It’s December 1992 and the Dallas Cowboys are headed to the playoffs.
But despite having wrapped up the NFC East via a 27-14 victory over the Chicago Bears, head coach Jimmy Johnson is pissed. In the second half of the season finale at Texas Stadium backup running back Curvin Richards – a 4th-round draft pick from Pitt in ’91 – fumbles twice. Richards rushed for 176 yards during the season as the primary understudy to NFL rushing champ Emmitt Smith, but after his sloppy play suddenly he is a former Cowboy.
Yep, the next day at Valley Ranch – just 2 days after Christmas – Johnson cuts the Cowboys’ No. 2 running back.
“I want to go into the playoffs with people I can count on,” Johnson snaps to us baffled media that Monday afternoon. “It just came to the point where the concerns built up and I finally said I’d had enough.”
The Cowboys promote Tommie Agee as Smith’s backup and activate unknown Derrick Gainer for an insurance running back. More importantly Johnson sends his message, loud and clear. I ask defensive tackle Tony Casillas about the move.
“When you play for Jimmy,” he dead-pans, “NFL stands for ‘Not For Long’.”
A month later the Cowboys throttle the Buffalo Bills, 52-17, to win Super Bowl XXVII.
It’s September 2012 and the Dallas Cowboys just got pulverized by the Seattle Seahawks.
But despite being emotionally unprepared and physically manhandled by a team they were favored to beat in an embarrassing 20-point loss, head coach Jason Garrett and owner/GM Jerry Jones are in a shrug-it-off “shit happens” sorta mood. The laughably bad performance at Seattle’s Century Link Field is badly book-ended by backup running back Felix Jones, who fumbles the opening kickoff and ends the game by tentatively trotting after catching a screen pass before tripping – untouched – at the Seahawks’ 25-yard line.
Felix Jones, a 1st-roud draft pick out of Arkansas in 2008, underwent off-season shoulder injury, missed most of the team’s summer work and arrived at training camp out of shape, immediately failing a conditioning test. During pre-season games he dropped passes. In the team’s Silver-‘n-Blue Debut public practice at Cowboys Stadium he repeatedly muffed kickoffs. He played only 12 snaps before leaving the team’s season-opening win over the New York Giants with what team vice president Stephen Jones called a “rib thing.” And in 2 regular-season games he has produced 2 carries for a grand total of 1 yard.
He will not be cut today at Valley Ranch. In fact, even though Garrett admitted the team might look at “alternatives” at kickoff returner, Jerry Jones on Tuesday reaffirmed Felix’s good standing with another stubborn vote of confidence.
Jerry Jones had in the preseason called it a “ridiculous thought” that Felix Jones’ roster spot was in jeopardy. Asked again on 105.3 The Fan, he reiterated his stance.
“Yes, I still do (consider it ridiculous),” Jerry Jones said. “Just because I do. So I feel like we’re in good shape. But that’s it on that. Move on.”
Bottom line: No, this is not your father’s Dallas Cowboys. But, more than ever, they are Jerry Jones’.
Something needs to be done with Felix Jones. But the answer isn’t abruptly cutting him. That’s a knee-jerk, irrational notion tainted in temporary emotion and with a reckless disregard for maximizing the Cowboys’ potential. If you want to trade him for a 6th-round pick, fine. Maybe put him on inactive list for a couple weeks, so be it.
But these Cowboys – unlike Johnson’s 20 years ago – aren’t talented enough or good enough to be simply gutting players to teach lessons. The ’92 Cowboys were going to the Super Bowl with or without Richards. The ’12 Cowboys need Felix Jones just to have a chance to make the playoffs.
Still, the demise of Felix Jones ranks up there with the biggest mysteries of the Cowboys’ season: Why is there no helmet sticker or anything honoring former Coach Joe Avezzano? How does Cowboys Stadium still not having a naming-rights sponsor? And when the heck is Jerry Jones going to find a place inside his $1.2 billion stadium to hang the franchise’s 5 Super Bowl banners?
While we wait for those to unfold, let’s dig into just how disappointing Felix Jones is. But first, we have to remember how good he once was.
Drafted No. 22 overall 4 years ago, Felix burst onto the Cowboys with a touchdown run in his rookie opener against the Cleveland Browns. The following week he dazzled a Monday Night Football audience with a 98-yard kickoff return to help Dallas beat the Philadelphia Eagles. In that game, he set the single-game franchise record with 247 yards in kick returns. He had wiggle. He had breathtaking speed. He was a weapon. The following season he rushed for 148 yards – highlighted by a 73-yard scoring run – in a playoff win over the Eagles, Dallas’ lone post-season victory since winning Super Bowl XXX after the ’95 season. And even as recently as last December – filling in for the injured DeMarco Murray – Felix rushed for 108 yards in a crucial win at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Seven of his career 10 touchdowns have been on runs or returns of 40-plus yards and his career rushing average on 459 carries is a whopping 5.1. Since October 2003 – over 9 seasons, 141 games and counting – the Cowboys have exactly 1 regular-season kickoff return for a touchdown, and it was authored by No. 28.
Truth: If Felix Jones once had it, he’s now lost it.
With him as the primary returner this year the Cowboys have taken kickoffs and started possessions at the 20, 20, 20, 26, 16, 20, 15, 21 and 19. That’s not counting, of course, his fumble at his own 29 that gift-wrapped the Seahawks an early field goal. And while he’s tentative during the return, he’s also making inappropriate decisions to take the ball out of the end zone from 8 yards deep. The Cowboys’ special teams have been atrocious with a fumbled kickoff and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown, and Felix certainly at this point is more liability than asset.
To everyone, that is, except for his boss.
“Felix has returned a lot of kickoffs in his time – All-American twice in college as a kickoff returner,” Jerry said Tuesday morning. “We have over the years been reluctant to use him as a kickoff returner because we didn’t want to risk injury, but we’ve decided this year to use him as a kickoff returner. He should be a great asset for us. That’s the way it remains.”
At only 25 it’s difficult to imagine Felix Jones is simply washed up. He makes only $1.1 million this year, the final year of his contract.
Unless he loses weight, re-discovers his zip and snaps out of his funk, he’ll be a colossal Cowboys’ bust. Or is he already?
Consider: Felix Jones has 2,237 rushing yards and 10 combined touchdowns in his career. Players drafted behind him in ’08 with more yards and touchdowns include the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Rashard Mendenhall (23rd, 3,367, 30), the Tennessee Titans’ Chris Johnson (24th, 5,666, 42), the Chicago Bears’ Matt Forte (44th, 4,344, 30), the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice (55th, 4,544, 31), the Kansas City Chiefs’ Jamaal Charles (73rd, 3,117, 19), and even undrafted free-agent BenJarvus Green-Ellis of the Cincinnati Bengals (2,240, 30).
Felix Jones isn’t as valuable a lesson to the Cowboys as Curvin Richards was 20 years ago. But unfortunately – even with his stumbling, bumbling and fumbling – he’s a more valuable player.
(©2012 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
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