Many predicted that Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray would have a good year. The team added the third first-round draft pick to the offensive line in four years. Jerry Jones, Jason Garrett, and new play caller Scott Linehan all were saying the team was going to really commit to the run this year. And Murray was coming off the best year to date in his short career.
But no one saw this coming. Murray has 534 yards after only four games, leading the second place running back, the Steelers' Le'Veon Bell, by 156 yards. And the more you delve into his numbers, the more surprises you find.
Per @ESPNStatsInfo, DeMarco Murray has rushed for 327 yards BEFORE CONTACT this year. Only two backs have more rushing yards, period.— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) September 30, 2014
Murray's success is part of a chain of good benefits, as laid out in an article at Grantland. The highly talented offensive line makes him more effective. The running game that results takes the pressure off Tony Romo, making him better. With better passing, the receiving corps is improved. And with all that offensive goodness, the defense is on the field less, under less pressure, and able to perform better than last year's comedy of errors.
This interconnected way of looking at the situation is how it should be done, realizing that the success of an NFL team is reliant upon the proper meshing of multiple facets. If one part of the chain breaks, it can disrupt all the others. While Murray has contributed greatly to the surprisingly good start by the Cowboys, he would probably not do as well on most other NFL teams. The combination of stud linemen, a highly talented franchise quarterback, and a deep receiving corps does not exist in that many franchises.
That particular argument, however, is not one you are likely to hear from one specific person: DeMarco Murray's agent. Now, I don't know offhand who his agent is, but I do know this: That agent is going to want to talk about the yards Murray has, without reference to the big uglies ahead of him, or how good Romo is, or the very good blocking provided by the tight ends and wide receivers. No, the agent is going to want to focus on the yards listed beside Murray's name on the stat sheet - and how much he can get paid for them.
You want some irony? Murray's success may carry the Cowboys into the playoffs this year, but may also carry him right out of Dallas to some other team willing to pay more than Dallas is.
Of course, we are only 25% of the way into the season, and the torrid start is no guarantee that the other 75% will go as well for Murray. But let's assume it does, and he gets something close to the 2,136 yards he would reach if he continued at the same pace. Murray is already being mentioned in MVP discussions, and frankly, it is deserved. The running game has made a tremendous positive impact on the Cowboys' performance for all but the first 30 minutes of football the team played this year. This is the last year of Murray's rookie contract, with him only earning $755,469. He is going to want to cash in.
As for the Cowboys, they would like to keep him around. Stephen Jones said as much.
"We're always open to extending good football players and guys who are leaders, and DeMarco is the type of person you want on this football team," Jones said. "He's a smart guy, he's tough, he represents the team well. He's obviously playing at a high level right now. You like to keep good football players, and he's one of those guys."
But just because the team wants to, it doesn't mean it can. There are other demands on Dallas' salary cap. Dez Bryant still needs an extension. Henry Melton is off to a great start, and if the team wants to keep him, they will have to pay him $9 million next season. Rolando McClain is making a great argument for the team to try to come up with enough money to keep him around (imagine lining McClain, Sean Lee, and the new and improved version of Bruce Carter up in 2015. Who cares who goes where?) All of those players are going to put pressure on the Cowboys financially.
And according to most, running back is the easiest position to replace with a rookie. For that matter, the Cowboys have two candidates to take over for Murray already on the payroll in Joseph Randle and Ryan Williams. While either is likely to be a dropoff from Murray, they are not expected to be a big enough dropoff that Dallas should overspend on Murray.
The team would like to keep him for a reasonable price. I have seen a figure of $3 million a year for three years bandied about. The problem is that it is almost certain that at least one NFL team with more cap space than analytic adeptness will be willing to go higher. Probably a good bit higher, like in the range of $5 million a year. Once upon a time, Jerry Jones would have found a way to keep a player he liked from getting taken away like that.
But that ended earlier this year. The team faced a very similar situation with Jason Hatcher. He is older, but he also plays a position that is harder to fill. Dallas faced a greater need for defensive linemen than it will for running backs after this season. And yet they did not try to match the money that Washington offered Hatcher, no matter how bare that left the rushmen cupboard.
Every 100 yard game that Murray racks up is going to make him harder to keep. Every touchdown he scores is going to make him more attractive to another team that would rather invest money in one running back than in five offensive linemen. Or perhaps a team with a strong line and a very good quarterback might feel that a back of Murray's capability is the one piece they have to have, and decide that they prefer someone with a proven record to a newbie out of college. Ironically, the only way Murray's price would be affordable would be if he missed significant playing time due to injury - which might be very bad for this season, unless Randle and Williams pick up the slack. And that would raise the question of whether you want to keep an often injured back.
Most Cowboys fans want Murray back next year, if he winds up with, say, at least 1,500 yards rushing or more and stays healthy. But it is, from a financial standpoint, not only unlikely, but almost certainly unwise. He will want to be paid, and he will richly deserve it. He is just going to have to cash in somewhere else.