Cowboys have many options at RB

Imagine the Dallas Cowboys are playing one of their NFC East rivals. Let's say it's a tight game in their fancy new stadium. The crowd is ready to go wild, so offensive coordinator Jason Garrett decides to show off his trio of running backs.

It might play out something like this: On first-and-10, Marion Barber goes banging up the middle, grinding out a few yards.

On second-and-6, Tony Romo throws to Felix Jones coming out of the backfield. He squirts up the field, stopped just shy of a first down.

Now it's third-and-1 and out comes third-stringer Tashard Choice. He lines up as a shotgun quarterback, with Romo setting up like a wide receiver and Jones coming in motion. It's a Dallas version of the Wildcat, with Choice and Jones filling roles they had when their college teams ran it.

OK, OK. It's still early August and the Cowboys haven't even played a preseason game, so there's no telling if anything like that might really play out. The point is, it could.

Barber, Jones and Choice - or, "Smash, Dash & Tash," as Choice has dubbed them - give Dallas a unique combination of depth and versatility at a position considered the backbone of every offense.

All three have proven they can gain big chunks of yards, both running and receiving. They are also all young and eager, buddies who understand their spots in the team's pecking order and fully accept it. There is no jealousy or bitterness about sharing the job.

"We use it as a motivation to go out there and work harder," Jones said.

Here's how this three-man band works:

-Barber, the oldest at 26, is "Smash," the starter whose battering-ram style wears down defenses.

-Jones, a first-round pick last year, is "Dash," the 22-year-old speedster who seems even faster to worn-down defenses.

-Choice, a fourth-round pick last year, is "Tash" (yeah, well, at least it rhymes), a small, thick, quick guy who does it all, an inside runner like Barber but elusive like Jones. He's such a blend of the two that he's even right in between their ages, 24.

"Each one is pretty darn good at everything," Romo said. "But in a couple of areas, they're special. It's just up to us to get them in that certain position and show their skills."

Garrett is the one who gets to figure it out. The more creative he is, the more successful the Cowboys could be.

"It's a good problem to have," Garrett said. "They are all going to get their chances - doing it together, doing it individually. We don't have to say 'This guy only does this and this guy only does that."'

Expect Garrett to do a lot of tinkering because the Cowboys have renewed their commitment to running.

Team owner Jerry Jones threw it out at the start of training camp and coach Wade Phillips built on it by saying he wants the ground game to rank among the top 10. Dallas was 21st last year, gaining its fewest yards rushing since 1997.

The Cowboys actually were one of the most effective teams, biting off 4.3 yards per carry, but they didn't have many carries - their fewest since 1990, the year they discovered that rookie Emmitt Smith might be pretty good one day.

Dallas' run-pass ratio got out of whack in recent years because of how well they did basing things around Romo throwing to Terrell Owens and Jason Witten. Last season, injuries gave Garrett more reasons to keep passing.

Felix Jones went down after only six games and Barber hardly played after dislocating a toe on Thanksgiving. The line also wasn't as good because a foot problem limited left guard Kyle Kosier to three games.

Plus, coaches were figuring out what they had in Jones and Choice, just like Jimmy Johnson was figuring out what he had in Smith in '90.

Felix Jones came from Arkansas, Jerry Jones' beloved alma mater, and, from the start, the boss wanted to see the kid unleashed. He responded with an 11-yard touchdown run on his first career carry, a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown the next week and a 60-yard touchdown run in his third game. After not getting a carry the next game, he got nine the following week and turned them into 96 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown run.

"Dash," indeed.

"In Felix, we've got more speed than we've even been able to dream about at running back," Jerry Jones said.

Just when the Cowboys were ready to find more ways to get the ball to Felix Jones, he pulled a hamstring. It was almost healed when he hurt a toe and never returned.

Enter, "Tash."

Choice was eased into action for about a month. Then Barber got hurt and Choice became the featured back the last four games.

He ran for 382 yards (5.2 per carry) and two touchdowns, adding 17 receptions for 163 yards. Making it more impressive is that the four defenses he faced finished the season ranked in the top five in the NFL. Better still, his first career start was against the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers, in Pittsburgh, and Choice gouged them for 88 yards rushing and 78 yards receiving; it was the best game any back had against them all season.

"The opportunity was given to me, so I had to shine," Choice said. "I had to help my teammates out and not be the weak point on the offense."

Barber made a name for himself the same way at the start of his career.

He broke in as a third-down guy, then became a short-yardage specialist, powering his way to an NFC-best 14 rushing touchdowns in 2006. He wasn't the starter in '07, but he led the team in rushing and made the Pro Bowl. A huge raise followed, along with the anointment as the No. 1 guy going into last season.

Barber led the team in attempts and yards, but he wasn't as effective, averaging a career-low 3.7 yards per carry.

The thinking is that his hard-charging style - "Smash," remember, or "Marion the Barbarian," as T.O. called him - can wear out Barber, too. So having a competent backup (or two) should only help.

"Whatever coaches say, that's my role, man," said Barber, who is as shy around reporters as he is aggressive toward defensive backs.

The Cowboys are keeping Barber as the starter. It's a case of squatter's rights as well as strategy.

"You start a game and what's happening? You're geared up, you're physical, everybody is excited," running backs coach Skip Peete said. "The holes aren't that big, so you need somebody to puncture those holes. There aren't going to be many yards, but what you're creating is going to help you crack the defense later, as the game goes on."

As the NFL is trending toward running back tandems, the Cowboys could be starting a new trend. Few clubs can suit up three runners already this good and young enough to still be getting better.

The only thing missing might be the hype.

So far, all they have are individual T-shirts - "Smash" for Barber, "Dash" for Jones and "Tash" for Choice - given to them by Owens.

Considering Jerry Jones' marketing efforts, there's got to be a poster, or at least a bumper sticker, in the works - right?

"Not yet," Choice said. "I don't want to jinx it."

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