Julius Jones is everywhere now. For much of the season, he was injured and forgotten, another disappointing what-if question in a season full of them. But since his return to the team a few weeks ago, since he was declared healthy and inserted into the lineup as the Cowboys' feature running back, all that has changed. In just a few short weeks, the rookie has blown up. Back-to-back games with 30-plus carries and 150-plus yards quickened his transformation from unknown to club identity. He is, suddenly, present and future--the hope for this season and next.
He is Julius Jones, and he's everywhere now.
On ESPN radio, celebrity/anchor Dan Patrick talks about "the kid" on his national show. In the lobby of the team's Valley Ranch practice facility, a video of Jones plays on loop--he looks good in a tailored suit jacket and collared shirt and smiles brightly at visitors as they enter. On television and in the newspapers, the sports coverage has been almost exclusively about Jones. He is the hot story, the only story.
Today, Cowboys legend Tony Dorsett is on hand to rave about Jones and offer him, on behalf of some candy company, an oversized novelty check for his performance in the team's insane, unforeseen come-from-behind win against the Seahawks on Monday night (which they then followed with a horrible, season-ending loss to the Saints). Last year at this time, Dorsett had to dog out his former team and its backs because those 'Boys ran as though they were wearing corrective shoes--that is, they couldn't make it to the line of scrimmage before falling forward. This year, or at least lately, he won't shut up about the new guy and what it means for Dallas to have such a capable runner (when everything else looks so bleak, you have to focus on the lone bright spot). Night and day, and all because of one man.
"I don't want to compare him to anyone, because he's Julius Jones, and that's who he should be," Dorsett says. "But he's kinda in an Emmitt Smith mode right now. He's a strong runner who hits the hole quick, and he has good balance. I didn't know much about him in college, but it's been great watching him play. So many times over the last few weeks I've caught myself saying, 'Man, look at that play. Look at him go.' He's special. He's definitely special."
When Jones enters the locker room, the pack of reporters that had been surrounding Dorsett immediately leaves and regroups around the rookie. An interesting scene: the Hall of Famer with no choice but to defer to the newbie. But while Jones quietly answers questions--taking care to say all the right, practiced things about his offensive line and his coaches and just "wanting to help the team win"--the other side of this story, the bleaker side, walks into the locker room unnoticed. Eddie George is Jones' negative image now--old instead of young, benched instead of playing, abandoned instead of embraced. If he isn't completely forgotten around here, then he is, for the first time in a previously brilliant career, all but invisible.
George, who is eight years older than Jones, stands at his locker and watches it all unfold. It must be hard for him not to wonder when everything changed, when he became just another guy collecting a check and trying in vain to prolong his career. In the off-season, the 'Boys signed George to a one-year deal worth $2.1 million. That's not the kind of offer you tender to an elite back, nor would the Titans have let the former Pro Bowler walk if they truly believed that he was still one of the best in the league. But it's doubtful that anyone--not the Cowboys, not the Titans, not George or the media--foresaw things unfolding so dreadfully for him this season. Maybe the Cowboys didn't bring George in to be the only back, but they certainly signed him to be one of their backs--a guy who would absorb some of the workload (and the pressure), allowing the second-round pick from Notre Dame to come along slowly. Of course, it didn't work out that way. Even when Jones went down early in the season, George wasn't asked to pick up the slack. He was underused or pushed aside for much of the year, relegated to an offensive afterthought despite the fact that the Cowboys were dying for someone to run the ball as a complement to the passing game. Then, when Jones came back, George was completely shelved, and no one has bothered to dust him off since.
This is how far George has fallen: In 11 games this season, he's totaled 424 yards and four touchdowns. Against Seattle and New Orleans, he didn't play. By contrast, it took Jones just three games after returning from his injury to eclipse George's season totals in yards and touchdowns.
"Yeah, you know, it is hard because I want to compete," says George, who's had only one 30-carry game this season and not a single 100-yard outing. "This definitely isn't what I expected to happen this season. With the exception of one game, I don't feel like I really got into a rhythm or that they allowed me to really help the offense. From a personal perspective, sure, that's frustrating.
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"But you have to take it all in stride. This is new territory for me, but if you play the game long enough, there's a first time for everything."
He played eight years in Tennessee--seven of those were 1,000-yard seasons or better. He made the Pro Bowl four times over that stretch and helped the Titans reach the Super Bowl. How long ago and far removed all of that must seem to him. Now, he stands on the sideline hoping that head coach Bill Parcells will find him valuable again but knowing he won't. To George's credit, he's tried to help Jones learn the position and become comfortable, but even his role as unofficial tutor lacks fulfillment--because how much can you help someone who's clearly excelling all by himself? How much can you help someone who's had no trouble running away from the competition and toward stardom? George must have a lot of time to think--not just about what changed and what went wrong but also about where his career goes from here.
"I'm not sure--that's something that I'll have to consider after the season is over," George says. "But this young man, he's special. You can tell. He's their future; there's no question about that. The last thing I want to do is be envious or jealous of him or keep him from growing. I don't want him to think that I don't want him to succeed. Because I do want him to succeed--he's a good kid. So I have to step away from it and put my hands up and be a man. I have to accept my role here. Maybe next year will be better for me individually, but right now I have to do what the team asks of me. I have to accept that."
He answers a few more questions and then, when the interview is over, nods politely and walks off. No one stops him or even notices as he leaves the locker room.