A year ago, Earnest Graham was well into what looked like a career year until a knee injury ended his season in Week 11.
It was especially frustrating for the veteran halfback given his long road to reach the spotlight. He bowed out of 2008 with 563 yards on 132 carries for a 4.3-yard average, four rushing touchdowns (including a 68-yarder) and three runs of 40 yards or more. He also filled in capably at fullback.
So you might think that Graham wouldn't be thrilled with the news that he's in the third spot behind Cadillac Williams and Derrick Ward in coach Raheem Morris' 2-2-1 running back rotation -two series for the starter, two for the next back, one for the third.
Not a chance, the sixth-year pro out of Florida said Tuesday.
"That's nothing I pride myself on,'' he said. "I'm a football player first and foremost, and I do a lot of things on the football field. I play halfback, fullback, special teams. ... I just want to be part of this team. I understand that - and I could care less about if I run the first play or whatever. I know I'm going to play quite a bit and I know I'm going to be counted on quite a bit. That's really what it's all about. I don't even look at those kind of things."
Another wrinkle emerged Tuesday. Graham and the fourth running back in the mix - Pro Bowl return specialist Clifton Smith - could be paired in a twin halfback or "rocket" backfield," according to Williams.
"I think Coach (offensive coordinator Greg)Olson kind of just expands the playbook," Williams said. "I think we're going to be good. We're still running inside, running the ball, play-action."
Graham, who rushed for 898 yards and 10 TDs in 2007, stresses that all the running backs embrace their roles in the committee system - and know they will be called upon often.
"We have the talent here to do that," he said. "We have the depth. So I think you definitely take advantage of what we have here in the backfield. We have some big strong backs and guys who can wear a defense down. And we're definitely going to use that."
CHALLENGE FOR D: DT and captain Chris Hovan knows the Cowboys, kicking off the season Sunday, pose a multi-tiered threat, with a passing attack fueled by QBTony Romo and a running game keyed by Marion Barber and speedster Felix Jones. "We are going to have to hit (Romo) and get in there early," Hovan said. He called Barber "one of the best backs in the league. They don't talk about it as much as they should. This guy is really a bowling ball. He can protect, block, catch. ... He is going to be a high, high priority."
QUOTE OF THE DAY: "Other than a couple of plays, especially with our first unit, the preseason went as well as could be expected - with all the newness, all the changes that have been made, coaches, players - we're very well pleased. But until you get into the season, you don't know what you have." - defensive coordinator Jim Bates.
MISCELLANY: Bates praised LBQuincy Black, taking over for last year's starter, Cato June. "He's shown steady improvement - he hasn't tapped where he's going to be hopefully," he said. ... Morris said he could tell the difference in the team meeting with the players with the regular season days away. "Those guys were locked in; they were listening; everybody knows what they've got to do," he said. "You could see it in their eyes ... the way they bounced around in practice."