Despite the fact Murray led the league in rushing by a 484-yard margin last season, the Dallas Cowboys let the 27-year-old become a free agent. And within 48 hours, Murray had crossed enemy lines to sign a five-year, $40 million contract with the NFC East rival Philadelphia Eagles.
This Sunday, the All-Pro back will play his first regular-season home game as a member of the Eagles. And sure enough, Philadelphia's opponent will be the Cowboys.
To gain a strong grip on just what Murray, the Eagles, the Cowboys and their respective fans might be in for, Bleacher Report spoke to two dozen current and former players about what it feels like to face your ex-team.
Here's what they told us.
Of all the cliches in professional sports, few ring as hollow as when a player attempts to convince the media and fans that a matchup against his former team is "just like any other game." The reality for most of these guys is that it's not just another game, but is instead a completely unique and exceptional experience.
Just ask defensive tackle Barry Cofield, who admits he was "extremely emotional" when going up against his former team, the New York Giants, in his first game with the Washington Redskins.
"Realistically, it's not like any other game, especially when you first play that former team," said Cofield, who spent the first five years of his career with the Giants before jumping to the division-rival Redskins in 2011. "I had a smile on my face the whole time and it was certainly far more than just another game."
Or defensive end Chris Canty, who, like Cofield, signed elsewhere within the NFC East as a free agent and thus took on his original team, the Dallas Cowboys, twice a year during a four-year stint with the Giants.
"You like to say that it's just a typical game just to avoid any type of media blowback," said Canty, now with the Baltimore Ravens, "but ultimately you know in your heart of hearts it's not."
Or linebacker James Farrior, who started his career with the New York Jets in 1997, jumped to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2002 and wound up facing the Jets six times over the next 10 years.
"I don't know if players really want to admit it, but when you go against your former team, it's a different feeling," said Farrior, who retired in 2012. "You always want to play your best game, and I definitely wanted to play my best game. My preparation was the same, but it was definitely on my mind more than any other type of game."
Looking for a more recent case? Ask Minnesota Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who was thrilled to beat his original team, the Carolina Panthers, during his initial season with Minnesota in 2014.
"It definitely was a real different feeling to play against those guys last year and to get the win," said Munnerlyn, who admits he monitored the Panthers closely last season in hopes of playing them again in 2015. "I came out trying to treat it like a normal game, but at the same time I really wanted to get the win. I was there for five years and things didn't work out like I wanted them to."
Like Cofield, Indianapolis Colts safety Mike Adams' first game with his new team came against his previous team when he returned to Denver to face the Broncos only seven months after playing for them in Super Bowl XLVIII. And like Munnerlyn, Adams admits he "took a peek" at the schedule when deciding to sign with his current team last June.
"I definitely wanted to win that game," Adams said. "I saw we opened up with them and was like, 'Wow.'"
Unfortunately for Adams, his new team lost to his old one, 31-24. But he had the last laugh when the Colts beat the Broncos in the playoffs four months later.
In most cases—and the majority of those cited above—players leave on relatively civil terms, and the nature of the business means that revenge isn't necessarily the right word to describe the drive players tend to feel when playing their former teams.
But sometimes, it's the only word that applies.
Take defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, who admits he was "mad at everybody" when he left the Jacksonville Jaguars to sign with the Denver Broncos in 2013.
"Some guys leave the team with bitter feelings, some leave with good feelings," said Knighton, who also admits he considered that Jacksonville was on Denver's 2013 schedule when deciding to sign there that spring. "But for me it was personal. I was in Jacksonville for four years, they drafted me there and most guys want to stay on one team their whole career. That's definitely something I wanted to do."
Knighton has seen departures with more grace, which is why he felt differently about his and his team's 2013 victory over the Jags than he did about teammate Peyton Manning's return to Indianapolis the very next week, noting that Manning had "a different farewell" in Indy.
"Most guys when they sign with other teams, they want to play against their [former] team and kind of get revenge for not re-signing [them] or telling them they're gonna go a separate way," added Knighton, who now plays for the Redskins. "Sometimes there's a lot of things that go into it, like they'll replace you with someone you don't think is as good as you, or sometimes they're ready to move on. But the week of preparation definitely goes up when you're going against a former team, and the other guys in the room definitely have your back extra that week because they know how much it means to you."
It's also personal for Giants offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz, who, despite having spent seven NFL seasons on four different rosters, has yet to play a former team in a regular-season or playoff game. But that'll change this year, with the Giants slated to take on the Carolina Panthers (who drafted Schwartz in 2008) and the Minnesota Vikings (who employed him in 2012) in back-to-back weeks this December.
A couple of years ago, Schwartz made a list on his phone of football people who have told him—one way or another—that he wasn't good enough. He says that list gives him extra motivation, and he admits there are members of both the Panthers and Vikings who are listed.
"I'm very aware," Schwartz said of the fact those opponents await him in 2015. "Carolina has the same head coach and same position coach, and Minnesota has the same GM from when I was there, so that does give me a little motivation. You never want anyone to tell you that you're not good enough to play for them, and I know when those games will be."
It's still just football
Of course, there are some who are almost immune to the effects of facing their former teams, or at least those who won't admit—even when removed from media scrums and the lead-up to the games in question—that it's any different. But based on the conversations we had with more than two dozen players, those stubborn and/or thick-skinned athletes are in the minority.
"I've been playing this game for so long that it really didn't bother me," defensive end Jason Hatcher said of his first game against the Dallas Cowboys after signing with the division rival Redskins in 2014. "At the end of the day it's football—I forgot I was even in Cowboys Stadium at one point."
New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson (who has faced former teams the Cleveland Browns and the New England Patriots) and San Diego Chargers offensive lineman King Dunlap (who played his former team, the Eagles, in 2013) expressed similar sentiments, although they still made concessions, with Watson admitting "there's a little more anxiety" and that "you definitely want to win," and Dunlap stating he was "a little more amped up" than usual.
A common thread, though, even among most of those who admit to feeling something special or possessing a desire for vengeance, is that most players say they pull a Hatcher when the ball is kicked off, forgetting about all of the hoopla.
"Once I got on the field and the whistle blew it was just like any other game," Chargers cornerback Brandon Flowers said of his first matchup with his former team, the Kansas City Chiefs, last season. "Games like that you tend to try and do too much, and that’s when you have your worst game. I just go out there and relax, and once the whistle blows it’s just like facing any other team."
Yes, the candid Munnerlyn admits he was anxious for the first few plays against Carolina last season, but once he got a hit in he "calmed down and was locked in."
"Once the football starts," added Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon, who played his former team, Indianapolis, in 2014, "it's just another ballgame."
"When the ball is snapped," Adams said in a similar vein, "it's time to compete." But what about the hours and days that lead up to that? Players might feel different, but do they act different? In other words, do routines change?
Adams notes that it's not unusual for guys to get together with former teammates the night prior to the game, while Munnerlyn went so far as to visit the Panthers' hotel in Minneapolis on the eve of his matchup with Carolina.
"I just sat down and talked to those guys and I let them know it's gonna be cold because I know some of those guys don't like cold weather," joked Munnerlyn, who was invited to the hotel by former teammates and mentors Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. "So we talked a little bit about the game, but other than that we just sat down and talked about life."
Munnerlyn added that he would never visit an opposing team's hotel under ordinary circumstances, and that his Sunday routine remained the same.
Punter Shane Lechler, who spent 13 years with the Oakland Raiders and returned to Oakland with his new team, the Houston Texans, last season, didn't change a thing, right down to his regular Saturday good-luck phone call to former teammate—and his enemy that Sunday—Sebastian Janikowski.
"I've done this stuff for so long, I stick to my exact same routine," Lechler said. "I didn't go out of my way to have dinner or anything like that, it was just a normal Saturday and Sunday for me."
Others, including Farrior and Knighton, note that they wouldn't even visit with former teammates while on the field prior to the game.
"I definitely kept my distance," Knighton said. "I went out and warmed up and I didn't speak to anybody."
And while Schwartz, like Murray, has yet to experience his "revenge game," he doesn't anticipate any changes to his approach when he prepares to play Carolina and Minnesota in Weeks 15 and 16.
"I don't think I'm going to put any more prep into playing those weeks," he said. "I consider myself a professional and I prep the same way every week. I do think that winning that game might mean more to me personally, but also I think it's just a matter of proving that they were wrong."
Proving them wrong—a common theme at this point—is what a lot of this boils down to, regardless of whether that feeling comes from deep-seated frustration or lighthearted rivalries with former teammates.
"Just playing against the guys you spent years with, the guys you practiced against and have these relationships with—it's almost like playing against your brother or your friend in the backyard," Cofield said. "And when you're playing against your brother or friend you want to beat them worse than you beat anybody. But once the game's over you still love each other."
Linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, who faced two former teams during his NFL career, expressed a similar sentiment about beating former teammates.
"We practiced together for years, and we're super competitive," said Wimbley, who retired earlier this offseason after a nine-year career with the Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans. "So to be able to beat your buddy that knows you and you know them, it feels extra special to, in my opinion, prove that you're better than they are."
As did Canty: "A lot of those guys were not only teammates but friends, so it's like playing against your little brother in the backyard. You want to get the best of him, so you kind of have a little extra oomph going into those games."
And don't underestimate the importance of holding a trash-talk trump card.
Munnerlyn, who still has a home in Charlotte, says his victory over the Panthers gave him "bragging rights for a whole year," adding that Kuechly and Davis weren't happy to field his calls after the victory.
"After I got dressed and got in my car and I knew they were heading back to the airport, I called a couple of those guys and they were like, 'What do you want? We don't want to talk to you right now,'" he said. "They knew I was gonna brag a little bit and rub it in their face, and I told them when I come back to Charlotte in the offseason they're going to hear from me all year. And every time they'd say, 'Well, we made the playoffs.' But they went 7-8-1 so I told those guys if we were in their division it would be a different look."
Added Baltimore Ravens running back Justin Forsett, who has faced four different former teams on nine separate occasions, winning three times: "It feels good anytime you get a W, but when you get a W against a former team it's even better. Because usually you still have those relationships with those guys, some of those old teammates. And in the offseason you can talk a little trash, so that's always nice."
Sending a message
While for some it feels like a sibling rivalry and is tantamount to boys being boys, for others it feels like a chance to show up estranged parents.
In other words, it's about getting back at the organization. That's why Farrior was quick to point out that any negative emotions involved with playing your former team have nothing to do with the players themselves.
"There's no hard feelings towards the players that you played with," he said. "It's a business decision, an upper-level move. The players have nothing to do with it and it's out of their control. So you don't want to put the blame on them."
Added Canty: "It's more about going at the organization rather than going at the teammates that you used to play with."
And for Wimbley, who was traded by the Browns but was released by the Raiders for financial reasons, it was understandably circumstance-based.
"It always feels good to win, but it feels even better if you can prove the organization that doubted you wrong," the former linebacker said. "I don't think that the coaches or anyone for the Raiders doubted my ability—they wanted me to come back there. I was traded from Cleveland so that was a little bit different, but you don't know who makes those calls. But ultimately somebody felt that you weren't good enough to stay there, so with that it felt really good to beat the Browns."
Meanwhile, for Lechler, it sounds as though it was about sending a message to Raiders head coach Dennis Allen, whom he says he "didn't have a good ending" with.
"I wanted to go out and give my best performance that I could, just to kind of let them know that I still had it," Lechler said. "Me and [owner Mark Davis] left on good terms, I respect him and his family for what they did for me and my family. But the way things kind of ended there with the head coach that was there at the time, that kind of rubbed me the wrong way. So I did want to go out and have a good game."
Player-coach for a week
The debate surrounding whether players can offer meaningful inside information to coaches and teammates regarding their former teams has at the very least been smoldering for years. But Cofield insists that if the time frame is tight and the variables haven't shifted greatly, the X's and O's factor can be quite valuable in games like these.
"The first year, especially in the same division, you're almost like a player-coach—your teammates are going to pick your brain on what you remember about your ex-teammates and their schemes," said Cofield, who notes his Washington teammates would do the same thing with fellow defensive linemen Hatcher and Stephen Bowen regarding Cowboys tendencies. "There's so much turnover on NFL rosters that you can't avoid it. Almost every week there's going to be somebody who knows that team."
Cornerback Carlos Rogers, who left the Redskins before Cofield, Bowen and Hatcher arrived, says he was asked by his new team, the San Francisco 49ers, to share the very same inside information in order to give San Francisco an edge when the teams met in 2011.
"The first week we played Washington, I had coaches asking me about some of the things those guys did on defense," Rogers said. "But even offensively, too, as a DB I was telling those guys about how some of those guys play."
Added Canty: "It goes beyond the X's and O's standpoint. You can start talking about the particulars, the nuances—everything from different techniques to the culture of the locker room to really get a feel for a team and find out ways you can attack that team. So certainly when I was a member of the Giants I spent a lot of time speaking with the offensive coordinator and those guys, trying to give some insight into who and what the Cowboys were when we were playing against them."
Cofield feels that's a big reason so many players jump around within the same division. Not only are front offices more familiar with free agents whom they've faced twice a year, but they might also value the added intel those players can bring to the game-planning process six times per season.
It's fair to wonder if that was a factor when Eagles head coach Chip Kelly signed Murray, because we know for certain it's a reason why Chargers offensive lineman Orlando Franklin stayed in the AFC West when jumping from the Broncos to San Diego this past offseason.
"I am familiar with San Diego, that’s why I signed with San Diego," Franklin said. "I’m familiar [with] going to play against the Raiders, playing at Qualcomm and playing against Kansas City. Now I’ll just be entering a different locker room."
But as Franklin points out, that familiarity can work both ways.
"Unfortunately, a lot of [Broncos coaches and players] know my game, so I’m not looking forward to that," he said. "It’s definitely going to be a tough battle, playing against guys that I’ve played against for the last four years."
|Notable NFL reunions|
|Player||New team||Old team||Result|
|Jared Allen||Vikings||Chiefs||2 sacks in loss|
|Marcus Allen||Chiefs||Raiders||1 TD in win|
|Drew Bledsoe||Bills||Patriots||302 yards in loss|
|Cris Carter||Vikings||Eagles||2 TD in loss|
|Brett Favre||Vikings||Packers||3 TD in win|
|Tony Gonzalez||Falcons||Chiefs||5 catches in win|
|Peyton Manning||Broncos||Colts||3 TD in loss|
|Donovan McNabb||Redskins||Eagles||8 for 19 in win|
|Joe Montana||Chiefs||49ers||2 TD in win|
|Deion Sanders||49ers||Falcons||Pick-six in win|
|Emmitt Smith||Cardinals||Cowboys||1 yard in loss|
|Steve Smith||Ravens||Panthers||139 yards, 2 TD in win|
|Terrell Owens||Eagles||49ers||143 yards, 2 TD in win|
|Terrell Owens||Cowboys||Eagles||3 catches in loss|
|Darrelle Revis||Bucs||Jets||1 tackle in loss|
|Jerry Rice||Raiders||49ers||6 catches in loss|
|Ricky Watters||Eagles||49ers||42 yards in loss|
|Ricky Watters||Seahawks||Eagles||67 yards in win|
|Reggie White||Packers||Eagles||1 sack in loss|
|Pro Football Reference|
And there are still a lot of folks who feel familiarity isn't as advantageous as some players and coaches might like to believe.
"I think a lot of that's overblown," said Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, who spent the first four years of his career with the Chicago Bears and has lost two of three games against Chicago since signing with Carolina in 2011. "I think at this level there's not a lot of secrets or special things that people aren't aware of. There's definitely a little inside info and tendencies that you can help with, but I think for the most part it's a pretty level playing field throughout the league."
Returning home is a different animal
One thing these players pretty much unanimously agree on is that Sunday's game won't be Murray's only big reunion with the Cowboys. In fact, the consensus is that the 27-year-old reigning rushing champion won't feel the full impact of battling his former comrades until he returns to Arlington, Texas, in Week 9.
|Notably strong final seasons before leaving town|
|Jared Allen||Chiefs||2007||All-Pro, 15.5 sacks|
|Tony Gonzalez||Chiefs||2008||All-Pro, 1058 yards, 10 TD|
|Albert Haynesworth||Titans||2008||All-Pro, 8.5 sacks|
|Brandon Marshall||Broncos||2009||101 catches, 1120 yards, 10 TD|
|DeMarco Murray||Cowboys||2014||Offensive Player of the Year|
|Terrell Owens||49ers||2003||1102 yards, 9 TD|
|Julius Peppers||Panthers||2009||10.5 sacks|
|Deion Sanders||Falcons||1993||All-Pro, 7 picks|
|Deion Sanders||49ers||1994||All-Pro, 6 picks, 3 touchdowns|
|Reggie White||Eagles||1992||14 sacks|
|Rod Woodson||Steelers||1996||6 picks, 2 touchdowns|
|Pro Football Reference|
Playing against your former team feels weird, but playing against your former team in your former home presents a whole new level of potentially haunting, emotionally jarring and unusual challenges.
"It does feel weird when you're in a place that used to be your home stadium and now you're in the visitors' locker room," Wimbley said. "It's a different type of feeling. You're in a place you used to get support, and now they want you to lose. You want to be that guy who people look at and they're like, 'Who is that guy? Oh, that's No. 95, we'd love to have him here, we should have never gotten rid of him.'"
That desire to make a point in an intensely familiar yet strangely hostile environment undoubtedly adds an element to the matchup. It's not just a reunion, it's a homecoming, and that raises the nostalgia level.
You might be surprised at what gets to these guys.
For Buccaneers-turned-Ravens center Jeremy Zuttah, it was the plane landing in Tampa, as well as the fact the Ravens stayed in a hotel that the Bucs used for training camp during his time there. For Eagles-turned-Colts defensive back Colt Anderson, who admitted returning home is "a little more special," it was seeing the equipment staff and trainers. For Cofield, who said "it definitely can become nostalgic," it was running into game-day employees like locker room attendants and security personnel. For Lechler, it was the chain gang and those who worked the sidelines at O.co Coliseum. For Watson, it was a for-old-times'-sake high-five with Gillette Stadium's famous "End Zone Militia."
"It's a hard feeling to describe because you became used to doing things a certain way when you were at that stadium eight times a year for several years," Olsen said. "You got accustomed to seeing certain faces and people, and all of a sudden you're on the flip side and fans are cheering against you and you're wearing a different jersey. So it's a very unique experience."
That obviously means the losses are extra painful, but it also means the wins are extra enjoyable. So if you're seeking some revenge like Knighton, you want that trip home.
"When we played the Jaguars, I kind of wish we went to Florida and played them at their house, because it would have been more intense and more personal," the veteran defensive tackle said. "It would have been an added bonus to play against your old team, and since we won that game it would have been a lot better winning in Jacksonville and kind of rubbing it in and leaving the stadium with a little smirk on your face."
The fans don't typically pose a problem
It might also surprise you that none of the players B/R spoke with about the dynamic of playing their former teams had particularly bad experiences with fans of said teams.
"I never get any of that," Forsett said. "My time in Seattle I had a really good relationship with the fans and I still get a lot of support from them. Even today I get way more positive tweets from my former teams' fans than anything negative."
Now, Forsett spent most of his time in those cities as a backup, and Seattle, Houston and Jacksonville all either released him or chose not to re-sign him. It would be hard for any rational fan to call him a traitor, and backups usually get a lot of love, even after leaving.
But wide receiver Andre Roberts, who left the Arizona Cardinals to sign a shiny new contract in Washington, has no complaints about the way he was treated when he returned to Glendale last season.
"I actually still have some good fans out in Arizona," he said. "I think nowadays fans understand that it's a business and sometimes players have to go elsewhere. I think the Arizona fans understood that when I left."
Same with Cofield, who left the Giants to sign a blockbuster deal with the Redskins.
"I would honestly say I ran into more Giants fans that said they were fans of mine when I left than I did people that held ill will," he said. "I'm a defensive tackle and I do a lot of grunt work, and a lot of people said they appreciate that and they liked the way I played the game. It wasn't all hugs and kisses, but most of them appreciate you."
And even those who did take some heat feel it was within reason and completely understand why they were being jeered.
"They got on me a little bit, they called me a bust," Farrior said. "But stuff like that doesn't bother me at all and it's just a part of the game. That's the way fans get involved with the game."
Hell, being a former Raider, Lechler would have been disappointed if he hadn't heard some boos.
"I was welcomed with a lot of cheers," the veteran punter said. "Of course there were some boos, but I would have kind of lost a little respect for Raiders fans if they didn't boo me a little bit. That's the way they roll."
And Canty believes the fans are smart enough to know why players leave town.
"You hear things from the fans, but ultimately the fans have to understand that most players don't want to leave," the defensive lineman said. "The teams pretty much show the player the door one way or the other. In most circumstances it's the team that's getting rid of the player, not the player choosing to leave the team."
Statute of limitations
The perpetual roster turnover that Cofield spoke of might mean we have a lot of revenge games in which players can battle nostalgia, make statements and give inside tips to their new teams, but it's also a big reason why the novelty will likely wear off for Murray rather quickly.
In fact, there's a decent chance the "Murray vs. his former team" headlines will have become obsolete by the time 2016 arrives.
"A few years down the road, rosters turn over so much that it's not the same," Cofield said. "And if the coaching staff changes it's never the same."
Adams can attest. He didn't return to Cleveland until three years after leaving the Browns and to San Francisco until five years after leaving the 49ers, and at those points entirely new regimes were in place.
"The closest thing was Denver because we were fresh off the Super Bowl going back to play those guys," he said, "and I knew every last one of them."
Circumstances robbed Adams of unique reunions in Cleveland and San Francisco, but everyone who did experience that initial shock from playing their former team early said it got old fast.
Farrior noted that after his initial return to the Meadowlands in 2003, "it was like going back to any other stadium," while Olsen said that "as the years go on it kind of loses its significance."
"It doesn't really mean a ton to me anymore," Olsen added. "It's a whole different regime, it's a whole different team. So it's just another game."
So if you're reveling in the revenge storylines pitting Murray against the Cowboys this week and again in early November, soak it all in. Next year, we'll all be over it.
Advice for DeMarco
What type of advice would these veterans and former players offer a teammate if he were in a situation similar to the one DeMarco Murray finds himself in this week?
James Farrior: Don't bury your feelings
"That's what everybody's gonna tell you, but deep inside you're going to feel a certain type of way. You can't avoid feeling that way. The best advice I can give is just don't get caught up in the emotion of what happened when you left or how the situation ended. Just focus on your job, focus on the team you're on and try to do everything in your power to play your best—because you definitely want to play your best."
Andre Roberts: Show them something
"Just go hard and show them why you are somewhere else and why they should have kept you."
Barry Cofield: Enjoy yourself in order to send a message
"Just have fun. He's gonna want to run for 300 yards against his old team. He's gonna want to remind his old team that they could have signed him to a contract. I think a lot of guys wonder why you even find yourself in free agency. You wonder why they didn't re-sign you when they had the exclusive rights to do so."
Chris Canty: Do your job
"It's gonna be an emotional game. It's something that's unavoidable so you have to focus on doing your job to the best of your ability and help your team win. I know it sounds cliche, but that's really what you have to focus on."
Greg Olsen: Don't overthink
"Just try not to make it more than it is. Don't go out there and feel like you need to have the best game of your life and try to be Superman. Don't think about having to prove everybody wrong or make a statement. Don't worry about all that. Just go out and do what your team asks you to do and try to help your team win the game."
Carlos Rogers: Maintain perspective
"You have to stay in your same routine and know that it's still a game. It's not you personally against your former team. It's your team against that team."
Shane Lechler: Don't get wrapped up
"My only advice is try to handle your emotions and try to stick to your routine as much as possible. It's not going to be 100 percent your exact routine just because of your emotions and the added adrenaline you're going to have, but I think if you stick to your routine as much as possible and try to approach it just as another game then you'll do fine. It's just when you get wrapped up in all the other stuff it's gonna throw you off."
Benjamin Watson: Ignore the hype
"Don't get drawn into the hype. Follow your same protocols that you do leading up to games and channel that extra energy into your performance. Once you start playing, all of the other stuff just kind of fades away and you're just playing football."
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.