DeMarco Murray is one of the most intriguing running backs in the NFL, yet he still has a very uncertain 2012 outlook.
He’s young, is loaded with upside, and he’s ready to begin his first year as the unquestioned starter on a team that’s loaded offensively. And that’s all wonderful, and it fills me with visions of plum fairies and moon pies.
But then there’s the fact that he only appeared in eight games last year, and while he was briefly and historically awesome in four of those games, he was then mediocre in four more before his season ended early due to an ankle injury. Sure, his 253-yard outburst in Week 7 was fun and all, but it came against the league’s worst rushing defense (St. Louis allowed 152.1 rushing yards per game). In that game Murray averaged 10.1 yards per carry, joined the top 10 in all-time single-game rushing yards, set the Cowboys rookie single-game rushing record, and most importantly he had the second most rushing yards in a game by a rookie in league history.
Those were all the good things, along with his first four games as the Cowboys’ featured back when Murray averaged 8.1 yards per carry. But then during the final four games of his 2011 season Murray’s per carry average dropped to 3.75, which gave birth to a narrative. Since Murray exploded so quickly and suddenly, why should we trust him to do it again this year? And why the hell should we invest highly in him, maybe as high as a second-round pick?
To exam that perception, let’s look back at history and recent (or not recent) case studies, just as we did with Cam Newton and the mystery of his rushing touchdowns.
Can Murray be trusted? In a word, yes. Probably.
Murray had 28 percent of his total rushing yardage in 2011 (897 yards) in just one game. Taking that further, his 91-yard TD run in that Rams game represented 10 percent of his total yardage for the year. We can’t quite call that an outlier since Murray still continued his hot pace for three more games, but those two percentages still stick out significantly when compared to his slump to end the year.
That’s what has partly created the pause and caution around the second-year runner. But we’ve seen this movie before, and it was pretty damn good too.
In 2008, Ray Rice posted an even heavier one-game outlier when he rushed for 154 yards against the Browns during his rookie year. That outburst accounted for 33.9 percent of his total yards that year when he finished with 454 rushing yards after serving primarily as Willis McGahee’s backup. The next year, Rice had 1,339 yards, which is sort of OK, and proved that his flash of skill the previous year wasn’t a flash at all.
Then what do we make of Arian Foster? The vegan fantasy football hater is an even more appropriate case study. Murray’s window for success was brief due to his late-season ankle injury that limited him to only eight games and seven starts, while Foster’s opportunity in his first season was also fleeting simply because of the calender, and the few games remaining in the schedule. When the Texans’ signed Foster off of their practice squad in November of 2009, little was expected.
He played four games, and was used sparingly in the first two, finishing with just 41 yards on 15 carries. Then he exploded over the final two games of the season, rushing for 216 yards on 39 carries (5.5 yards per carry), while adding 26 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
Sure, that’s just swell, but sticking with our theme of percentage outliers over a game or two, Foster had an absurd 84 percent of his rushing yardage over just two games. Surely that bubble would burst the following season, right? Umm, in 2010 Foster led the league in rushing with 1,616 yards, and had 617 more yards through the air with 12 total touchdowns. He did alright.
How ’bout one more? You don’t really have a choice anyway.
Steven Jackson was just a wee little first-round rookie way back in 2004, and he was in a platoon with the fading Marshall Faulk. While he posted fine numbers on limited touches (683 yards on 134 carries for a five-yards per carry average), 267 of those yards came over just two of his 14 game appearances that year. Our abacus is getting a little rusty, but it indicates that’s 39 percent of his total rushing production.
It also indicates that’s only 11 percent less than half over just those two games. So, how’d he do in his second year when he was still sharing some carries with Faulk? Jackson had his first +1,000 yard season in 2005.
There is, of course, another factor with Murray: his bones, and their high level of brittleness. He missed his freshman year at Oklahoma with a dislocated kneecap, and then missed the 2008 BCS title game due to a hamstring injury.
The injury questions around Murray are very legitimate, and very unpredictable, and that only makes him just like pretty much every other RB in the second tier. He’s a likely second-round pick slotted in a group with the likes of Darren McFadden, Adrian Peterson, and Jamaal Charles, who are all equal and arguably greater injury concerns, with Run DMC’s inability to not break himself well documented, along with the ACL rippage of Peterson and Charles.
So in that sense he’s pretty much the same as every other running back in the draft not named McCoy, Foster, or Rice, only he’s younger, and he’s faced far less pounding.
And sure, he blew up early and quickly. But that furthers his sameness, because there’s a short list of other recent running back explosions from backs who keep exploding.