Bell: Cowboys running back competition boils down to trust, health and performance

Cowboys RB Joseph Randle has 105 career carries, about a quarter of DeMarco Murray's total in 2014.

OXNARD, Calif. — Confidence is not the issue.

Ask Joseph Randle to identity the point in time when he felt like the starting running back job for the Dallas Cowboys was his to lose, and he does not mince words: “From Day 1,” Randle, fresh off the practice field, told USA TODAY Sports.

That would have been the moment last spring when reigning NFL rushing champ DeMarco Murray left as a free agent.

“I knew this day would come,” Randle added. “I’m just trying to make it happen every day.”.

Randle, entering his third NFL season, is surely well-positioned to assume one of the most high-profile jobs in the league. He’s spent training camp working with the first team, and with quick feet, explosion and arguably the best offensive line in football in front of him, he’s that close to becoming a household name — perhaps partially because he’s also making noise in other ways.

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In May, Randle caused a stir by maintaining that for as fine of a season as Murray enjoyed in 2014 — his 1,845 rushing yards eclipsed the best single-season totals of Cowboys Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith — he didn’t max out. As Randle put it, Murray “left some meat on the bone.”.

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In other words, Randle is brimming with confidence to show that he can do even better.

“I’ve got to feel that way,” he insists.

But first things first. Officially, the job is still open.

Trust is one of the issues. Can the Cowboys really rely on a man who has as many arrests within the past year — two — as NFL starts?

Randle, earning an NFL wage ($420,000 in 2014) was arrested last October for shoplifting underwear and cologne. In February, he was nabbed on marijuana possession charges. So the Cowboys still need to determine whether he can handle all that would come with a big promotion — including the wear-and-tear of an increased workload and intense scrutiny.

“It’s a big responsibility,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett told USA TODAY Sports. “You have to be mature and responsible enough to handle it.”.

As the halfway point of the preseason approaches, Garrett can hardly declare any conclusions about the process to replace the production of Murray, who had a league-high 392 carries last season and triggered an identity shift with the Cowboys offense. Garrett remains in wait-and-see mode.

The Cowboys’ running back competition was supposed to be one of the most compelling training camp battles in the NFL. But with injuries hampering newcomer Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar, the competition has essentially been delayed because only now are all three of the top contenders healthy.

So, finally, competition on.

“The coach says it’s an open competition, so I’m competing,” McFadden told USA TODAY Sports. “I’m going to give 110%, whether I’m the first guy on the field or the last guy.”.

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McFadden is undoubtedly the biggest name in the mix, but maybe the biggest question mark. Health has always been his issue. In the first seven years of his NFL career, all with the Oakland Raiders, McFadden never played all 16 games in a season until last year, constantly hampered by one injury another. A fresh start in Dallas has already brought reminders — hamstring injuries on both legs — underscoring the primary reason why he’s been unable to have the projected impact of a player drafted fourth overall in 2008.

“Very frustrating,” McFadden, who began practicing Saturday after missing the first 19 days of drills, said. “I just have to hold my head high. I know the type of player I am. My thing is just to be healthy, and once I’m out there, staying on the field.”.

The Cowboys, engaged in joint practices with the St. Louis Rams on Monday and Tuesday, are gradually easing McFadden back while trying to avoid another setback. On Sunday, he was limited to seven-on-seven drills and held out of full-squad repetitions. He expects the manner in which his load will be determined from this point will be day to day.

He’s eager enough. McFadden hasn’t averaged more than 3.4 yards per carry since 2011, but he’s also never run behind a dominant offensive line like the one Dallas has built. Last year, while preparing for opposing defenses, McFadden watched a number of Dallas games on video and was struck by Murray’s patient running style.

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“That’s a thing I can do,” he said. “Be a patient runner, and then when the hole opens up, hit it at 100 miles an hour.”.

Lately, though, the patience has involved biding time for the competition to commence.

Randle acknowledged there’s actual competition to push him, but he’s also mindful of what he was able to accomplish in spot duty last season. He averaged 6.7 yards per rush — albeit with just 51 carries — and demonstrated a big-play knack.

“He was like a pinch-hitter, having to come in cold,” Garrett said. “You always hear runners talk about getting in the flow of the game. You think about what he did, and, to me, he’s done a real challenging thing already, with his role last year.”.

But can he do more, with consistency?

The Cowboys hope to have multiple options, if not a 1-2-3 punch. Garrett realizes the uncertainty. After building the offense over a number of year to develop to the point where the power rushing attack dictated flow — and helped protect the defense by topping the league in time of possession — they are not even sure now how the backfield load might be divided.

“We’re not even remotely close to that,” Garrett said. “It’s wait and see.”.

Follow NFL columnist Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

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