- Calvin Watkins, ESPN Staff Writer
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IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' starting running back is not the same player he used to be.
Marion Barber, the sixth-highest paid running back in the league, struggled for the Cowboys last season. He managed to rush for a season-high 932 yards but didn't have the same burst as in years past.
In 2007, when he was beating defenses down, Terrell Owens called him "Marion the Barbarian."
When he made the Pro Bowl that season, Barber rushed for 975 yards with 10 touchdowns and led the NFL with 29 broken tackles. He was also tied for third in the NFL with a 4.8 yards-per-carry average.
But something has happened since. Knee, thigh, thumb and toe injuries sapped his strength.
Last year, Barber broke just eight tackles out of 214 carries. Let's say that again: A man whose average salary is $6.4 million broke just eight tackles.
Eight. He averaged 4.4 yards a carry overall.
Is his body breaking down after taking all those hits? Hall of Fame running backs Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith warned Barber against taking a pounding because it would wear his body down eventually.
Running backs coach Skip Peete wants his guy to run out of bounds more.
Peete said Barber suffered a torn left quadriceps muscle in Week 2 of the 2009 season, which limited what he could do. Peete isn't making an excuse for Barber, just stating fact.
Barber was listed as battling a strained quad muscle from Weeks 3 to 7. He was completely off the injury report in early December before suffering a knee injury.
It appeared Barber was overcoming his injuries. He rushed for 91 yards on just 14 carries in the regular-season finale against Philadelphia. Barber, however, suffered a knee injury in that game that hampered his ability to play in the two playoff games.
He rushed for just 18 yards on 11 carries.
This offseason, the cries to get Felix Jones into the starting lineup grew louder. Jerry Jones, the Cowboys' owner and general manager, said he wants Barber to become more of a closer and at times hinted he could move him to the bench.
It seems good in theory because in 2007, Barber led the NFL with 402 fourth-quarter rushing yards on 79 carries.
Last year, Barber rushed for just 295 fourth-quarter yards on 52 carries and one touchdown. That was good for seventh in the NFL.
The Cowboys need more out of Barber than that. His body may have been broken, but this spring and summer he spent time at the Michael Johnson Performance Center in McKinney, Texas, getting it together. He also worked out in Miami and kept in touch with strength and conditioning coach Joe Juraszek about his weight.
He came in 10 pounds lighter -- he's at 200 pounds now -- with the goal of becoming quicker and elusive.
"There is no question about his toughness," Juraszek said. "He's prideful about his job."
Barber is not one to talk. He doesn't speak to reporters but is friendly. He doesn't like large groups of people talking to him and has told teammates and coaches of a bad experience he had during his rookie year.
He can't stand the lights flashing and the questions coming at him. He'd rather perform in the shadows.
That's fine, but he'll be in the spotlight more than ever during the 2010 season.
Money does that to you. He's going to cash checks totaling $7.8 million this year. He's due to make $4.7 million next year. If he can get to next year.
With Felix Jones a more explosive option and Tashard Choice hungry for the ball, there stands Barber, no longer considered "The Barbarian."
"When you play this game, whether you're in high school, college, pro whatever you're going to take some criticism at some point of your career," Peete said.
"You've got to take the good with the bad. Sometimes they're going to write good things about you and sometimes they're going to write negative things about you and you have to take it with a grain of salt."