Ideal Choice

IRVING, Tex. - Talk to Tashard Choice for a couple of minutes, and it's nearly impossible to believe that he is third in the Dallas Cowboys' running backs rotation.

His teammates have enormous respect for his talent, work ethic and attitude ("I'd go to war with him any day," wide receiver Roy Williams said). His charismatic attitude makes teammates gravitate toward him in the locker room, and makes media flock to him for interviews.

For someone who carries the "backup" tag, there's a lot to like about Choice.

A fourth-round draft choice in the 2008 NFL Draft, Choice was a somewhat surprising … choice by a team that already had a young, emerging star in Marion Barber and had drafted running back Felix Jones in the first round of the same draft.

But the three have formed one of the most dynamic trios of runners in the NFL. Barber starts the game with his jackhammer running style, and Jones slips in as a change-of-pace guy with his absurd speed and athleticism. Waiting in the wings, Choice is something of a mixture of the two. When Barber went down with a thigh injury in the Cowboys' loss to the New York Giants, and Jones strained a knee Monday night against Carolina, suddenly Choice was thrust into the spotlight, and he carried the Dallas offense to the victory.

"My two compadres have got little injuries, but (those) boys are tough — they'll be back soon," Choice said. "I wish them to get back as soon as possible, because those guys, as you see — you saw Felix, and how dynamic he is, and you saw Marion in the last game before he went down — all of us want to help the football team, and that's going to help us out at the end when we go later into the season."

Choice knows his role, and understands his spot in the Dallas running backs pecking order, and acknowledges that he is helped significantly by the fact that he played in college for a coach, former NFL coach Chan Gailey, who ran a pro-style offense at Georgia Tech that required its running backs — even Choice, as the Yellow Jackets' primary ball-carrier — to learn pass blocking.

"Coach Gailey's offense, the pro-style offense I ran in college, was very similar to the one we do here, so getting pass protection and understanding it came pretty easy to me," Choice said. "That's what the coaches … most of the time, they'll tell you I'm a smart football player, because I spent time trying to understand that. The first thing they'll tell you is that everybody in the NFL can run the football, and a lot of people can carry the football, but if you really want to stick around, you've got to be able to pick up pass protection. I wanted to make sure that's one thing I picked up early."

Choice also benefits from a rather sizeable chip he carries on his shoulder because of the fact that he feels he often has been underappreciated. Coming out of high school, he signed with the University of Oklahoma, where he was overshadowed by another freshman named Adrian Peterson. When he transferred to Georgia Tech, he still wasn't hailed as a star, despite leading the Atlantic Coast Conference in rushing. Then, despite being one of the nation's more productive runners in the nation, he slid to the fourth round, and was chosen by a team that already seemed fairly committed to Barber and had just made a big-money commitment by selecting Jones in the first round.

"It pisses me off — it pisses me off all the time, to know you can be a good back and play in the league, but that's something I always carry around with me," Choice said. "I felt a little bad on draft day, I was a little upset. But once I came here, and understood I was going to be a Dallas Cowboy, it went away, quick. So my mindframe changed. ‘OK, now I got drafted, and now I want to stay here.' I want to be effective and show people ‘hey, you messed up on Tashard Choice.'

"It's funny — my whole career, there's a lot of times when I may not have been looked at. Some people say ‘he's really good, but he's overshadowed.' So every chance I get to step in … when I went (from Oklahoma) to Georgia Tech, and led the league in rushing, and then went second-team all-ACC — little stuff like that pisses me off. You don't get that many opportunities to play this game, so every opportunity, you've got to make sure you go all out."

Like just about every skill-position player out there, Choice makes no bones about the fact that he would like more plays and more chances to get the ball in his hands. But he seems to have found considerable peace in his role in the offense, in large part because of the close bond he shares with Barber and Jones.

"Love it — and you love it even more when they share the same respect for you … like (in the) last game, when Felix was hurt," Choice said. "He wasn't pouting. All he told me was, ‘keep balling, boy — keep doing your thing!' He just kept telling me that in my ear. Every play, every time I came to the sideline, he was more than happy for me, and that's how I am when he broke that long run or doing really well. That's how we are."

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