How Long Can DeMarco Murray Do This, and How Much Will It Cost the Cowboys?

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DeMarco Murray is a walking anachronism. Strike that. DeMarco Murray is a running anachronism. The Cowboys halfback is the figurehead for a throwback ground game in a pass-happy league. With Sunday’s 28-carry, 128-yard performance against the Giants, Murray became the first player in NFL history to rush for at least 100 yards in each of a season’s first seven games. His numbers would be impressive in any era; in the modern NFL, they make you rub your eyes in disbelief. Murray is the equivalent of a horse-and-buggy winning NASCAR races.

The Cowboys have not been afraid to ride their running back, and it’s hard to blame them after a six-game winning streak that might put the team into the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Murray is on pace to rush for more than 2,000 yards while surpassing Larry Johnson for the most rushing attempts in an NFL season.

Teams don’t have much incentive to give one player the ball that many times unless he’s incredibly productive, and Murray certainly fits that description this season. But although his blistering pace has been a joy to watch, it also raises plenty of questions: Is it sustainable, particularly if the Cowboys make a deep postseason run? Will other teams imitate Dallas’s philosophy of pouring resources into the offensive line? And will Murray, in the final year of his rookie contract, get a long-term extension from Dallas or a big payday in free agency?

Dallas Cowboys v Seattle SeahawksSteve Dykes/Getty Images

Murray entered his rookie season third on the depth chart behind Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. The third-round pick exited the 2011 campaign as Dallas’s top back, arriving on the national radar with a 253-yard performance against St. Louis, the ninth-highest total in NFL history. Over his next two seasons, Murray was serviceable, but despite making his first Pro Bowl last season with 1,121 rushing yards, this year’s torrid start was largely unexpected.

The raw numbers Murray has produced through seven weeks — 913 rushing yards on 187 carries (4.9 average) and seven touchdowns — would constitute an acceptable season for many running backs. If you smashed together Matt Forte and Alfred Morris, the league’s fifth- and sixth-most productive running backs, your creation would have fewer rushing yards and touchdowns than Murray.

All of this production raises the obvious question about whether Murray can keep it up, both in the short and long term. Football’s physical nature keeps the average career shorter than other professional athletes, and this is true of running backs in particular. Almost every single carry ends in a collision, with legs often being twisted like pipe cleaners. Although Murray is only 26 years old, it’s no exaggeration to say he might be in his peak physical form this season.

He’s certainly playing like it. The question is whether so many carries in September and October can have negative repercussions. There is historical precedent for Murray’s workload, with 14 seasons since 1961 in which a running back has averaged at least 25 carries per game through the first half of the season.1 In those cases, did the strenuous start take its toll during the second half and postseason?

*14-game season

It’s not surprising that each player had his numbers drop after the midway point, with nobody carrying the ball as frequently or for as many yards in the second half, because we selected an exceedingly high first-half threshold. What’s instructive is how far those numbers dropped, which might inform us whether Murray has any chance to continue producing at his current level.

The first thing to consider is the one performance that plummeted, when Ricky Williams missed the final six games of the 2000 season with a broken ankle.2 Carrying the ball more often should result in more injuries, but there doesn’t appear to be a distinct breaking point. Only two other players even missed a game — Clinton Portis had a chest injury in 2004 and Terrell Davis had a separated shoulder in 1997.

Murray has battled injuries in his career, though, missing 11 combined games in his first three seasons,3 so concern about his health isn’t unwarranted. When he rolled his right ankle without any contact Sunday, Cowboys fans probably saw their playoff hopes flash before their eyes.

But barring serious injury, there isn’t much reason to think Murray’s pace will significantly decline. The 13 running backs other than Williams averaged 205.8 fewer rushing yards in the second half of the season, producing less but still well above average. The seven players who made the playoffs (not counting a futile attempt by Williams to return in 2000) all continued to produce at a similar rate. In fact, Emmitt Smith powered the Cowboys to a Super Bowl win and Terrell Davis posted two of the best postseasons by a running back in NFL history.

Dallas’s schedule does suggest Murray will have slightly more trouble finding holes the rest of the season. Only one of Dallas’s first seven opponents are ranked in the top 10 of rushing defense DVOA, while five of the remaining nine future opponents are in that tier: no. 5 Arizona, no. 7 Philadelphia (twice), and no. 8 Washington (twice). But even accounting for some declines, it’s entirely reasonable for Murray to finish with 1,750 yards and some MVP votes.

That’s good news for Dallas this season, but what about future years? The Curse of 370, an idea generated by Aaron Schatz at Football Outsiders, posits that a running back who carries the ball at least 370 times in a season will suffer a severe drop-off the following year, and often for the rest of his career. This phenomenon appears to be more than simple regression, with a physical workload leaving residual effects. It’s extremely likely we are witnessing the best season of Murray’s career. And it’s entirely possible that this could have been Dallas’s plan all along.

New York Giants v Dallas CowboysRonald Martinez/Getty Images

Dallas likely decided to deploy Murray at historic rates this season very intentionally. The Cowboys defense was abysmal in 2013, and after the loss of Sean Lee to an ACL injury and DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher to free agency, there was little reason to think they would improve in 2014. In anticipation of a porous defense (which has actually been quite respectable), Dallas put together a ball-control offense centered on Murray. If the Cowboys have the ball, that means their opponents don’t. That idea has worked like a charm. Dallas is converting a league-best 57.4 percent of its third-down conversions and is second in the NFL with an average time of possession of 34:35; not coincidentally, it’s also averaging 28 points, fifth best in the NFL.

The Cowboys’ success might prompt other teams to follow their path, which has included committing to the offensive line, spending three of their last four first-round picks on left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick, and right guard Zack Martin.

If there’s been an overarching theme to this NFL season, it is that the offensive line matters. The New England Patriots have been shuffling their starting lineup faster than a casino dealer on Red Bull, searching for stability after the retirement of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and the trade of guard Logan Mankins. The Philadelphia Eagles have had an onslaught of injuries along the offensive line, dampening the impact of LeSean McCoy, last year’s rushing leader. Dallas, on the other hand, has had consistent production, with four of its five starters not missing a snap this season. Even though right tackle Doug Free fractured his foot last week and will miss a few more games, backup Jeremy Parnell was productive against the Giants.

Rather than spend the big bucks on an All-Pro running back, it might make more sense for teams to invest in offensive linemen and their relatively long careers, replacing young, cheap running backs as necessary. Why buy an entirely new car if you can change the tires? Mike Shanahan used that strategy in Denver, where his zone-blocking offensive line helped produce 1,000-yard seasons from six different running backs — not one of whom was a first-round pick, and one of whom was Mike Anderson — in 14 seasons.

Dallas could test this theory by giving carries to the other two young running backs on its roster, simultaneously easing Murray’s workload while preparing his replacements in case of emergency. But despite Jason Garrett’s claims to desire a rotation, Dallas has stuck with Murray, giving only 18 carries to Joseph Randle and 15 to Lance Dunbar. And without knowing whether Randle or Dunbar would have similar success behind the sequoias up front, it’s difficult to tell whether Murray or the offensive line is the dominant force in the Cowboys offense.4

It’s a chicken-or-the-egg argument that Cowboys fans are all too familiar with. Some critics of Emmitt Smith point out that he had the luxury of running behind a stout offensive line that razed paths even Daryl Johnston could have followed to 1,000-yard seasons. It’s certainly true that Smith benefited from burly blockers,5 but it’s also true that those offensive linemen benefited from working with a hard-nosed runner.

“Is DeMarco Murray a new Emmitt Smith?” sounds like a silly Dallas sports radio tease, but it’s actually something the Cowboys need to consider. Dallas has to decide soon whether Murray is closer to the NFL’s all-time rushing leader or Julius Jones. The latter once had a strong stretch similar to Murray’s, carrying the ball 192 times for 803 yards and seven touchdowns in the final seven weeks of 2004, his rookie season. That production was a mirage, though, and after cracking the 1,000-yard mark only once in his first four seasons, the Cowboys didn’t re-sign Jones in free agency.

Wise teams pay for future performance, not past results, and Dallas might show similar restraint with Murray. Then again, Murray will be negotiating with owner/general manager/general megalomaniac Jerry Jones, who gave a seven-year, $45 million deal to, um, Marion Barber just six years ago. So what’s wisdom?

Dallas Cowboys v Seattle SeahawksSteve Dykes/Getty Images

Murray is in the final year of his rookie contract, a four-year deal worth about $3 million, and he has performed well above his pay grade even before this outlier of a season. When ranked by base salaries alone, Murray is the 19th-highest-paid running back in the NFL this season, behind the mighty trio of Bilal Powell, Roy Helu, and Jacquizz Rodgers, who have combined for 275 rushing yards in 2014. Typically, this would set the stage for a showdown between an underpaid player and a sports franchise that wants to maximize its return on investment.

But the Cowboys aren’t an organization known for parsimony. Bill Barnwell has already tabulated the poor salary-cap management that has forced Dallas to repeatedly restructure contracts. A glimpse of the future arrived after the 2013 season, when an exorbitant price tag forced Dallas to cut future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware, who has seven sacks in six games with Denver. The tough financial decisions continue this offseason for Dallas, which has eight starters who are unrestricted free agents, including superstar wide receiver Dez Bryant.

The scariest comparison for Cowboys fans, though, is Jamal Anderson, who carried Atlanta to the 1998 Super Bowl. The similarities between Murray and Anderson are eerie. After two years on the bench behind veteran Craig Heyward, Anderson posted consecutive 1,000-yard seasons before Dirty Birding his way into the national consciousness. In 1998, Anderson carried the ball 410 times for 1,846 yards and 14 touchdowns; his workload actually picked up in the second half of the season, and he added another 70 carries for 276 yards in the playoffs.

The Falcons ripped up the final year of their newest superstar’s contract, signing Anderson to five-year extension after his lengthy holdout. Anderson then ripped up both ACLs while rushing for only 1,273 combined yards over the next three seasons, retiring with $16 million more in his pocket. Gulp.

It’s obviously foolish to say this will happen to Murray, but it’s impossible to ignore how much can go wrong after a team financially rewards a running back for one huge season. That said, teams rarely let a top-tier running back in his prime enter free agency, and it would be shocking if Dallas let Murray leave. (The Cowboys have reportedly offered Murray a four-year contract that “would pay him more than any free-agent running back earned in 2014.”)

Salary cap expert Jason Fitzgerald wrote an extremely detailed post about what kind of contract Murray can expect to command, considering his otherworldly production, the diminishing returns that teams get from running backs, and the deflated state of the positional market. Fitzgerald feels comfortable with a five-year, $31 million offer to Murray, and Spotrac, a website dedicated to player salaries, predicts Murray will receive a four-year, $31 million contract.

Ultimately, the Cowboys don’t seem too worried about how much they will pay Murray even if the dollar signs accumulate as quickly as his yardage. “Our goal is to keep good players, to keep the people that play well on the field and are even better off the field,” Dallas chief operating officer Stephen Jones told the Dallas Morning News last week. “He fits that to the nines. I hope we have our work cut out for us in the off-season and that we’re coming off a big year and two or three of the players that are up for contract have great years. That’ll be a good problem to have.”

Jason Bailey (@_jasonbailey_) is a Grantland copy editor.

Filed Under: NFL, DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys, Emmitt Smith, Jason Bailey, Jamal Anderson, Jason Garrett