With the combine complete, mock drafts spitting out new results each day, and the draft board looking like the floor of the NASDAQ, Dallas Cowboys fans are eager for news on how the starting lineup will shape up for 2015. And with the deadline for a franchise tag only 48 hours away – March 2nd at 4pm EST – and three-day negotiating period for unrestricted free agents opening on March 7th, the reality of the calendar is beginning to set in.
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Away from the headlines being churned out of the rumor mill, the debate over whether running back DeMarco Murray is worth a long-term deal, and, if so, how much the Cowboys brass should be willing to pay for his continued services is one that shows no sign of ceasing.
On one side is the viewpoint that the devaluation of the running back position in a league that has become evermore reliant upon the passing game means that the Cowboys could get the same output as their starting running back via the combination of a few young (aka cheaper) guys either currently on the roster, or that could be picked up in the draft or free agency.
Coupled with this is the premise that Murray’s production is in large part a direct reflection of the talent and strength of the offensive line meaning his skill set is one that can be duplicated by a running back – or a pair of running backs – that may not be as talented.
Many have made counter arguments – me included – that Murray’s value goes beyond his yards per carry. His quiet leadership, his work ethic, and general RKOG-ness are the intangibles that don’t show up on a specific stat line in the box score each week. Impossible to calculate, but there nonetheless.
Valid points on both sides, but this debate also posits another question: is the assumption that the Cowboys will be able get the same yield from their ground game by utilizing multiple players the correct one? Or, is it the exact combination of Murray’s ability with that of the offensive line that led to his single-season rushing record for the organization?
As people were inclined to do all season, the comparison to the one and only Emmitt Smith actually feels appropriate in this scenario. Here’s why:
Some have made the argument that Emmitt would not have been Emmitt without the insanely talented offensive line playing in front of him. Chock full of Pro-Bowlers, their success beget his. But, the 1993 season provides us with a few examples where their talent and ability was not a direct translation into success for anyone else.
With a contract dispute keeping Emmitt away from the field for the first two games, Jerry Jones plugged in rookie Derrick Lassic – a fourth round pickup in that year’s draft. Let’s be kind here and just say Lassic was not good. His 35 carries only resulted in 127 total rushing yards in, not surprisingly, the two losses to the Washington Redskins and Buffalo Bills, respectively.
Small sample size for certain and you could also argue that A) Lassic was both less talented and less experience than the current backups on the squad Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar and B) the difference between the talent levels of Smith and his backup and Murray and his are incomparable. Moreover, it was the first couple of weeks of the season and there were kinks to be worked out.
But then we have another data point: Week 12’s loss against the Atlanta Falcons. Smith injures his quad and leaves the game with only one carry. Lassic takes over his duties and gets 9 carries for 36 rushing yards. End result? Again, no shocker here: a notch in the L column.
About a dozen factors mean that this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. But just like then, I do think we can ask whether it was the dominant offensive line what really made the running game effective, was it Murray himself or was it the perfect confluence of necessary elements. In the absence of a DeLorean or life becoming a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ in the next few days, it’s impossible to know. Maybe more, for those hoping 2015 is the Cowboys’ year to nab the Lombardi Trophy, perhaps not worth finding out.