Elusive RB Jones off to a strong start for Cowboys

Posted Aug. 22, 2011, at 7:30 p.m.

ARLINGTON, Texas — Felix Jones is doing it again, getting into open space and shimmying his way into wider, more open spaces.

Through two preseason games, Jones is averaging 8.6 yards every time he touches the ball. In just 11 tries, he’s already had runs of 22, 18 and 11 yards, plus another burst of 16 yards on a screen.

Having anointed him as their featured running back this season, the Dallas Cowboys are thrilled to see it.

They also know this is August, and his body is as fresh as it’s going to be.

What they really need to see is whether he can do it in the fourth quarter, after having already handled the ball about 20 times. And, if so, whether he can do it in December, after several months of carrying and catching the ball 20 times a game.

Only time will tell, and the Cowboys are finally committed to finding out whether he can be as productive as the guys Dallas bypassed to draft him in the first round in 2008 — a collection of 1,000-yard rushers that includes Tennessee’s Chris Johnson and Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall.

“I’ve never seen him more explosive or quicker than he has been in this camp,” quarterback Tony Romo said. “He has also taken it up a notch with his understanding of the game. He has had one of the better camps here, and I am excited about the upcoming season for him.”

Because of his great speed and moves, Jones has been stamped “handle with care.” The perception stems from being the change-of-pace backup to Darren McFadden at Arkansas, then to Marion Barber from the time he arrived in Dallas.

The thinking also has been that the less he’s hit, the more effective he’ll be. Hamstring, knee and ankle injuries have slowed him over the years.

Last year, Jones tried to counter that by showing up to camp weighing about 10 pounds more. It robbed him of some of the speed and elusiveness that are his biggest assets, and he was a pretty ordinary player much of the season.

He got a chance to break out of it late last season, after Jason Garrett was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach. Jones’ role increased and so did his production.

He had a career day in a win against Indianapolis — not in yards, but in workload, handling 22 carries and three receptions. Over the final three games, he ran for at least 70 yards each time, producing a total of 228. Keep that up over a full season and it would be 1,216 yards. Dallas has had only a single 1,000-yard rusher since Emmitt Smith.

Jones certainly has the talent to do it, and now he’ll have the opportunity. It’s all about staying healthy and proving durable, which Jones believe he spent the lockout preparing to do.

“It was a great offseason,” Jones said. “Definitely during training camp you are learning things and keeping yourself in shape. I spent time in the weight room and stayed on top of things.”

He looked good in the preseason opener against Denver. He built on that Sunday night against a San Diego defense that was sixth-best against the run last season.

Early in the second quarter, with Dallas down 10-0, Jones danced to the left side of the line, zipped up the field, avoided a tackle and ran toward the sideline, stiff-arming a defender for the final bit of a 22-yard gain.

On the next snap, he worked his way up the middle for an 11-yard gain.

“Felix made some people miss,” Garrett said.

Jones went to the bench after that and it seemed as though his night was done. But once the Cowboys got to the 21, Garrett sent Jones back in to see if he could grind out some of those tough yards close to the goal line that used to be Barber’s specialty.

Jones had runs of 3, 4 and 3 yards, helping set up a touchdown pass to Jason Witten. The big thing was that Jones showed a willingness to put his head down and run hard into the teeth of the defense.

Earlier in the game, he’d shown a similar willingness to give up his body with a block that prevented defensive end Corey Liuget from getting to Romo, allowing him to complete another pass to Witten for a first down.

In other words, he did everything a complete back should.

“I think you saw a lot of that last year when he started getting the ball a lot in the second half of the season,” Garrett said. “He was healthy and I think he’s shown us he really over the last couple of years can run inside between the tackles, and I think you saw that tonight. He certainly is an explosive, dynamic space player. And when he gets out in space as a runner, he’s really special. To be able to run between the tackles, to be able to run downhill at a defense, is really an asset, and I think he’s shown that more and more as his career has progressed.”

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