A football team’s success or failure is always rooted in the sum of all its parts. Broadly, that’s not a unique concept in sports. Nor in the workplace. There has to be a sense of unity, because if Jeff from sales is the last one out of the door at night and doesn’t turn on the office dishwasher, the whole system crumbles.
Lately, however, it seems five parts are larger than the whole with the Dallas Cowboys. Or rather, the five massive humans who do the blocking and in 2014 opened up canyons for former Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray to glide through.
Of those five large and impressively nimble offensive linemen, three went to the Pro Bowl: left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and guard Zack Martin. They were the muscle during a season when Murray shattered his previous single-season rushing yards high (1,121 yards in 2013) and, for a time, also threatened the all-time single-season mark.
Instead, Murray settled for a league-leading 1,845 rushing yards, which still slots him at 17th on the all-time best rushing seasons standings. That’s above the most productive years from former Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith and Chargers legend LaDainian Tomlinson.
They both recently made the same observation about how Murray gained those yards and, more importantly, what he didn't gain.
Smith made that comment Monday during an interview on SportsRadio 1310 (via the Dallas Morning News). Don’t focus on the number he haphazardly tosses out, because it’s completely absurd. Had Murray run for 2,500 yards, he would have blasted Eric Dickerson’s single-season record (2,105 yards) into tiny pieces.
Instead, your focus should be on a common belief shared by Smith, Tomlinson and even Cowboys running back Joseph Randle, who will be Murray’s primary replacement after he left for the Philadelphia Eagles as a free agent.
It's a belief that any running back—Randle included—can be plugged in behind the Cowboys’ dominant offensive line and be successful. Maybe not quite on the same level as Murray, but a juggernaut rushing offense will keep churning out yards without a single misfire.
If Smith, Tomlinson and Randle himself are right—recall the latter's comment to the Dallas Morning News that Murray left meat on the bone (h/t ProFootballTalk)—then Murray’s 2014 season largely wasn’t a product of his own creation. He was a cog in a machine, and there was more than enough rushing yardage left untouched to compensate for any drop in talent coming with the shift to Randle and fellow running backs Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar.
But the Cowboys' running machine of 2014 was actually two parts that fit perfectly together, as one fed off the other. The offensive line cleared the forest of attacking defenders in front of Murray, and then the 27-year-old’s one-cut power-running style provided the ideal weapon to capitalize on that space.
Randle will see much of the same space. But matching Murray’s production—or even coming close to it—means developing high-level improvisational instincts, as well as the ability to both evade and overpower while forcing missed tackles to add extra yards at the end of runs.
Murray’s 2014 game film shows some of the chunk yardage left untouched that Tomlinson observed. But it also often shows a runner who first pounced on what he was given and turned it into more.
Predictably, finding examples of glorious, glistening daylight in front of Murray isn’t nearly as hard as getting into LeSean McCoy’s “private event celebration." Consider the generous cutback lane offered during a Week 2 win over the Tennessee Titans.
He jump cut, shuffled and was permitted the time to square his shoulders—getting into a powerful running position—before accelerating downfield.
Murray kept his legs churning and added a few more yards after contact at the end of a nine-yard run. But the heavy lifting was done by his offensive line.
Randle has averaged 4.8 yards per carry with limited opportunities over his first two NFL seasons. When he’s inevitably gifted similar cozy space to work with, the resulting lengthy gains will be the same. He has plenty of speed to take advantage of gaping holes, which he showed with his two 40-plus yard runs on only 51 carries in 2014.
But what could separate Randle from his former backfield teammate is an ability to add yardage and make long runs even longer.
Here’s another example, from the same game against Tennessee, of Murray enjoying the luxurious comfort of only daylight ahead right after taking a handoff. But watch how power and slipperiness led to his signature mark at the end.
On 1st-and-10 from his own 20-yard line, Murray sprinted left. Cowboys tight end Jason Witten firmly set the edge, quickly gaining leverage on Titans outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley and pushing him to the outside. That left tackle Tyron Smith free to pursue his assignment: getting deep into the second level and putting a massive body on linebacker Wesley Woodyard.
By the time all of that unfolded, Murray had received the handoff and taken one full stride while patiently waiting for his blocking to develop. Then, as he planted to turn on his thrusters and advance downfield, he was greeted by blissful sunshine.
Murray hadn’t even hit the line of scrimmage, yet there wasn’t an unblocked potential tackler within five yards of him going forward. Smith drove Woodyard back, and Murray had more than enough speed to eliminate any feeble backside pursuit.
But even that play, with its cavernous hole and manhandling at the second level, showed there was often a fine balance between what Murray capitalized on and what he created.
First, he was given a chance to make one cut and then blast off. Consistently presenting a power back with that sort of running environment frequently results in an official spotting the ball far downfield for the next play.
Murray executed a quick power move to zip through the wide hole. He wasn’t touched until 15 yards later, and when that threat came, the former Oklahoma Sooners standout demonstrated his open-field evasiveness. He planted again, forcing Titans safety Bernard Pollard to make a sound form tackle on air.
Then Murray spun and wrestled with tacklers while keeping his feet moving, trying to plow through. The result? A power runner powered ahead, adding seven more yards after contact.
The ideal tandem formed between Murray and his offensive line revealed itself further against a tougher run defense. The Titans were regularly gashed and allowed 137.2 rushing yards per game in 2014 (31st), while the Houston Texans—Dallas’ Week 5 opponent—gave up an average of 105.1 yards (10th).
In the second quarter against Houston, Murray almost found himself trapped three yards deep in his own backfield. After taking a handoff and running right, he was stalled by a flash of enemy color when Texans nose tackle Jerrell Powe poked his head into an emerging hole.
Usually, this isn’t the look of a successful running play. In the business of power football, stalled momentum is a poison pill.
But Murray wasn’t hesitating. No. He was instead reacting to what was given to him.
A cutback lane to the outside was available. Reaching it meant abruptly changing direction and winning a foot race to the far left edge against Texans linebacker Justin Tuggle.
That is when Murray created his own space. As the cutback crease continued to develop, he hit another gear and was able to eliminate Tuggle’s tackling angle. He wasn’t caught until nine yards later.
Randle’s quickness will also give him the chance to round corners. But he doesn’t quite have the entire package that Murray offers.
He doesn’t quite have the same blend of speed and power that can not only seize space but turn it into more. He doesn’t have the third-most single-season missed tackles created as a runner since 2011.
|Most missed tackles created as a runner since 2011|
|Running back||Year||Missed tackles|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
His missed tackles created as a runner in 2014 put him behind only Lynch, and his 2.54 yards after contact per attempt ranked eighth among running backs who took at least half of their team’s carries, all per Pro Football Focus.
Leaving yards on the field isn’t unique. Every running back does it. What separates the merely good ones from the others several tiers above is the ability to minimize those yards by manipulating tackling angles and clawing past lunging bodies. Also critical is navigating the balance between patience and aggressiveness and power and finesse.
Above all, pure instinct guides the best running backs toward capitalizing on the space generated by a premier offensive line and then creating even more. Murray has that instinct, and we’ll soon find out if Randle does too.