SAN ANTONIO — Felix Jones is finally going into a season as the featured running back. He’s waited quite a while for this opportunity.
Jones spent most of his first three seasons with the Dallas Cowboys either playing behind Marion Barber or dealing with a series of nagging injuries.
And even before that, Jones shared the same collegiate backfield in Arkansas with Darren McFadden, who was drafted fourth overall by Oakland in 2008. The Cowboys got Jones 18 picks later in the first round of the same draft.
“We’ve seen a maturation process of Felix really since he’s gotten here,” coach Jason Garrett said. “The more and more he’s been here I think the more he’s shown that he’s able to be a durable every-down back. … He’s clearly taken on the mentality that ‘I’m the featured guy,’ and that’s a good thing.”
With Barber gone after being released by Dallas last month and Jones healthy, there is now no question about who the Cowboys are depending on to be their primary runner.
“You’ve got to be patient. I’ve definitely been blessed to be here, and God put me in a great position,” Jones said. “All I can do is maximize my opportunities.”
Tashard Choice, the other part of last season’s running back trio, has been out since sustaining a calf injury at the start of training camp. He could be out a couple of more weeks.
Jones played in all 16 games for the first time last season, when he got a chance to be the starter seven of the last eight games. He finished as the Cowboys’ top rusher with 800 yards and caught 48 passes for 450 yards and a touchdown.
There have always been signs of Jones’ dynamic playmaking ability.
He is still the only Cowboys rookie ever to score touchdowns in each of his first three games, with an 11-yard TD run on his first NFL carry, a 98-yard kickoff return in his home debut and a 60-yard TD run in the third game in 2008. In his playoff debut the following season, he ran for 148 yards on 16 carries with a 73-yard TD run in a win over Philadelphia.
But his rookie season ended after only six games because of a hamstring injury and a subsequent toe injury during rehabilitation. He missed two games early in the second year because of a knee injury.
Finally making it through all 16 games last season gave Jones the chance to see how his body could handle it. There was then the extended break created by the NFL lockout that took away team-organized offseason workouts.
“It kind of helped me. I know what I wanted to work on and had more time working on it,” Jones said, without being too specific. “The stretches, the running, everything that I did this offseason helped me out. … It gave me energy, I was ready for this season, I was ready for football to start.”
The difference in health is very evident to running backs coach Skip Peete.
“He’s had an opportunity to go through a full training camp and hasn’t had to nurse anything or limit his reps,” Peete said. “The last couple of years I’ve had to watch him, he’s only going to get so many (reps) this period, so many this period, to where now he’s in there and he’s going, he’s going and I said, ‘Hey, go until you think you need a breather and let me know.’ That’s been exciting to be able to do that.”
During the Cowboys’ first semi-live situational practice session in camp against the No. 1 defense, Jones turned two swing passes from Tony Romo into long gains.
“That’s the capabilities that he has,” Peete said. “I’m excited for him. I think he’s in the best shape he’s been since he’s been with us.”’
After coming out of the backfield to make one of the catches from Romo, Jones had linebacker Bradie James right in front of him near the sideline. With a quick stutter step, Jones cut inside and left the linebacker in his wake, turning what might have been no gain into a 31-yard pickup.
“Felix put a move on me on the sideline,” James said enthusiastically. “I was like, ‘Dang, come on Felix, run out of bounds.’ But it was good. … Felix is making moves.”
Before Jones, the Cowboys hadn’t drafted an offensive player in the first round since tight end David LaFleur in 1997. The last time they had used a first-round pick on a running back was for Emmitt Smith in 1990, the year after Jerry Jones bought the team.
Felix Jones also became the first fellow Razorback drafted by Jerry Jones, the co-captain of Arkansas’ undefeated 1964 national championship team.
Now Felix Jones finally gets his chance to be a top cat.
“Every year you want to do something to get better, you want to do something that helps you out and makes you better than last year. I’m definitely trying to do that and find that mode that helps me and puts me at another level,” Jones said. “I’m definitely trying to expand as a player, doing anything I can do to help my team win.”