Every NFL team has them. The gamble who can either lead your team to greatness or sink it to Cleveland. The wild-card who wows us one moment with fantastic play and leaves us cursing the next because of bone-headedness or injury. This is not a list of the best or most important players on the Cowboys. No, these players are the X-factors. If they play well Dallas will be in great shape. If not, well at least we're not Philadelphia. To celebrate these boom or bust players I'll be counting down the top five who can make or break the Cowboys season. We'll start with number five and a new player will be revealed each day.
#5 DeMarco Murray
The Good: When DeMarco Murray is on, there are few backs who can match him. He has the strength to bowl over defenders, the speed to take it to the the house from anywhere, and the flair to make you say wow at least once per game. He is the total package. If the Cowboys offense were a car, DeMarco Murray would be fifth gear. The car could still operate without him, but he's what gives it the oomph.
Need proof? In the past two years there has only been five games where Dallas won by more than seven points. Five. In 2012 we beat the Eagles 38-23. DeMarco Murray didn't play in that game, but really neither did our offense. Three of the five touchdowns we scored came on defense and special teams. Last year we won four games by double digits. Two of those games Murray missed with injury; the infamous Dwayne Harris game against the Redskins where Harris dominated the game on special teams, and a 17-3 game the next week against Philadelphia where our defense collected three picks. The other two games were we won big were games Murray took over; Week 3 vs. St. Louis and Week 8 when he scored three TD's versus the Raiders.
The takeaway here? Over the past two years we have not dominated a game without a standout day from our special teams, defense, or DeMarco Murray.
Still not convinced? Let's look at some advanced stats then. Football Outsiders ranked Murray 3rd last year in DYAR, which is a measure of total value added to the team, and 1st in DVOA, which is a measure of value per play. PFF graded him as their 9th best back, and 6th best when just rushing was considered.
The Bad: In a word, injuries. In his NFL career Murray has yet to play a full season without missing time with injuries. In his three year career he has only played in 37 out of 48 games, and he's missed time in a number of other games due to injury. When he's on the field Murray is one of the top running backs in the game. The question is, can the Cowboys trust him to stay on the field in 2014?
The Verdict: Make. While I think a prolonged injury absence would cripple the Cowboys offensively, I also think that this is the year he goes a full season without injury. Last year was Murray's best year, not just in stats, but also injury wise. My guess is, he improves on both in 2014. Couple that with Scott Linehan using Murray more in the passing game, and I see Murray making a strong push for the Cowboys offensive MVP.
Honorable Mention - Doug Free: I went back and forth quite a bit between Free, (who is the poster-child for make or break players), and Murray. Ultimately I went with Murray because, while Free has more probability to have wild swings in performance, I think the Cowboys can weather his ups and downs easier than they could Murray.