys like what they've seen from their 1-2 punch in the backfield.

"They're running hard, they're doing good," Peete said Tuesday. "Obviously, you'd want to see a 10-, 12-yard average. But preseason, that doesn't usually happen. ... In the preseason, you want to get them in shape, get them ready and then when we get to the regular season we'll take advantage of all their talents."

Led by Barber and Jones, the Cowboys averaged 4.8 yards per carry last season, tied for second in the NFL. Dallas was seventh in yards per game at 131.4.

Barber got nearly twice as many carries as Jones last season, a ratio that's likely to change this year. Jones has averaged more than six yards on every carry and reception in his two-year career, and the Cowboys want to see if he can keep that up with more action.

Jones has gotten ready for the added workload by bulking up. He's added about seven pounds, most of it upper-body strength.

"It's muscle," Peete said. "It's not like he's lost a step. His speed and quickness are still there. You get worried if a guy gets bigger and slower, but he hasn't lost a step."

Barber got thinner, dropping about eight pounds in hopes of picking up speed. He weighs about the same as he did as a rookie. He also weighs less than Jones, which is odd since he's the bruising power runner and Jones is the speedy slasher.

"Really," Peete said, "the weight doesn't matter."

Part of the reason for the — seemingly — sluggish start is a lack of use.

Dallas starters played one series in the preseason opener, two series the next week and lasted nearly a half against San Diego on Saturday night. Over those three games, Barber has 25 yards on eight carries and Jones has 15 yards on six carries. The third member of their three-man crew, Tashard Choice, has 69 yards on 18 carries; his average of 3.8 yards is the best of any running back.

"One of the things we try to do in practice every day is get ready for the season. Once we get to the preseason games, we're a little bit more basic," offensive coordinator Jason Garrett said. "That's just our approach. The biggest thing we want to see in the preseason is evaluate our players. But any time you do anything, you want to do it well. That helps develop confidence."

Phillips and Peete stress that in the preseason games thus far the Cowboys have been "just running plays." That means they are calling a play and going with it regardless of whether it's the right call based on down, distance and the defense they're facing. Many plays wind up being doomed to fail, which is why they say it's difficult to get an accurate read on what players are doing.

"Right now, we're trying to evaluate people, we're trying to evaluate plays, we're trying to evaluate schemes," Peete said. "We're installing our offense. There are a lot of different plays to be worked on. ... We're not scheming, saying, 'OK, if they line up like this, then we're going to do that.'"

Still, 40 yards on 14 carries by the two prime ballcarriers is a bit suspect.

"Preseason is not a direct indicator of how you're going to do in the regular season," Phillips said. "I see the running backs running well. I think we're going to be able to block for them. Would we like to do it in the preseason game, where we make 198 yards like the Saints did the last week? That would be nice. But we haven't done that so far.

"But I still think our running game is going to do good and those guys are going to do good."