When DeMarco Murray left the Dallas Cowboys to join the Philadelphia Eagles for the big bucks and the privilege of basking in the glow of Chip Kelly's coaching, he left a gaping hole in the offense. He accounted for 78.4% of the total rushing yards from 2014, and 77.2% of the carries. As everyone is well aware, the team felt the situation was not right any of the times they went on the clock in the draft to take a running back. They have elected so far to roll with the running backs they have. Although they also are bringing some UDFAs into the OTAs, the expectation is that the ground game will rely on some or all of the backs they had before the draft, Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden, Ryan Williams, and Lance Dunbar.
This approach has been met with varying degrees of doubt and outright disdain. Several of the myriad premature draft grades that were awarded by writers marked the Cowboys down primarily for passing on running backs through the draft. Michael Irvin, who is one of the all time greats on the field but not so much in analyzing rosters and coaching, flat out maintains that a running back by committee will not work, and the team needs another solution.
He is not alone, although others certainly disagree. At this point, the Cowboys probably need to at least see what they have during the OTAs and mandatory minicamp before they make any decisions.
But all the thoughts of fans, writers, and analysts are meaningless. The only opinions that count are those inside Valley Ranch. And if you want to know the thinking there, it is always useful to pay attention to what Jerry Jones says. Jones has a unique and often circuitous way of expressing himself, but if you have been paying attention to him over time, you will realize that he really does not lie. He may divert and digress at times, but when he makes a statement, it is a generally accurate reflection of the thinking of the top staff of the Cowboys.
During a rather animated Twitter discussion of the current stable of backs on the Dallas roster (yes, I may have a problem with my dependence on the site for football info), my cyberfriend Mark Lane (a good follow @therealmarklane) sent me a collection of things Jerry had to say about the running backs during 2014. It provides some good insight if you are interested in the debate. All quotes are Mark's transcriptions of interviews on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas.
10/4/14 on G-Bag Nation
On Limiting Murray's Carries: "The threat probably to DeMarco's stats is ... Frankly, and I don't want to leave [Lance] Dunbar out of this equation either. If we can, we need to have Dunbar with a few more touches. But make no mistake about it: Joseph Randle can be effective out there too. Should we, and we probably should, have at least Randle get a few more snaps. I think he got seven the other day, and could probably push that up if you're going to have as many as run plays. You could probably double that and be pretty smart about how you're exposing Murray."
Even early in the season, the team felt that it had other options in the running game, but Murray was on an historic roll. Sticking with what is working is certainly a valid approach, and this was during the six game winning streak. Riding Murray hard turned out to be a recipe for success. But the team did not think that this was the only way they could go. It was just the one that was working, and there was no real reason to change.
11/21/14 on G-Bag Nation
Were the Cowboys Ever Looking at LaGarrette Blount and Ben Tate Since Murray Gets Hurt?
Jerry -- "Well, we've got one that if he carried that ball 20 times a game, I think he would have outstanding numbers in the 100-yards-up area, and that is Joseph Randle. We're really proud of his progress, what he's doing when he's got the ball. He's been impressive. He's been impressive away from the ball. And then we can't seem, for anybody's satisfaction, mainly Linehan or Jason or anybody involved, we can't seem to get the ball in [Lance] Dunbar's hands enough. So, when you look at that, and then we've got a back on our practice squad, [Ryan] Williams, that absolutely is ready to go if called upon. So, we're in pretty good shape at running back."
This was a vote of confidence for both the backups to Murray, as well as a clear indication that the team felt that they had a potent but underutilized resource in Dunbar. This was the unavoidable side effect of using Murray as the bellcow. It was a successful strategy, but it also minimized the contributions of the other backs. Now, having gotten as much as they could have out of Murray, they have what they believe are good (and very lightly used) options to make up for his loss.
From the same interview on 11/21/14
Would You Feel Okay with Randle Pass Blocking for Romo?
Jerry -- "Absolutely. Absolutely. Unequivocal. He's ready to go. He's really made a lot of improvement. And I know it's unfortunate for everybody, not for him, but for everybody that he had the incident that he had. And it's embarrassing and it's not good. But on the other hand, one of the things that being a competitor, being in sports allows you to do, if you're contrite and you want to do it, it allows you to basically rehab a bad mistake better than the average guy. Most of us, we get out here, and if you make those mistakes, it's real hard to spend the time and have the visibility that it takes to correct that mistake in the eyes of your peers or in the eyes of the fans. Football players have an advantage if they want to take advantage of it, and they can get back into good graces."
One of the most over-emphasized things about Murray's game was his pass blocking, which arguably was less than outstanding. As Jones noted, that facet of Randle's game was seen to have improved in 2014. He also changed the emphasis of the answer to focusing on the off field issues for Randle, and how the team is willing to move forward with him if he cleans up his act. At this late stage of the season, the team had a good idea of how they planned to approach Murray's free agency, and what the likely outcome could be. So they already knew that they might be depending on Randle in 2015.
12/5/14 on G-Bag Nation
DO YOU LIKE THE WAY DEMARCO MURRAY PLAYED [against the Bears]? - Well, I thought we were with him running the ball the way we did, I thought we were aggressive as well. And, especially in that crazy fourth quarter. I liked the way we not only relied on his runs, but the way the runs developed for him and for us. But still, there's no question he really - when you run the ball the way he's running it and with that - that opens it up and everybody's hearing that ‘til they're tired of it. I'll tell you what: that Joseph Randle made a run down there on that goal-line that was about the prettiest thing I've ever seen. ... I think if Joseph would've been in there a lot last night, you would have had some good production from him.
Again, a vote of confidence for Randle. One that Jones went out of his way to make.
12/23/14 on Shan & R.J.
DO YOU FEEL THE OFFENSIVE LINE IS SO GOOD THAT YOU COULD PUT DARN NEAR ANY RUNNING BACK IN THE COWBOYS BACK FIELD? - Well, I think there's some truth in that, but you want to pull up just a little bit. DeMarco [Murray] has size, he has power, and certainly our line has given him some opportunity. But he has made a lot of his yardage on his own. These haven't been totally clear sailing for the first five yards. I was talking to Grant Teaff, the great ex-Baylor coach, and he was describing his view of Murray's running. And he kind of gets in, gets behind his blockers, then he feels, sees that soft spot and then he just turns and uses that weight and power and gets those yards. It can bust off and make seven, eight more. It can be three. But it's all north-south for the most part. He said he's very unique. So it's very easy to underestimate just what impact he's having. On the other hand, Joseph Randle, you saw him make two or three runs out there. He graded out great on his protections of [Tony] Romo. But Randle is an inordinate runner. He's quick-footed. He's got some real good instincts on finding the hole. So having said all that, I think it's somewhere in between what you're talking about. I don't think we should diminish anyway Murray's impact with his unique talent. But I think we ought to give credit that we've got some other backs that could do pretty good with this offensive line.
Yeah, we have fun with the way Jerry talks, but that is about as balanced and level-headed an answer to the whole "anyone can run behind the Dallas O-line" as you are likely to see. Murray was exceptional last year, but the team thinks Randle brings a somewhat different but still very effective skill set to the field.
Through all these statements, which cover most of the season, Jerry Jones was expressing his faith in the backup running backs, especially Joseph Randle. Although this may be a bit of trying to make the best of a coming bad situation, it also may be a very real foundation for the approach the team is taking to the running back situation this season. There is rampant speculation about the Cowboys trying to trade for a veteran back, but if you look at what Jones said, then it seems highly unlikely that anything will happen until after the mandatory minicamp. At that point, the team may want to re-evaluate. But hopefully the faith shown so far in the current backs will have been validated, and no one will really miss that DeMarcus Murphy fellow.