Cowboys Must Protect 'Marion the Barbarian'

The team invested in its ruffian running back and must now find a way to protect him

It'd be easy to criticize the Dallas Cowboys for making Marion Barber the highest-paid running back in franchise history.

The dude has started only one game in his three-year NFL career. He's never rushed for 1,000 yards. And with a style as subtle as a taser, he'll be susceptible to injury.

But there's one reason—above all else—that justifies owner Jerry Jones last week bestowing the starting job, the seven-year commitment and the $45 million unto Made Marion. Barber's attitude is the most intimidating asset in a Cowboys' runner since Tony Dorsett's speed.

Come on, I'll show you.

That's him over there in the corner of the team's Valley Ranch facility. He's sitting in his locker in blue spandex tights under his blue shorts, sleeveless gray T-shirt and a black bandanna straining to harness his dreadlocks, like Samson keeping his empowering mane in a bun long enough to spare innocent passers by.

As we carefully approach, you can sense the intensity and feel the energy, and it ain't all positive. Barber also wears a menacing scowl, looking more like a man about to check six pieces of luggage on American Airlines than one who just signed his name to a guaranteed $16 million.

Don't even jokingly ask to borrow a $1, lest he pulls out his bloated wallet and bitch slaps you. You just know his wallet, like Samuel L. Jackson's in Pulp Fiction, is emblazoned with "Bad Mother Fucker."

Because of his fresh fame, fortune and forefront on the team, Cowboys' public relations director Rich Dalrymple has persuaded Barber to address the media after the first official Wednesday workout of the season. As much as he hates opposing tacklers invading his personal space, he's even more claustrophobic and cranky when surrounded by cameras, notepads and nuisances.

Nuisance: "So, how does it feel to have all that money and a starting job?"

Barber: "Next question, please."

Same nuisance: "What, Jerry Jones isn't giving you $16 million to be a backup, is he?"

Barber: "Next question, please."

Different nuisance: "We know you don't like the media, but will it be that bad having us around?"

Barber: "It's bad, man. I'm sweating bullets."

Who knew? His kryptonite is sound bytes.

To be fair, Barber isn't all short and no sweet. During his 20-minute session, he mixes in a disarming "Just messin' with ya" and even a hint of a grin. Toward the end, I wasn't sure if he was channeling legendary mediaphobe Leon Lett or merely perfecting the art of being charmingly surly.

Then, it happens. Just when we think Marion might melt into the Librarian or perhaps the Vegetarian, abruptly he re-surfaces as the Barbarian.

Nuisance: "What do you think of the NFL's new rule named after you? The one that makes it illegal to deliver a stiff-arm to a tackler's facemask."

Barber: "What about to the throat?"

Yahtzee!

Without so much as blinking, much less pausing, Barber exhibits the primal crudity that makes him the NFL's toughest, scariest runner. Legislate an opponent's face into a safe haven and he immediately thinks trachea. It's a cold-blooded killer instinct the Dallas Mavericks would die for: the kind of characteristic you can't teach, and, honestly, might consider un-teaching if he did anything except impale safeties for a living.

"There aren't many players in the league as nasty as Marion, much less running backs," Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips says after the workout. "He's just got that attitude. When he does his thing our whole team responds."

Adds quarterback Tony Romo, "He gives us our energy."

Barber isn't the quickest or biggest or fastest, but no one produces more punishing, pulsating runs. He led the NFL last year in broken tackles, including about 10 on that indelible end-zone escape against the New England Patriots.

The dilemma facing the Cowboys is somehow bridling Barber's savage style without totally dulling his edge.

"I won't change. I can't," Barber says. "I'm not going to forget the approach that got me here. I'll be the same player."

Problem is, he just can't be the same. Not as the starter.

He's always been a part-timer, from his days splitting carries with Patriots' star Laurence Maroney at the University of Minnesota to his stint in Dallas backing up Julius Jones. A fourth-round pick in 2005, Barber has done more with less than any NFL back, especially Jones.

After making last year's Pro Bowl as a backup, Barber was finally promoted on the eve of the Cowboys' playoff game and, this off-season, Jones was allowed to leave via free agency.

Now, for the first time since Wayzata (Minn.) High School, Barber is the man. The Cowboys spent first- (Felix Jones) and third-round draft picks (Tashard Choice) on running backs last month, but it's merely supplemental insurance. Clearly, they are now counting on Barber to do more with more—to bludgeon defenses for four quarters of 16, or, ideally, 19 games.

But you'd have to be dumber than the guy who needs a label on his beer to tell him when it's cold, not to recognize this strategy as being as risky as it is radical.

Only 6-foot, 220 pounds and with a masochistic running style he describes as "hit or be hit," the 24-year-old must muffle his unrelenting effort as the starter. If he wants to outlive his contract, Barber can't consider himself a Hummer and every single defender a traffic cone. He can't hop up screaming happy/mad, chest-bumping teammates and wasting precious energy sprinting downfield to celebrate every 6-yard run in every first quarter.

Like Earl Campbell in the past and Shaun Alexander in the present, Barber will break down, burn out or both.

As did the NFL's all-time leading rusher, he has to pick his spots. "I think he spends a lot of energy that may not be necessary," says former Cowboy Emmitt Smith, whose largest contract was for eight years, $48 million in '96. "I'm all about putting your heart into it. But you're doing a lot of kicking, running up, bucking and you're exerting a lot of energy. If Marion has to carry the load for four quarters, there's no way he can handle it."

Because Barber has no governor on his accelerator, this conservation is Phillips' responsibility.

The coach must realize that in three NFL seasons, Barber has carried 15-plus times in only eight games. Asking him to suddenly tote it 19 games in one season is unrealistic. And, because of his scrotum-on-fire style, Barber is the rare, elite back who doesn't get stronger as the game wears on. On carries No. 16 and beyond as a Cowboy, he has averaged only 3.2 yards compared to 5.2 on Nos. 1-15. In his lone start, against the Giants in January, he rushed 27 times for 129 yards—but only 11 for 28 after halftime.

Barber will require some discretion to balance his valor, and, at times, a substitute. Calvin Hill had Robert Newhouse. Dorsett had Ron Springs. Smith had Sherman Williams. Barber needs Felix Jones.

The toned-down transformation is entirely possible—long as he applies the same approach he has with cameras to cornerbacks.

Nuisance: "How are you going to deal with more media coverage?"

Barber: "With more avoidance."

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