DeMarco Murray is not a bad running back.
That statement would have been pointing out the obvious this time last season, but right now it evokes skepticism. Murray is enduring an awful season because he doesn't fit the scheme the Philadelphia Eagles are trying to run.
With the Dallas Cowboys last season, Murray ran for 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns on 392 carries. With the Philadelphia Eagles this year, he hasn't come close to that.
Before his most recent display against the Buffalo Bills, Murray reportedly met with Eagles owner Jeff Lurie to discuss his role in the team. Murray bypassed Chip Kelly and went straight to the top. At that point, Murray had accumulated 569 yards and four touchdowns on 163 carries in 11 games.
Murray's gripes were likely about how the Eagles were using him as much as how often they were using him. According to NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport, the meeting didn't have the desired effect:
His meeting with the owner ultimately didn't force Chip Kelly to use Murray more or alter how he used him. However, it also didn't relegate the running back as much as some speculated it would. Instead, Kelly continued to use his backs in the same fashion he had all season.
Murray continued to produce at the same rate also, finishing with 11 carries for just 34 yards in the Eagles' 23-20 victory.
It would be easy to use simple logic and suggest that Murray's success in 2014 was a result of the Cowboys offensive line, the NFL's best run-blocking unit last season. Joseph Randle, a former teammate, suggested Murray left yards on the field in an interview in the Dallas Morning News (via Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk).
“He had a good year last year, and I got to sit back and watch a lot, and I felt like there was a lot of meat left on the bone," he said.
Murray's previous production aided Randle's suggestion. He had struggled to stay healthy throughout his career, topping 1,000 yards rushing just once in three seasons. While it was true that offensive line helped Murray, he created a lot of yards for the Cowboys too.
The then-26-year-old running back consistently made good decisions and made defenders miss as he was primarily running behind a zone-blocking line while taking the ball from his quarterback who lined up under center. Murray rarely ran from shotgun because the offense was predicated on running the ball well.
In Philadelphia this season, Murray was supposed to be an ideal fit in Kelly's scheme.
Then Kelly changed it. An offense that had previously built its foundation on running the ball between the tackles became more pass-happy than ever while running more plays that sent the running back sideways instead of between the tackles.
Murray is built to work between the tackles. He is an aggressive, powerful player with the awareness and intelligence to pick his way through bodies. Though he's a fast, fluid athlete, he isn't built like LeSean McCoy, Darren Sproles or Ryan Mathews.
Those backs are built to work on outside runs because they accelerate more easily than Murray. They can take the ball sideways before planting their foot to cut upfield quickly.
That is why both Sproles and Matthews have outproduced Murray this season. Murray is averaging 3.5 yards per attempt, while Matthews is averaging 5.3 yards with one more touchdown on almost 100 fewer carries. Sproles is averaging 4.0 yards per attempt while leading the backs in receptions.
In the 2015 Eagles offense, Mathews and Sproles have been more effective than Murray because of how they fit in the offense, not because they are necessarily better backs. The idea of labeling Mathews and Sproles as good plays with Murray being bad is archaic.
Players have skill sets that need to be worked to. Murray's skill set isn't worked to in the offense the Eagles have been using this season. He doesn't have opportunities to create yards or make defenders miss because he isn't given the ball at speed moving forward.
The Eagles have consistently asked him to take the ball from shotgun and a standing start while being directed laterally. Part of the reason the Eagles have done this is because of their poor guard play, but the opposite of what they want has occurred.
It doesn't help Murray, and it doesn't help the Eagles.
Murray could make his guards look better with his movement before the line of scrimmage if the Eagles set plays up for him in space. Instead, he typically has to wait for his guards to execute their blocks on slow-developing sweep plays where he is left helpless behind the line of scrimmage if the blocking fails.
This play comes from the Week 13 matchup with the New England Patriots:
The Eagles won this game, but Murray carried the ball just eight times for 24 yards. He had a long run of 19 yards and another that gained seven yards, but this negative run and many other one- and two-yard runs that looked like it destroyed his average per carry.
Murray lined up next to Sam Bradford in the shotgun. He had six blockers in front of him with six defenders in the box.
Bradford hands the ball off to Murray moving left, but this isn't a read for the quarterback. We know that because there is no backside defender left unblocked. The Eagles are attempting to execute one-on-one blocks, while Murray moves laterally toward the left sideline.
Even at this early stage of the play, you can see that center Jason Kelce has been beaten in his assignment.
Kelce was a key block for this play's success because it was designed to go directly behind his back. Murray's running lane is immediately closed off because Kelce has been knocked off balance. The running back hasn't even taken the ball from Bradford yet.
This kind of penetration hasn't been unusual against the Eagles this season. It completely traps the running back. Because Murray is directed sideways from the beginning of the play, it's essentially impossible for him to reverse field and cut back away from the defender.
Instead, his only option is to accelerate in the direction he is already going to try to escape around the edge.
That's a major challenge here, though, because the left tackle and left guard are forcing their defenders in that direction. The play was designed to go further infield, so these blocks would be clearing out space for Murray if the blocking on the interior had held up.
Murray was swallowed for a six-yard loss. He had nowhere to go. Whenever you are going to criticize an individual player for the result of a play, you have to suggest what he should have done instead. Outside of teleporting through the defensive tackle, there was nothing Murray could do.
Even if Mathews or Sproles were in on this play, the difference would likely be turning a minus-six-yard loss into a minus-three- or minus-four-yard loss.
The Eagles are made worse by Murray's presence in their offense because he is taking touches away from Sproles and Mathews. Despite his inability to execute his assignments consistently, the coaching staff continues to give him the ball. That is likely because of his hefty contract.
What hurts the Eagles most is the number of negative runs that come with Murray.
In 2014, 73 of Murray's 392 attempts(18.6 percent) in the regular season gained zero or fewer yards. In 2015 so far, 39 of Murray's 174 attempts(22.4 percent) have gained zero or fewer yards. Not only is Murray running for negative yards more often, but his runs are also losing more yards on average, minus-1.23 to minus-1.77.
Those numbers are a direct reflection of the scheme Murray is playing in and the quality of the blocking he is running behind. If the Eagles are going to insist on playing this scheme with this caliber of offensive line play, there is no reason to think Murray's production will improve.
That doesn't make Murray a bad back. It makes him a bad fit with this team.
Ironically, LeSean McCoy would be a much-better fit for this version of Kelly's offense than the player who replaced him. Murray would also be offering much greater value to the Cowboys, who believed they didn't need to pay him in the offseason because of their offensive line.
Murray's departure from Philadelphia won't happen immediately. If the trade deadline hadn't passed already they would likely consider getting rid of him that way, but releasing him during the year isn't realistic.
In the offseason, the Eagles can find ways to move on from Murray in ways that will be more beneficial to the franchise as a whole. Jason Fitzgerald, of Over the Cap, detailed how in this article.
The financial cost of moving on from Murray wouldn't be huge, but it would be significant. The Eagles should still consider it because there is little on-field value in keeping him.
At 28 years old, Murray would still have plenty to offer another team next season. He would need to find a scheme that would feed him the ball in similar ways to how the Cowboys did in 2014. Not so coincidentally, there is one team who can do precisely that.
The Cowboys haven't found a viable replacement for Murray. Joseph Randle was supposed to be that guy, but his off-field issues and play on the field saw him released. Christine Michael was brought in, but he too couldn't make enough of an impression.
Darren McFadden has carried most of the load this season, but he lacks the explosiveness and consistency of a top back. Murray would be put in positions to run between the tackles more often while taking the ball on the move if he found his way back to the Cowboys.
There are a few other teams in the league who would love to add Murray to their offense: the Baltimore Ravens, Arizona Cardinals and New England Patriots amongst others could get the most out of him. Yet, it's a team he is completely familiar with who would make the best fit.