Will DeMarco Murray Overcome the 'Curse of 370'?

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystFebruary 13, 2015

USA Today

As Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray readies to hit free agency, the 27-year-old is the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year. He was the league's leading rusher, with a franchise-record 1,845 yards on the ground in 2014.

He had more rushing yards than more than half the NFL teams had.

However, Murray is also a man living under the yoke of a dark and mysterious curse, one that threatens his fat new contract and NFL future.

And if history is any indication at all, Murray has next to no chance of escaping the bony clutches of the "Curse of 370."

As any fantasy football enthusiast will tell you (in hushed whispers), an ancient scroll portends that any running back who carries the ball more than 370 times in a season will be attacked by Imhotep and devoured by flesh-eating scarab beetles.

Wait a second, that isn't right.

Actually, the "Curse of 370" was first coined by Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders over a decade ago. Schatz was examining whether Ricky Williams could rebound from a disappointing 2003 after carrying the ball more than 380 times in both 2002 and 2003.

After crunching the numbers for running backs who topped 370 carries, Schatz had this to say: "These backs basically fall into three categories: guys who got injured the next year, guys who were never as good again, and guys who are Eric Dickerson."

Please note, for the record, that DeMarco Murray's name is not Eric Dickerson.

In fact, after glancing at the numbers, flesh-eating bugs might not be the biggest of Murray's problems.

Murray's 392 carries in 2014 marked the 29th time in NFL history that a running back has carried the ball more than 370 times in a season. In nearly all of the other cases, the following season did not go so well.

370-Carry Running Backs
PlayerYearCarriesYardsNext YearGM NYDrop %
L. Johnson20064161789559868.8
J. Anderson19984101846591496.8
J. Wilder198440715441300015.8
E. Dickerson198640418211288429.3
E. George20004031509939037.8
G. Riggs198539717191327022.8
R. Williams200339213720Ret.N/A
T. Davis199839220082111289.5
D. Murray20143921845?????????
B. Foster19923901690711757.9
E. Dickerson1983390180821050(+) 16.4
E. Dickerson198838816591311121.0
E. James200038717096621061.3
J. Lewis200338720661006451.3
R. Williams200238318531372026.0
W. Payton19843811684155107.9
M. Allen19853801759759356.9
E. Dickerson198437921051234241.4
G. Rogers198137816745351068.0
E. Smith199537717731204132.1
M. Turner20083761699781554.0
J. Bettis199737516651185128.8
J. Riggins19833751347123928.0
E. Campbell198037319341376028.9
E. Smith199237317131486013.3
L. Tomlinson20023721683164502.3
C. Martin20043711697735456.7
C. Okoye19893701480805245.6
S. Alexander20053701880896652.3
GM NY = Games Missed Next Year

All of once (Dickerson in 1984) has a running back come back from a 370-plus-carry season to gain more yardage the following year. Dickerson also showed by far the most ability of any ball-carrier in NFL history to "bounce back" from a big workload, furthering the belief that he is, in fact, a robot.

Lennox McLendon/Associated Press

And even Dickerson began to decline after carrying the ball 388 times for the Indianapolis Colts in 1988.

Of the backs who gained fewer rushing yards the next season, only five saw that yardage decrease by less than 20 percent. Three of those players (Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith and John Riggins, who was out of the NFL two years after his 375-carry 1983 season) are already in the Hall of Fame. LaDainian Tomlinson (who was 23 when he racked up 372 carries in 2002) will likely join them one day.

So we have six of 28 instances where a running back either topped the big year or suffered what could be called a "modest" decline.

Meanwhile, 12 of 28 times (including Ricky Williams' retirement in 2004) running backs who carried the ball more than 370 yards in a season saw their production drop by half or more the following year. Nineteen missed time the following season. Five missed at least half the following campaign, and that's without including Williams' year away playing Xbox and eating Pop-Tarts.

The average drop-off over those 28 follow-up seasons (not counting Williams)? A staggering 39.2 percent.

It's also a list littered with players who were effectively ruined by the workload they saw that fateful year. After his NFL-record 416 carries in 2006, Larry Johnson never topped 1,000 yards on the ground again. Terrell Davis played in only 17 more NFL games (over three injury-plagued seasons) after his 2,000-yard season in 1998.

That's but two names on a long and miserable list.

Bump the benchmark to 390 carries, and the list gets shorter, but the misery doesn't lessen even a little.

Gary Davenport/Bleacher Report

Of the 10 backs in NFL history to carry the ball more than 390 times in a year, only Dickerson (the only player to carry the ball that many times more than once) and James Wilder saw their rushing production the next year go up or decrease only slightly.

As to Wilder, he muscled his way to over 1,500 yards on more than 400 carries in 1984 and hit 1,300 yards the following season. However, after 1985 Wilder never again hit the 1,000-yard mark, and even in those "big years," Wilder didn't average four yards a carry for some truly awful Tampa Bay teams.

Schatz revisited his hypothesis in 2007, this time examining players who went over 390 combined touches (carries and catches) in a season—including the playoffs.

I won't slam you with any more data, but the conclusion Schatz arrived at there was the same. The vast majority of players who touch the ball over 390 times in a season see their productivity fall off significantly the following season. More often than not, those players are never the same again.

Except robot Eric Dickerson.

It's a huge concern with Murray, both in 2015 and moving forward. Granted, Murray is at least on the right side of the "Age 28" cliff (a story for another day, but the cliffs-notes version is after running backs turn 28, they decline), but Murray has also already had problems staying healthy in the NFL.

It's no wonder that pundits, such as Andrew Brandt of Sports Illustrated, believe Murray will be disappointed in the market he encounters for his services in free agency.

In predicting that Murray will return to the Cowboys "on a team friendly contract" in 2015, Brandt wrote:

As I have often noted, Murray’s strong production may have actually hurt his contract value, with teams more focused on future rather than past performance. Indeed, free-agent running backs with fewer carries may actually procure better contracts. As for the Cowboys, they have clearly prioritized Dez Bryant ahead of Murray all along.

Frankly, where Murray's individual success is concerned, that would probably be for the best. For starters, the Cowboys have assembled a fantastic young offensive line, a line that deserves its fair share of the credit for Murray's big 2014.

Also, the history of 370-carry backs changing teams isn't good. Of the backs who carried the ball that many times in a season only to eventually join another team, only Edgerrin James and Robo-Dickerson topped 1,000 yards in a season for their new team.

And neither was ever the same back on the second team as the first.

In many respects, this all isn't fair to Murray.

It isn't fair that he's likely going to be forced to sign a team friendly, relatively short-term deal after breaking Emmitt Smith's Cowboys record for rushing yards in a season.

Smith, for what it's worth, topped 370 carries twice and is probably the runner-up to Dickerson so far as the back who best held up to the "Curse of 370." Smith was also one of the toughest, most durable grinders to ever play running back, and even he never topped 390 carries in a regular season (as Murray just did).

It certainly isn't fair to Murray that his "reward" for carrying the Cowboys to their first NFC East crown since 2009 is that relatively modest deal and an 1,122-yard season (his 2014 numbers slashed by that 39.2 percent drop).

But, the reality is the running back position has become devalued in today's NFL, and the Cowboys (and every other team in the NFL) have access to the same data we do.

And when it comes to running backs and huge workloads, the data doesn't bode well for Murray's chances in 2015.

Unless, of course, he's a robot.

 

Gary Davenport is an NFL Analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPManor.