A recent debate among NFL pundits went as follows: who is more valuable to the Cowboys, Dez Bryant or DeMarco Murray. "NFL Live"'s Tim Hasselbeck and Darren Woodson both picked Murray. Not to be outdone, Dan Graziano of ESPN's NFC East Blog jumped in, offering a rationale for his choice that went something like this:
As you know if you read me regularly, I think Bryant is coming into his own as an absolute monster and will continue to develop as one of the top wide receivers in the NFL. I think he'll continue to be Tony Romo's favorite target and put up huge numbers in the Cowboys' passing game. But as Tim and Darren both assert in the clip there, a healthy and productive Murray would help everyone else on the offense. He'd help the offensive line. He'd help Romo. He'd probably help Bryant be even more fantastic than he was over the second half of last season.
While I can see that a productive running game will be a boon to the entire team and ease Cowboys Nation's worried hearts, I'm flabbergasted by the choice of Murray over Bryant. As has been well documented, and nowhere better than on BTB's pages, Dez is a bona fide star who put up staggering numbers in the 2012 campaign's final eight games and is likely to challenge Detroit's Calvin Johnson as the league's top wideout in 2013.
What has Murray done to warrant comparison with Bryant? Well, not much. Lets look at his career numbers, broken down into blocks of games:
Breaking down his career like this can be instructive. In 2011, after a five-game apprenticeship in which he backed up Felix Jones without distinction, Murray was thrust into the lineup in a late October home game against the woeful Rams - and immediately set a franchise single-game rushing record with 253 yards on 25 carries, including a scintillating 90-yard touchdown gallop. This excellence carried through for the next three games; in his first four starts, Murray averaged more than 8 yards a carry. Take away his long TD run, and he still averaged 6.9 yards a pop. That's impressive.
And I think, in Cowboys fans' minds, that four game stretch is the "real Murray" - the explosive, game-changing guy he should be were he to get decent blocking. But at least one analyst rejects this narrative. K.C. Joyner, the "Football Scientist" and ESPN contributor, runs innumerable metrics that seek to analyze the real workings of a football team. One of these is Good Blocking Yards Per Attempt, which acknowledges that running backs don't always get good blocking and therefore asks: what is their YPA when there aren't any breakdowns up front. The Dallas O-line was, by Joyner's metrics, in the league's bottom third, with a mere 43% "good blocking success rate. But here's the staggering metric: they had the NFL's worst good blocking yards-per-attempt in the league. In other words, when offensive line gave the Cowboys backs "good" blocking (i.e., no disruptions or penetrations), the Dallas runners gained fewer yards per attempt than any other team in the league. As the starter, a large portion of that has to be on Murray.
With that in mind, lets revisit the above chart. Bear with me; I'm going to cherry pick a bit here to prove a point. If we take away the most productive stretch of Murray's career, his first four games as a starter, his line appears to be quite pedestrian: 250 carries for 959 yards, which is a 3.84 yard average (and, if we take away his miraculous 48-yard run on opening night against the Giants, the average dips to 3.6 per tote). My larger point here is: which is the "real: Murray? The guy who exploded onto the scene for four games, or the journeyman back we've seen the other 20 games?
Before you answer, consider this: in 2004, rookie running back Julius Jones came back from an injury to burst onto the scene in late November, turning heads with a 150-yard debut, on Thanksgiving against the Bears, followed by a scintillating 198-yard performance on Monday night against the Seahawks. After several sub-100 yard games, he capped off his season with a dominating 149-yard effort. Jones' vision, wiggle and acceleration had Cowboys fans all a-flutter heading into 2005 and beyond. But, other than a handful of games, he never fulfilled that promise; Jones' curse was to have a couple of good games early enough to set expectations higher than he was capable of fulfilling.
DeMarco Murray might prove to be a terrific back who rightfully belongs in the pantheon of great Cowboys rushers. But right now, his career looks an awful lot like Julius Jones'. As Bill Parcells was fond of saying, we'd better put away the anointing oil. Until we do, and he proves that his four-game stretch in 2011 was not a fluke, Murray is, to my mind, the team's most overrated player.
What think ye, BTBers? Is Ol' Rabble onto something? Or has he lost his ever-lovin' mind? Hit the comments section and let 'er rip!