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The Dallas Cowboys are finally seeing what they have expected for years.
Coach Jason Garrett has promised a balanced offense for years, but instead the lowly Cowboys have found themselves as a pass-heavy offense with DeMarco Murray largely a non-factor. Some of Murray’s disappearance in and out of the Cowboys lineup can be attributed to his inability to remain healthy for a 16-game regular season. However, Garrett is equally responsible for the run:pass ratio as the team’s play-caller.
This year, though, Murray has defied logic. Through seven games, Murray has carried the ball a league-high 187 times for a NFL-best 913 yards and seven touchdowns. And with balance in the Cowboys’ offense, the team is 6-1 and sit atop the NFC East standings. If all goes according to plan, the ‘Boys could be in store for a record better than .500 for the first time since 2009, which not coincidentally was their last trip to the playoffs.
But now there’s talk that Garrett should begin to put Murray on a snap count. Murray is on track to receive more than 370 carries this season. History dictates that beyond 2014, Murray would be in store for a decline.
Running backs that have carried the rock more than 350 times in a single season tend to begin their decline soon after.
Larry Johnson carried the ball 416 times in 2006, resulting in his second straight 1,700-plus yard season. Johnson never rushed for 1,000 yards again. Jamal Anderson had 410 rush attempts in 1998, then 356 over the next three seasons. In 2001, three years after that 410-carry season, Anderson hung up his cleats.
There are outliers, of course, like Jamal Lewis who carried the ball 387 time for 2,066 yards as a 24-year-old running back. Michael Turner eclipsed 300 carries thrice with the Falcons, but was out of the league two years after that final 300-carry season.
Murray is 26 years old and is in the final year of his current deal with Dallas. He’s playing for a new contract, and more importantly in his case, to avoid being injured for a third year in a row.
The Cowboys face a difficult decision with their MVP candidate workhorse. They can try to ride his magical season to their best season in five years, or they can begin to manage his snaps in hopes of preserving for future years.
The choice is actually quite simple.
Dallas was projected to be the third or fourth-best team in the NFC East before the season began, and their Week 1 flop against the 49ers only confirmed what we all thought. But the Cowboys have knocked off the defending Super Bowl champions and divisional foe New York Giants in the past two weeks to move to 6-1 and sole possession of first place in the division. On this trajectory, the Cowboys could be in line for their best start since 2007 when they began the season 9-1 and won the NFC East.
Their dilemma at hand is whether to keep their running back fresh. Obviously, Murray has been the catalyst for this season’s success, so wearing him down or allowing him to suffer an injury would be a devastating blow to the team’s promising playoff chances.
But to suggest the team should stray away from handing the ball off to him — well, that just doesn’t make sense.
Right now the Cowboys must continue to chase a Lombardi Trophy. It’s 2014, and nobody should be thinking about next season just yet. Preserving one player for next year is insane, because there are no guarantees in the National Football League.
Murray has never been able to stay healthy for a full regular season since he entered the league four years ago, but now that he is, it’s time to take full advantage. There should not be a worry about re-signing Murray until the year is over; that’s for then. It’s still time to focus on the now.
If the Cowboys want to add another running back or involve other rushers into their game plan, so be it. Running the ball has gotten the team this far. But putting Murray on a snap count in order to keep him healthy for next year is inconceivable.
The truth is cold and hard: workhorse running backs are no longer a rare commodity in the NFL. As we saw this offseason, Chris Johnson, Ben Tate and Donald Brown were available on the free-agent market for cheap.
Teams can sign two or three running backs and draft a couple for a low cost. The game no longer dictates that one back should get the majority of the carries. Backs are now interchangeable and, with that, easily replaceable. Murray is one of the league’s more special backs, as he is proving this year, but there’s no reason to believe another talented back couldn’t provide equal production behind the Cowboys’ outstanding offensive line next season.
It’s not a knock on Murray or the running back position. Murray is the reason for the Cowboys’ turnaround. But to try and change how he is being used — which put the Cowboys where they are in the standings right now — is insane, especially when it’s to prepare him for 2015. The NFL is win-now league, and for a team that has finished .500 or below every season since 2009, it’s time to focus on seizing opportunities. You just don’t know when another opportunity like this will come around again.
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