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 have gained more, but he had only nine carries because Barber tried playing through his injury.

Coaches went back to the rookie in the fourth quarter, and he responded with a victory-clinching 38-yard touchdown run.

Choice started again Saturday 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 of Rutgers 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; the Eagles' 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. "How many tough runners are there like Marion? How many guys are fast like Felix? Those are the measurables that make it easier to draft a guy, but to find a guy like him and to find out he can play the game is unique.

"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."

That explains why Dallas was able to snag Choice in the fourth round, with the 122d overall pick, after 11 running backs, including Jones, were taken.

Although Choice led the ACC in rushing as a junior and senior at Georgia Tech, he ran a slow 40-yard dash at the combine. Add that to a relatively ordinary 5-foot-10, 208-pound frame, and teams didn't want to make a big commitment to someone who might be "just a guy," in the draft vernacular of Bill Parcells.

That's where the Emmitt comparisons come in.

Think about it: not big, but big enough; not fast, but fast enough. Good vision and decision-making in college, but questions about whether it would be enough in the pros.

"He's no Emmitt Smith, but he does remind you with his running style," Jones said. "Give him a chance, and he's going to do some good."

Perhaps the most interesting part of Jones' comments is that he said it two weeks before Choice's first start, back when he had a grand total of 13 carries for 72 yards. However, he'd already earned the respect and trust of coaches and teammates by working hard in practice and studying his playbook.

"It's me handling my business off the field," Choice said. "It just carries onto the field."

Choice describes himself as confident but humble. He thought he could contribute and is glad to have rewarded those who believed in him.

"It's been pretty cool," Choice said. "It's not been a shock to me at all. . . . It's football, man. A defense is a defense. I know all of them are really good, so I just go out there and play."