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From Tech to Texas, Choice surprising all

IRVING, Texas - Not as barbaric as Marion Barber, not the breakaway threat of Felix Jones, Tashard Choice was merely the 'other' running back for the Dallas Cowboys this season.

Then Jones went on injured reserve and Barber messed up his foot. So the other guy got a chance.

Three dazzling games later, Choice is no longer defined by what he isn't.

The new description of Tashard Choice: a nice blend of Barber's smashmouth style and Jones' elusiveness. Heck, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has even compared him to Emmitt Smith.

'It's pretty amazing what he has done in a short time,' coach Wade Phillips said.

Over his three breakout games, Choice has 49 carries for 269 yards (5.5 average) with two touchdowns, plus 16 catches for 155 yards (9.7 average). If the numbers seem more solid than spectacular, suspend judgment until you realize who they came against.

Choice had 88 yards rushing and 78 yards receiving against Pittsburgh, which hadn't given up that many yards in either category to any player all season. Pretty good for a first career start.

The next week, Choice ran for 91 yards against the New York Giants, the second most they had allowed at that time, and now the third best. He might've gained more, but he had only nine carries because Barber tried playing through his injury. Coaches went back to the rookie from Georgia Tech in the fourth quarter and he responded with a victory-clinching 38-yard touchdown run.

Choice started again Saturday night against Baltimore. His 90 yards were the second most allowed by the Ravens, who couldn't say they were surprised by him. On top of two game films, they'd studied him coming out of college and considered drafting him even after taking Ray Rice in the second round.

'He's a guy that we felt like was underrated,' coach John Harbaugh said even before playing Dallas. 'I like the fact that he ran the ball north and south hard. He was efficient in gaining yards, a high-stepping running back, a real aggressive style.'

To review Choice's December to remember, he's had the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 rushing totals against the Steelers, Ravens and Giants, teams that are all among the 10 toughest to run against this season.

Phillips came up with another good statistical nugget: Choice had four runs of at least 20 yards in those three games; Philadelphia's similarly sized, do-it-all running back Brian Westbrook has only three such runs all season.

Next up for the Cowboys is Westbrook and the Eagles, who have another top-10 run defense. Barber is expected to be a game-time decision again; even if he plays, Choice will have a role, too, perhaps still a big one.

'The kid can play the game,' said Marshall Faulk, among the best dual-threat running backs in NFL history. 'I watched him in college and there wasn't anything he could not do. He could catch the ball, pass block, run inside, run outside. Sometimes when you can do that - and they can't say, 'OK, if he works on this he's going to be better' - they're almost scared because they think you're tapped out, like you've exceeded your limits.'