Dallas Cowboys' fans won't likely forget the day Emmitt Smith was released. It was exactly four months after a 33-year-old Smith became the NFL's all-time leading rusher, and the team hasn't had a true star at running back since.
After shocking the football world in his rookie season, DeMarco Murray has a real chance to change that. The 24-year-old University of Oklahoma product, who wasn't selected until Round 3 of the 2011 draft, broke Smith's single-game team rushing record before he had a single start under his belt.
Now the team's undisputed No. 1 back, Murray has to find a way to become a game-changing featured back and avoid a force that, the odds say, is likely to send him down the path recently traveled by pretenders or wannabes such as Troy Hambrick, Julius Jones, Marion Barber and Felix Jones.
It's impossible to predict the career path of any pro athlete, but NFL running backs might top the totem pole of unpredictability. Anyone who says they know a back is going to be a star or a bust is rolling dice.
Whether or not there's really such a thing as a franchise back nowadays, Cowboys will no doubt continue to hope and pray for modern-day clones of Aikmans and Irvins and Smiths from the last golden era.
Based pretty much entirely on what is probably an unfair sample from his maiden NFL season, Murray is now carrying an Emmitt-sized weight on his shoulders to become such a clone.
And sure, he has the ingredients—size, strength, straight-line speed, pass-blocking prowess, above-average receiving skills—to become one of the league's best backs, but do you know how many players have failed despite possessing the same traits?
How does Murray avoid becoming another Julius Jones, who had more than 800 yards despite starting only seven games as a Dallas rookie in 2004 before falling off a cliff in '05? Murray's road has already hit a fork that will soon see him going the Emmitt route or the Julius route.
And unfortunately, Murray's destination is largely beyond his control. There are three major factors at play here, and only one is solely Murray's responsibility. It's a big one, though.
Factor No. 1: He has to keep performing at an elite level despite the fact defenses will be prepared for him going forward.
Murray has the tools to do that. He obviously won't put up November 2011-type numbers throughout his career, but he's got the speed and skill set to accumulate big plays and churn out big gains for years to come.
The problem, again, is that many, many backs have that ability. And that's where we get to the two factors that are mainly or totally out of his 24-year-old hands.
Factor No. 2: He has to stay healthy.
That hasn't been the case throughout his college and pro career. Murray was plagued by injuries during his four-year run at Oklahoma and broke his ankle as a rookie last season. Doubt regarding whether he can take the pounding required of backs at the pro level was the primary reason Murray was passed on 70 times in the 2011 draft.
Smith missed a total of seven games during his 13-year Cowboys career, and one thing all Hall of Fame backs have in common is that they were able to stay on the field more than their peers.
Murray's running style isn't friendly with health and prosperity, but there isn't much he can do about that now. He could bulk up, but size isn't that large an issue and he'd risk losing some of his exceptional speed. For the most part, this is in God's hands.
Factor No. 3: The rest of the offense has to support him.
Not to take too much away from Smith's accomplishments, but this the primary reason why he's the league's all-time leading rusher. It's hard to dispute the notion that the man benefited greatly from being part of a lights-out offense for a large portion of his career.
Right now, despite some shakiness in the interior of the offensive line, Murray should also profit from having a top-tier quarterback, two superb receivers and a superstar tight end. As long as defenses are forced to account for guys like Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten, Murray will have a plethora of big-play opportunities every Sunday.
What concerns me is that Murray's rookie season was somewhat of a microcosm of his time in Norman.
He also started his college career with a bang, tying Adrian Peterson's freshman record with 15 touchdowns in 2007 and averaging 5.8 yards per carry during his first two seasons. Then injuries took their toll and his production dipped. During his final two years at Oklahoma, he averaged just 4.2 yards per rush.
Will DeMarco Murray become the Cowboys' next star running back?
Last year, he had a team-record 253 rushing yards and a 91-yard touchdown in his first quasi-full game in relief of Felix Jones and totalled 662 yards from scrimmage in the five starts that followed. Yet he only averaged 3.4 yards per carry during his final four games and once again fell victim to an injury in December.
So there's really no reason to believe Murray will suddenly become an iron man or a workhorse. The window is open, but the odds are extremely good that he doesn't even approach the Emmitt Smith range.
And that's OK. It's 2012, and a featured back is not so much a requirement than a luxury.
Expectations for Murray are inflated by last year's jaw-dropping run, but he was never supposed to be a special player. That doesn't mean that in the next-best-case scenario he can't be a crucial piece of a Super Bowl puzzle.