DeMarco Murray had a year that can only be called stellar. All-Pro, the leading rusher in the NFL, and the keystone of the entire strategy for the Dallas Cowboys. He allowed the team to control the ball, gash defenses, and protect the defense by keeping them off the field by chewing up the clock. Now he is an unrestricted free agent, and Dallas has to decide whether to re-sign him or not.
There is no doubt that he is a valuable player, but in the salary cap environment of the NFL, a team cannot afford all that it wants. The arguments on both sides of the question have to be considered.
In compiling the news links for yesterday for the morning recap of Cowboys and related news, I came across an interesting thing. Todd Archer, arguably the best of all the Cowboys beat writers working for ESPN, wrote two pieces that nicely summed up both positions on Murray. Did one of them make the best case?
His first take was a look at how the running game may be more valuable than is realized. The popular image of the NFL is that passing is supreme. Running the ball is more or less a subordinate function that serves mainly to keep opposing defenses from putting all their effort into rushing the passer and covering the receivers. But Archer notes that both the conference champions used a very effective running game to advance to the Super Bowl.
In Sundays' NFC Championship Game, Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch changed the tenor of the game in the second half and finished with 157 yards on 25 carries and gave his team a late lead in the fourth quarter with a rushing touchdown.
LeGarrette Blount had 30 carries for 148 yards and three touchdowns in the New England Patriots win against the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game.
Given the way the Patriots completely shredded the Colts defense, Blount's performance did fit more the complementary role, helping control the clock and keeping some of the pressure off Tom Brady. But Lynch was much more crucial in a game where Russell Wilson was not in any way effective until the final minutes and overtime (in which he suddenly became unstoppable).
Murray was clearly a force to be reckoned with in 2014. The problem is that past performance is no guarantee of future results. History shows that running backs who have a workload of the magnitude Murray carried almost inevitably see significant dropoff the following year. This makes paying him a lot of money to stay a bad risk. However, other teams in the league do not have the luxury of being owned by the NFL Executive of the Year. It is highly likely, almost a certainty, that some teams with more cap space than discretion will seek to hire Murray away from the Cowboys. His price is going to be bid up.
But the counterargument is that there is no assurance that the Cowboys can replace Murray. Neither Joseph Randle or Ryan Williams, the resources currently on the roster, is a proven commodity either as a bell cow running back or to use more of a committee approach. And although the recent evidence is that there is a very good chance of finding an effective replacement through the draft, that is also not a surety even in a year with a lot of good backs coming out of college. Trying to replace Murray through free agency is even more dicey and just as fraught with problems of cost versus benefit.
The issue is not whether the Cowboys would prefer to keep Murray, because they certainly do. It is whether they should pay the price required.
And that is where the second article of Archer's meshes into the discussion. He looks at how the Cowboys, faced with the high cost of trying to keep their best pass rusher from 2013, DeMarcus Ware, elected to release him. The Denver Broncos ponied up a three-year, $30 million deal with $20 million guaranteed. That was far more than Jerry Jones and his brain trust was prepared to spend. Instead, they went with a lower cost approach. It was a somewhat risky approach, but it turned out to be the right one.
They signed Jeremy Mincey to a two-year deal. They kept Anthony Spencer on a one-year deal. Combined with George Selvie, they combined to count $3.771 million against the cap and combined for 9.5 sacks.
So it was basically the same production at nearly $6 million in savings. In theory, the Cowboys were able to allocate dollars elsewhere, like locking up Tyron Smith to a long-term deal.
And there you have a nearly perfect blueprint for how to handle Murray. Unless the free agent market for running backs totally and unexpectedly collapses (no matter whether it should or not based on recent trends), someone is going to come up with something similar, although not as high, of course. But it would be very likely that Murray could command $7 to $8 million a year, with something like a $12 to $15 million guarantee on a three- or four-year deal. All it will take is a couple of teams that think they are a stud running back away from the big show.
The second article effectively counters the first, probably unintentionally. The Cowboys got into the playoffs using a coherent and consistent approach. New contracts for Jason Garrett, Scott Linehan, and Rod Marinelli clearly signal that they are not changing that. Dallas may really like Murray, but unless he is willing to stay for a discount (highly unlikely, not to mention unwise from his viewpoint), it still looks like he will not be wearing the Star in 2015.