NFL scouts and front-office executives were less than enamored of the top tailbacks available in the draft in April. The first didn't come off the board until the St. Louis Rams took Oregon State's Steven Jackson with the 24th overall choice. Virginia Tech's Kevin Jones plummeted to the Detroit Lions with the 30th selection. The Dallas Cowboys desperately needed a featured runner, yet traded out of the first round entirely and took Notre Dame's Julius Jones with the 11th pick of the second round, No. 43 overall.
In each case, though, the early returns are promising. Jackson looks like a worthy successor to Marshall Faulk -- perhaps as soon as next season -- in St. Louis. With Faulk sidelined because of a knee problem, Jackson got 26 carries in Sunday's win over the San Francisco 49ers (13 more than in any previous game this season) and ran for 119 yards.
Cowboys' Julius Jones, hugged by Andre Gurode after scoring the winning touchdown Monday, ran for 198 yards in the game. He has 429 yards in the past three games.
(Ted S. Warren -- AP)
After a sluggish, injury-plagued start with the Lions, Kevin Jones has rushed for 476 yards in Detroit's last four games and has 703 yards for the season. He ran for 196 yards in a victory Sunday over the Arizona Cardinals.
But the most promising NFL beginning belongs to Julius Jones, who has rejuvenated the Cowboys by running for 429 yards and five touchdowns on 93 carries in three games since returning from a broken shoulder blade. He had 198 yards and three touchdowns in Monday night's wild, 43-39 victory at Seattle, including the game-winning touchdown on a 17-yard scamper with 32 seconds to play as the Cowboys erased a 39-29 deficit in the final two minutes after squandering a 29-14, third-quarter lead.
"The running back runs pretty good, in case you guys didn't notice," Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells said in a news conference after the game.
After a 1-6 stretch, the Cowboys have won two in a row and are among six NFC teams with 5-7 records. Those clubs are a game behind the Seahawks in the race for the conference's second wild-card spot. The Seahawks and Rams lead the NFC West with 6-6 records. The Rams hold the tiebreaker advantage by virtue of beating Seattle twice.
"I honestly feel like we're better off as a team than at any point this year," Parcells said. "Not just because we won this game. We just have more balance in our attack. I told the team, what you do after Thanksgiving is what really counts. That's just a big win for us, and hopefully we can play well down the stretch to give us a chance."
The Carolina Panthers could have given up. They were 1-7. Their injured reserve list kept growing until it included their top tailbacks (Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster), their star wide receiver (Steve Smith) and their Pro Bowl defensive tackle (Kris Jenkins). Their offensive line was a mess. All the luck they had during their run to the Super Bowl last season was being offset with misfortunes.
But they didn't give up, and Coach John Fox perhaps has done an even better job this season than he did last season. The Panthers have won four straight games and, thanks to the forgiving nature of the NFC playoff chase, the defending conference champs still have a chance to reach the postseason.
"For a while there, it just seemed like one blow after another," Fox said during his news conference Monday. "It never seemed to stop. Once it kind of stopped, people were able to reevaluate and we became a new team."
End Julius Peppers sparked the defense with seven sacks in a four-game span before Sunday's 32-21 win at New Orleans. Quarterback Jake Delhomme has picked up his game, with 11 touchdown passes and two interceptions in the last five games. Wideout Muhsin Muhammad has taken Smith's place as the No. 1 receiver and has had three 100-yard receiving games during the winning streak, including a 179-yard performance against the Saints. Converted fullback Nick Goings has taken over for Davis and Foster at tailback and had his third straight 100-yard rushing game Sunday by running for 122 yards on a laborious 36 carries.
The Panthers will face the Rams at home on Sunday in a rematch of Carolina's double-overtime playoff triumph on the road last season. The Rams will start veteran Chris Chandler at quarterback in place of Marc Bulger, who is injured. . . .
Josh McCown is back to being the Cardinals' starting quarterback, but it's probably too late to save the season. In his first NFL start, rookie John Navarre suffered a chip fracture of his right ring finger during a loss at Detroit during which he threw four interceptions, and will be sidelined for two to three weeks. The Cardinals have lost three straight games, dropping to 4-8, since Coach Dennis Green abruptly benched McCown on the heels of a two-game winning streak. Shaun King started two games before Green opted to go to Navarre. . . .
McCown's younger brother Luke, a rookie for Cleveland, could make his second straight start this week if Kelly Holcomb, who has three cracked ribs, is not able to play. Jeff Garcia remains hindered by a rotator-cuff injury. . . .