The football world is all a Twitter -- pun intended -- over the Dallas Cowboys and their 30-23 win over the Seahawks in Seattle. It's not just that so many people expected the Cowboys to be dreadful this season. It's that the old Dallas script -- of gunslinger Tony Romo throwing his way into and then out of trouble -- has been overtaken by a new storyline: Oft-injured running back DeMarco Murray is having a career year, leading the NFL in rushing with 785 yards on 159 carries (plus an additional 155 yards on 21 receptions).
At this rate, Murray will carry the ball an NFL-record 424 times this season, and gain 2,093 yards -- just shy of Eric Dickerson's single-season record of 2,105, set in 1984, and Adrian Peterson's near-miss of 2,097, achieved in 2012.
It's too early to ask if Murray can break that single-season mark, but it isn't too early to ask if head coach Jason Garrett and the Cowboys are using Murray judiciously. Many people think the Cowboys should keep Murray on a weekly "pitch count" of sorts, to make sure he lasts the season and is ready for the playoffs. Another school of thought says that, since running backs have short shelf lives anyway, it's best to ride their productivity for all it's worth.
At some level, this is a false question, because the Cowboys aren't going to take Murray out of a game when the outcome is still in doubt. At the same time, though, the history of backs being used like Murray is not promising.
Let's begin with the fact that Murray, who has yet to play a full 16-game season in the NFL, has not proven to be a particularly durable runner to begin with. His is the most physically demanding position in the league, and it's already taken a toll on him in his young career; the 26-year-old was forced to miss time over his first three seasons with ankle, foot and knee ailments.
Larry Johnson currently holds the record for most carries in a season with 416 for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2006. He also racked up 41 receptions for 410 yards that year. The following year, Johnson missed eight games and had just 158 carries. He never came close to replicating his peak production again.
Atlanta Falcons back Jamal Anderson followed up his spectacular 1998 season -- in which he logged 437 touches (410 carries and 27 receptions) -- with just two games before injuring his knee and missing the rest of the '99 campaign. James Wilder had 407 carries and 85 receptions for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1984. In '85, he piled up another 365 carries (for 1,300 yards) and 53 receptions. However, Wilder never finished a full season after that.
The true iron men -- guys like Walter Payton, Jim Brown and Dickerson -- are extremely rare. For almost everyone else, the pounding sustained from being a workhorse back cannot be repeated for more than a couple of seasons over the course of a career.
I'm sure the Cowboys are discussing how they can minimize the burden on Murray without affecting the great run they are on. One way is to limit the snaps Murray takes in practice, an increasingly common approach with workhorse runners across the league.
Furthermore, Dallas will have to work harder to limit his snaps and carries in games. This is trickier, but it can be done. When you have a game firmly in hand, you can let your backup take some of the plays in your "four-minute offense" as you try to pound your opponent and run out the clock. You can also use the fact that opponents are keying on your lead back to your advantage, using more play-action in typical running and short-yardage situations. These are just minor adjustments, and none threaten the concept best articulated by legendary Texas coach Darrell Royal, who said, "We're gonna dance with who brung us."
In 2003, when I was the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, Jamal Lewis was on an incredible run that would see him rush for 2,066 yards, second at the time only to Dickerson's 2,105. We all wanted Jamal to get the record, but we also knew we needed to keep him healthy so he could be there in the playoffs. That season, we used backup Chester Taylor in certain situations, to the tune of 63 carries and 20 receptions. It was just enough to take a little of the burden off of Jamal. The San Diego Chargers did the same thing with Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson, who had 300-plus carries in each of his first seven seasons in the league, sprinkling in Michael Turner during the course of games. Turner, who had 80 and 71 carries in his last two years in San Diego before hitting Atlanta via free agency, was a threat in his own right, but he also allowed LT to stay relatively fresh into the fourth quarter.
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The Cowboys need to use Joseph Randle more in this type of role, to keep Murray fresh and healthy. Of course, they can't be too pleased that the man backing up Murray just got arrested for shoplifting. (UPDATE: Dallas has announced Randle will be "significantly" fined -- not suspended -- for his arrest.) Randle is currently on pace to log just 43 total touches in 2014.
For the Cowboys' dream season to continue in its present vein, they'll have to lighten Murray's load a bit -- or risk not having him around come January.