Thursday, August 02, 2012

DeMarco Murray Is The Key

When you are in the first week of training camp, things make sense. There is seldom a starting position on the roster that gives you indigestion and your depth chart generally looks like it could work if you study it from the proper angle.

But, invariably, in the game of football, you are forced to alter your depth chart and your plans. Yesterday was the first day of pads for the Dallas Cowboys. And once the pads come on, the hitting starts. And once the hitting starts, these amazing athletes begin to deliver pain to each other. And when that process takes its toll, players bodies begin to break down.

Last season, the Cowboys' express train was at nearly full speed when the injury demons grabbed DeMarco Murray in the 13th game of the season. From that point on, the Cowboys hopes circled the drain. It is difficult to place all of that disaster on the injury of Murray, but it certainly hurt the team badly when they could least afford it.

That is a truth of the game that is seldom discussed in the 1st week of August. Everyone knows it, but nobody wants to acknowledge it: If one of these few indispensable players gets injured for an extended period of time, the entire season is in big trouble. Most years, that group consists of Tony Romo and DeMarcus Ware. I think it is nearly already time that we include DeMarco Murray in that group.

For it was Murray who arrived on the scene in the Cowboys 6th game of the season after Felix Jones was injured yet again in Week 5. Murray was a prospect of some regard, but slipped in the draft for various reasons and concerns (many health and durability related). After 5 weeks, Murray had been used quite sparingly - after an injury marred training camp - and had just 73 yards in that 5 games. When you consider that he missed almost all of the final month for another injury, you are left to wonder: Who is DeMarco Murray? Is he a special talent that has dropped on the scene ready to be a difference maker? Or, is he a tease, with talents that are special but a body that might not be up to code at this level and can sustain the wear and tear of the big leagues?

In the middle 8 games of the season, when he was healthy, DeMarco rushed for about 800 yards. His pace was off the charts. He looked like a rookie who was advanced in his performance. His vision and burst was overshadowed by his determination and conviction once he got the ball in his hands. He was a determined rusher who so eclipsed Felix Jones and company that the Cowboys running back race was an open and shut case within days of his breakout against the Rams.

It was tough to completely notate what was because of Murray when it came to his monster performances in October and November. There were things that started to all happen at the same time and clearly he was a big part of it. Also, Tony Fiammetta was enjoying some health and success. Bill Nagy was replaced by Montrae Holland. And, you could make the case that the Cowboys were determined out of the bye week to emphasize the running attack at a much higher level of priority than they had early in the season. And it shouldn't be lost in the equation that the schedule had softened quite a bit with a diet of Rams, Seahawks, and Bills being devoured for his 3 biggest games. But, whatever the case, now, 100 yards from Murray per game were being turned out and the team started rattling off wins.

So, how different is the 2011 of DeMarco Murray from the 2004 of Julius Jones? Had we taken the Jones breakout of 2004 to the extreme, many would have thought the Cowboys are set at running back for a long, long time. Jones, in just 7 games at the end of 2004 ran for 803 yards in 192 carries. He was a 2nd round pick and seemed the real deal. He had 3 huge games and appeared to be in a special class of running back for 2005 and beyond. Trouble was, Jones never really found that groove again and despite 2005 and 2006 being reasonable, the Cowboys were happy to replace him when his rookie contract expired. They realized his special qualities were a mirage an the fell more into the "dime a dozen" bin before 2006 had ended.

Is Murray something that can be counted on for more? In his 7 game stretch from St Louis to Arizona, Murray ran for 799 yards. Now, the distinction would certainly be the yards per carry as Jones had a pedestrian 4 yards a carry in his breakout and Murray was up at 6 yards a carry. But, the number of games and the number of yards for both of them in their brief stretch in their rookie season makes you link the two together as we hit training camp of 2012.

Is there a reason to believe that Murray is more than Julius Jones? Could he blow by Marion Barber, Troy Hambrick, Julius Jones, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice to grab the label as "Best RB since Emmitt?" Doesn't seem unattainable, but it starts with remaining healthy. Murray had 900 touches at Oklahoma, so no matter what people tell you about his durability or nagging injuries, on Saturdays for the Sooners, he was often front and center and carrying the mail. His ability to take on the work load was just fine when you are talking 225 touches each season for 4 years at the major college level.

But, now, on Sundays, the players are bigger and stronger. The hits come at a more violent speed. And his style, that is powerful and absorbs a lot of contact, may put him in harm's way quite a bit. In many ways, he is the hope of this offense. What would Tony Romo and the offense look like with a legitimate RB who demands the 8th man in the box? What could they accomplish if Romo actually had a weapon behind him that put fear in the defense?

Emmitt Smith hardly ever missed action as a running back in the NFL. In fact, he missed just 7 games as a Cowboys, and 2 of those were a contract issue. So, of the 206 other games Dallas played with Emmitt under contract, he was front and center for 201 of them (97.5%). So, that is the standard. And with Murray already breaking an ankle in his first year, the odds of him having durability in that class are highly unlikely. But, nobody wants Emmitt Smith. They simply want a player that makes defenses fear the Cowboys RB more than Felix Jones ever could. More than Barber and yes, more than Julius Jones.

They look like they have found a real difference maker, but as we head into his 2nd year, the Cowboys will need Murray to stay on the field. That is a very difficult trick for RBs in the NFL. The life span is short and the punishment is immense. It only takes one hit in the wrong place to end his run and if you are running this organization, there is a fair amount of holding your breath.

He has the burst and the ability. But, does he have the ability to take his 20 touches Sunday after Sunday? Is he someone with staying power, or like the Julius Jones jerseys on the clearance rack, will it be a flash in the pan that delighted the fans but certainly did not last as long as they hoped?

If he has the ability to take 300 touches in 2012, the Cowboys can have a real big season. If not, 8-8 could be right back in play.

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