(AP) — The running back was buried on the depth chart, a third-round pick who showed up to camp stuck behind last year's starter and the returning third-down specialist. Fighting a bad hamstring, all he could do was wait and hope for the chance to show what he could do.
The receiver spent training camp on another club, catching the eye of coaches across the field during joint practices and a preseason game. Signed by that watchful staff the week of the opener, he got hurt right away and was cut the following week.
Then there's the kicker. Faith in him was so iffy that by the end of training camp, veteran rejects were cycling through while a fellow rookie was trying to get healthy, all with the incumbent practically guaranteed a roster spot.
It's pretty amazing how things have worked out for DeMarco Murray, Laurent Robinson and Dan Bailey — and for the Dallas Cowboys, who probably wouldn't be riding a four-game winning streak and leading the NFC East without those guys.
Murray is the club's leading rusher and Robinson has the most touchdown catches. Bailey has ended the last two games with field goals and has set an NFL rookie record with four winners in the last 2 minutes of regulation or later; he's also the most accurate kicker in the entire league.
"I'm just in the right situation at the right time, trying to take advantage of it and have fun with it at the same time," Robinson said, essentially summing up how things have worked out for all three of them. "Hopefully we can turn this into something."
Maybe the obstacles they encountered brought out the best in each player. Or maybe they were misevaluated to begin with. Regardless, the Cowboys get credit for having brought them in to begin with, and are now reaping the rewards. Murray and Bailey are in the chase for rookie of the year, and Robinson could earn votes for most improved player.
Injuries helped get Murray and Robinson on the field. Their performances kept them there. Ditto for Bailey, who's on a streak of 26 made field goals, by far the best by a rookie in NFL history, and one shy of the best by anyone in club history.
Murray burst onto the scene in late October. Starter Felix Jones was out with a high ankle sprain and the rookie was supposed to share the load with fill-in starter Tashard Choice. Then Murray ran 91 yards for a touchdown, kicking off a 253-yard performance, the ninth-best in league history.
He's hardly slowed, gaining more yards over a six-game stretch than Emmitt Smith or any other runner in franchise history. On Wednesday, he was named the NFC's offensive rookie for November. More importantly, he's poised to become the club's most productive back since Tony Romo became the starting quarterback, raising hopes for the offense the rest of this season and well beyond.
Having a reliable running game means coach Jason Garrett no longer has to call as many passes, meaning fewer opportunities for Romo to throw interceptions. He's gone from throwing 38.6 passes per game before Murray's breakout to 31.2 since; interceptions have gone from six to three.
A growing number of Romo's passes have been aimed at No. 81, Robinson.
A former third-round pick, Robinson was headed toward journeyman status, bouncing from Atlanta to St. Louis, then spending training camp with San Diego. The Chargers dumped him and the Cowboys scooped him up, only to put him back on the street. If not for an injury to Miles Austin, he may have never gotten a second chance from the Cowboys.
Robinson quickly earned Romo's trust, so much that when Austin got hurt a second time, Robinson became his favorite target.
"Tony's loving throwing me the ball and I'm loving being on this team and part of this offense," Robinson said. "I haven't had chemistry like this since college. I'm enjoying it, loving it, trying to take advantage of it."
Romo has thrown 26 passes to Robinson over the last three weeks. Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald are among the handful of receivers targeted more often. Robinson's five TDs in that span are tops in the league.
"He's smart," Romo said. "He gets into the right spots. He can run well, so he's been a great mix for us. It's hard to replace Miles Austin. You're not really going to be able to do that. For us, it's just about people coming in, doing what they can do, and doing a good job with that. That's what we're doing."
Bailey won the Groza Award as the top kicker in college football last season, but it wasn't enough to get him drafted. He signed with Dallas and emerged from a crowded field that included last year's kicker, David Buehler; the 2009 Groza winner, Kai Forbath; then veterans Shayne Graham and Dave Rayner.
"Whether it was one guy or two guys or three guys or however many, the main thing was just focusing on myself, going out there and trying to do the best I could do every day," Bailey said. "It's a competitive league — not just in training camp, but all year long."
Bailey made his first NFL kick, then missed his second, a 21-yarder at the start of the second game. He redeemed himself with a 48-yarder as time expired that forced overtime, followed by a 19-yarder for the win.
He is 27 of 28 this season. Only San Francisco's David Akers has made more (28), and only Cincinnati's Mike Nugent can match his 96 percent (albeit on 21 of 22).
The number that matters most is 7-4, which is Dallas' record going into Sunday's game at Arizona.
The Cowboys can only imagine how different that record might be without the contributions of Murray, Robinson and Bailey.