Cowboys Move On

Letting Murray take big money in Philly is right — if painful — call for Cowboys

Letting Murray take big money in Philly is right call for Cowboys

DeMarco Murray of the Dallas Cowboys
Losing DeMarco Murray will hurt in the short term. But a few years down the line, the Dallas Cowboys may come out the winners in this deal. Photo courtesy of Dallas Cowboys

Okay, so if we’re done burning DeMarco Murray jerseys in effigy, can we discuss this whole contract thing rationally? No? Well, I tried.

Murray is a Philadelphia Eagle now, the result of a five-year, $42 million offer that outclassed what the Dallas Cowboys were reportedly willing to part with. ESPN reported that the Cowboys were offering about $6 million a year. The Eagles offered Murray an average of $8 million a year, with half of it guaranteed. In fact, Murray will get $18 million guaranteed for what ESPN called “skill and injury.” Basically, that means he gets it no matter what.

Murray wanted big money, and he got it. Apparently he wanted it in Philadelphia too. Murray reportedly called the Eagles on Wednesday to inquire about taking over for LeSean McCoy, whom the Eagles traded to Buffalo. Who is going to say no to that?

Plus, the Eagles’ trade for quarterback Sam Bradford paid off in a way they probably didn’t expect. Bradford and Murray were college roommates at Oklahoma, and head coach Chip Kelly runs an up-tempo offense they both played in and liked at OU. Bradford told reporters on Wednesday that he was actively recruiting Murray. Sounds like he was listening.

Murray told reporters after signing the deal that he felt the Eagles “[were] a great opportunity for me to win a Super Bowl, at the end of the day.” In other words, better than the Cowboys. You can debate the merits of whether that’s accurate.

Look, I get it. It’s Murray. He was the NFL’s top running back last year and earned plenty of respect for his production and his professionalism while in Dallas. Fans like him. Plus, it’s the Eagles. The Cowboys will see him twice a year, which is bound to be great theater. So it all smarts a little bit.

But Murray understands the business end of this. He plays a position that has one of the highest attrition rates in the NFL. Once you hit 30, you may as well be playing on borrowed time. This is basically his last contract, and he has to make it count. The difference in the two deals was about $10 million. That’s the NFL equivalent of trying to jump the Grand Canyon on a Vespa.

That’s why the Cowboys are doing this right. Murray had more than 400 touches last year and was hugely productive. But he can’t do that forever. There is plenty of historical data out there to suggest that running backs with Murray’s workload tail off the next year and tail off faster once they hit 28. (Murray just turned 27.) There is also data out there to suggest that age makes a difference in all of this. Twenty-eight seems to be the red line.

My belief is that Murray probably has two highly productive years left before he starts to tail off. Hopefully its gradual, but he won’t be the same player at the end of this deal than he is now. That much is clear. The Cowboys may have gambled and lost on keeping Murray on the cheap, but the long game says they’re making the right choice.

But there is the short term, and losing Murray is a big problem.

The Cowboys have three backs on the roster — Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar and Ryan Williams. Randle may face a suspension, pending what happens with his legal issues. Dunbar doesn’t seem like a 20-carry-a-game back, and Williams hasn’t toted a full load in two years. The Cowboys now need a running back, perhaps two, and that changes their strategy the next few months.

There are some budget-conscious choices on the free agency market. Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller, Miami’s Knowshon Moreno, Indianapolis’ Trent Richardson and Oakland’s Darren McFadden are all on the market. So are some older options like Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams and Atlanta’s Steven Jackson, both 31. The Cowboys need one of them quickly.

I know you think I’m leaving someone out — Adrian Peterson. This is a pipe dream. Had the Vikings wanted to get rid of him, they would have done so before free agency so they could save some cap space. The remainder of his contract — $42 million over the next three years — makes him practically untradeable. Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones would have to give up too much.

The real change in strategy is the draft. The Cowboys are going to have to spend a pick, probably in the first three rounds, to find a new back. The benefits are simple — the Cowboys can control that back’s costs for four years, and it will be far less than what they would have paid Murray.

This isn’t a great draft for running backs, but two stand out — Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Georgia’s Todd Gurley, the latter of which is still recovering from ACL surgery and might be had at a discount, perhaps a second-round pick.

This isn’t the time for the Cowboys to panic. Naturally they’ve thought about all of this. But the biggest reason not to panic is up front. The Cowboys have perhaps the best offensive line in football and prepared for this possibility by making sure that right tackle Doug Free didn’t leave in free agency.

Whomever the Cowboys sign or draft to run the football behind will benefit greatly from the foundation the Cowboys have built up front the last four years. That investment may just allow the Cowboys to continue to run the football productively in 2015. Now, it likely won’t be at the level Murray played at a year ago, but that doesn’t mean the running game and the offense can’t still be effective.

That’s the key here. The Cowboys aren’t the team they were a few years ago, built around one player — that player being Tony Romo. They’re now a more balanced team that can absorb the hit of losing a player, even one as productive as Murray.
And in the long run that’s what will keep the Cowboys in a position to contend.