I’m sure you’ve felt it before. That feeling you get when one of your boys makes you look stupid in fantasy and then starts talking junk. Sending text messages. Posting shade on the league message boards. You start getting shamed on Facebook, Twitter, all over social media, and all you want is for the season to end.
Thanks DeMarco Murray. Thanks a lot.
In my main fantasy league this season, I had the No. 3 pick in the draft and didn’t take Dallas’ starting running back. I wasn’t the only one. Before the year started, the 26-year-old was the 13th-ranked halfback in the league. Thirteen! I went with someone else who now isn’t helping my team one bit while Murray fell into my boy’s lap. The rest is history.
Before the 2014 season began, Murray was just another good player on a disappointing and underachieving team. Now? He’s not only leading the NFL in rushing by a WIDE margin (over 300 yards more than Arian Foster), having broken Jim Brown‘s record with eight straight 100-yard games to start the season, he’s also leading in rushing attempts.
The Cowboys have perhaps the best offensive line in football and are using it to work Murray into the ground. With 225 carries through nine games, the former Oklahoma Sooner is on pace to challenge Larry Johnson‘s all-time record. He’s also well on his way to 2,000 yards rushing.
For the Cowboys and their MVP candidate, it’s been all about the numbers this year, which is funny when you think about where they came from. For years, the Dallas coaching staff and their arsenal of offensive decision-makers (Jason Garrett, Bill Callahan, and Rob Ryan) were criticized for not paying attention to the numbers. Tony Romo was a walking turnover timebomb, often asked to do too much as Murray registered just 11 games in three years with at least 20 carries. No one seemed to care that Dallas was 11-0 whenever they actually got their man the ball. (Counting this year, they’re now 17-1.) Heck, it didn’t seem like Murray cared either.
“We don’t waste too much of our time on statistics,” Murray told me this summer while shooting the adidas adicolorTV campaign for Champs Sports. “It’s about executing and coming up with a great gameplan to put us in position to win games. I’ve heard that stat but…we’ve won multiple games too without me getting that many touches. It just depends on how we play.”
Now, after Dallas spent three recent first-round picks on offensive linemen before also watching their defense lose DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher (free agency) this summer and Sean Lee (injury) before training camp, ironically, some critics are calling for Murray’s demise. Headlines like “Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray is running his career into the ground” are common. Isn’t this what we wanted? For Murray to get the ball over and over again? To carry a weak defensive team on his back? To bail out Romo? To make it through holes the size of Nate Newton? To reinvigorate Cowboys Nation?
In 2014, the numbers are virtually screaming at us. You can’t overwork your running backs. They lead the league in touches? Don’t expect the same production the following year. (Hello, Shady McCoy.) They cross 370 carries? They will never be the same. You ride your injured running back to a Super Bowl, then give him nearly 400 touches the next season? Say goodbye. (Goodbye, Terrell Davis.) From Jamal Anderson to Ricky Williams to Earl Campbell, it’s like clockwork, and potentially doubly true for a player like Murray, who missed time during his first three years in the NFL with a broken ankle, a sprained foot, and a sprained MCL. Even at Oklahoma, the 6-0, 217-pounder dealt with injuries while shouldering the load on the ground, out of the backfield through the air, and on kick returns. Despite tying Adrian Peterson‘s freshman touchdown record (15), Murray never truly took off. He ended up as the sixth running back taken in the 2011 NFL Draft, behind Mark Ingram (just one career 100-yard game prior to the last two weeks); Ryan Williams (now on the Dallas practice squad); Shane Vereen (less career rushing yards than Murray has in nine games this year); Mikel Leshoure (out of the league); and Daniel Thomas (101 yards rushing this season).
Once in the NFL, Murray struggled to assert himself in a backfield already crowded with veteran players. And then, even when he exploded for record-breaking days, he couldn’t escape the injury bug. As Eddie Maisonet recalls, while breaking Emmitt Smith‘s team record with 253 yards on the ground against St. Louis during his rookie season, Murray tweaked a hamstring he originally hurt in college. It bothered him the rest of the season.
It was a never-ending tango between player and team. As Smith told The Dallas Morning News recently, “For the last four or five years you have not seen DeMarco Murray or the Cowboys be committed to the running game and right now they are extremely committed to the running game. Even if you get a minus-1 yard or minus-2 yards, they come back and give it to you again. And as a running back, I need to have my touches. You cannot expect me to get 100 yards on just six yards or seven carries.”
Murray is a different cat now than he was when he first entered the league, proving he can handle the touches. This summer he did UFC training for a week in Las Vegas. He did CrossFit. The man with the NFL’s hardest handshake mostly stayed away from football-specific training. (It became sort of a running joke during the adicolorTV photoshoot. Could anyone match Murray’s handshake? One dude tried. The results weren’t pretty.) Perhaps that’s part of the reason why he looks so fresh…or maybe he had this in him all along. Either way, with some of the NFL’s top running backs either not suiting up or looking drained from years of high mileage, DeMarco Murray is now the NFL’s best running back. By far.
Even Jim Brown is impressed, telling 103.3 FM ESPN, “I have to start off by giving him congratulations because the Dallas Cowboys are winning now and his contribution is a great part of that. That’s the reason for the fact that they’re winning is he’s having a good year. He has my respect.”
Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanesweeney