Roy Williams, Marion Barber get in way

IRVING, Texas -- The Cowboys waved goodbye to Flozell Adams, Ken Hamlin and Patrick Crayton since the end of last season, parting ways with the highly paid "progress stoppers" whose presence would have prevented talented young players from pushing up the depth chart.

All three of those players filled significant roles last season on an NFC East championship team that ended a dozen-year playoff win drought. But the Cowboys dumped the millionaire veterans, promoting Doug Free, Alan Ball and Kevin Ogletree and counting on the players with six-figure salaries to perform.

That's the way internal competition often works in the NFL. If it's close to even, the more expensive dude is usually leaving.

"It's, 'How do you want your team to progress?'" said executive vice president Stephen Jones, emphasizing that age is a more important factor than finances. "If you're always keeping the veteran guys over the young guys then you ultimately become an old team, and that bites you at some point.

"So we felt like we had to continue to bring along these young players. They'll improve and they'll get better."

That's a fine philosophy. In fact, the spring releases of two starters were met with raves from this keyboard. That's because Adams and Hamlin have hit the downsides of their careers, and Free and Ball proved during fill-in stints last season that they were ready for increased roles. The younger players will probably be upgrades in both of those cases.

All of which leads us to a simple question: Why are Marion Barber and Roy Williams still reporting to work at Valley Ranch?

Oh, yeah, that's right. They both have contracts that guarantee them megamillions this year.

That's another NFL reality. Owners really don't like mailing rich checks each week to players who aren't even on the roster. (Especially when the owner doubles as the general manager and is reluctant to admit contractual mistakes until that player has been replaced.)

It's understandable that a contract can assure a player a roster spot. But it's unacceptable for a contract to guarantee a player a major role, especially for a team like the Cowboys that expects to contend for the Super Bowl.

This isn't necessarily a call to bench Barber and Williams now. However, the coaching staff can't hesitate to make a change if it's apparent that a more productive option is playing a lesser role.

We know there's a player ready to take over Barber's role. We're not referring to Felix Jones, the home run threat who will be a big part of the Cowboys' two-pronged rushing attack as long as he stays healthy. The issue is whether Tashard Choice would complement Jones better than Barber does.

For now, Choice plays on third downs, gets an occasional snap out of the Razorback formation and settles for scraps.

Choice has feasted when given the chance. He's been given at least eight carries in eight games during his two-season career, all when injuries forced the coaching staff's hand. His numbers from that half-season of work -- 589 yards and four touchdowns on 113 carries (5.2 yards per carry) and 27 catches for 252 yards (9.3 per) -- compare favorably with Barber's career averages and far surpass his production since he became the starter.

Barber has been a September beast (5.0 yards per carry) and a December bum (2.9 yards per carry) the past two seasons. Durability has been an issue for the back whose style is to lower his shoulder and look for contact, but he's too tough to sit out games.

Perhaps the most puzzling decision by the Cowboys' coaches last season was to keep counting on a wounded Barber instead of increasing Choice's workload. Why ride a horse with a strained quad and broken thumb when there is a healthy one in the stable?

We believe there's a receiver on the roster ready to replace Williams, whose poor production since arriving from Detroit is a well-worn topic. There's no doubt that first-round pick Dez Bryant has take-your-breath-away talent.

The rookie has to prove that he can run precise, correct routes to earn Tony Romo's trust. Then again, Williams is still working on that as well.

As long as Bryant stays out of trouble and the trainers' room, it's a matter of time before he takes Williams' job. The latest it will happen is at the beginning of next season. With the guaranteed money in his contract already paid, Williams will be gone.

Barber, whose $4.25 million salary next season isn't guaranteed, might be in the same boat as Williams, with Choice due to make about one-eighth that much.
If Barber and Williams continue to fail to play up to their contracts, the transition to their successors might as well be made this season.

Rest assured that Wade Phillips would handle such a situation with a delicate touch. It's doubtful that a demotion would ever be made official, much like Greg Ellis' final season with the Cowboys, when the veteran started but played fewer snaps than Anthony Spencer.

Barber and Williams aren't old yet, but they certainly seem to have hit their ceilings. Bryant and Choice ooze with untapped potential.

The younger players need an opportunity to progress. A team with Super Bowl aspirations needs production.

At running back and receiver, those missions might not be mutually exclusive for the Cowboys.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.