- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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IRVING, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones, who has publicly questioned whether Marion Barber would be better returning to a reserve role, indicated Tuesday that he sees no reason for the running back's role to change.
Jones had previously stated the concern that using Barber as a starter might limit his effectiveness at the end of games. Jones said in March that the Cowboys were considering making Felix Jones the starter.
However, Jones strongly hinted Tuesday that Barber's starting job is secure.
"I know this: He looks quicker," Jones said at the NFL owners' meetings. "I think that is going to make him even more effective. He's just in great shape. He looks as good out here just in these initial practices as I've seen him look in his career. You could easily go from there and look at what his role might be, and it'd certainly be on par with anything he's done."
Barber became a starter after signing a seven-year, $45 million contract before the 2008 season. The Cowboys drafted Felix Jones and Tashard Choice that year to complement Barber, who earned a Pro Bowl trip as a reserve by rushing for a career-high 975 yards the previous season.
Barber's productivity has dropped since he became a starter. He has averaged 4.0 yards per carry and rushed for a total of 14 touchdowns over the last two seasons, when he was nagged by a variety of injuries. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry and rushed for a total of 24 touchdowns the previous two seasons.
"I think the real question is, should he be finishing rather than beginning?" Jerry Jones said on KRLD-FM in December. "In his Pro Bowl year, where he had his best year, [Barber was] finishing the game. If you recall, Julius Jones started the game. We injected the quickness of his speed there early.
"That would be the issue. It's not a question of starting as much as it is, when do you use Barber at his best? There are a lot of people, prominent people who know Barber well, who feel like he would be better served used to finish the game than really used a lot at the start."
Felix Jones, the Cowboys' first-round pick in 2008, has been a dynamic playmaker with durability issues during his first two NFL seasons. Jones averaged 6.5 yards per carry but missed 12 games due to hamstring, toe and knee injuries.
He provided the Cowboys evidence down the stretch of the 2009 season that he can handle a heavier workload. He had double-digit carries in the final six games, including the postseason. That run was highlighted by his 16-carry, 148-yard, one-touchdown performance in the playoff win over the Philadelphia Eagles. The Cowboys relied on Jones because Barber was dealing with quadriceps, thumb and knee injuries.
Barber still got the biggest share of the carries over the course of the season despite having the worst average among the team's running backs. He led the Cowboys with 932 yards on 214 carries. Jones rushed for 685 yards on 116 carries, and Choice rushed for 349 yards on 64 carries.
"We're in really good shape there," Jerry Jones said. "We've just got to plan on before it's over using three backs. I think it will bear out that way."
6hBy Tom Friend
2hBy Jackie MacMullan