Cowboys: Contributions, contracts and the cap – running backs

IRVING, Texas — The numbers stack up in favor of DeMarco Murray.

He is coming off his finest season, having finished 10th in the NFL in rushing with 1,124 yards, having lead the league in yards-per-carry (among full-time backs) at 5.2 per, and having himself invited to the Pro Bowl (as an alternate) who made an impact in Hawaii.

All the numbers stack up except one: How to pay him in the future.

Murray is a "difference-maker” but not a star, and in a salary-cap league, there is a vast difference. And at the position of running back, where "good-enough” players can produce great things, overpaying is not en vogue.

The Murray difference: In his first three seasons, when he’s been unavailable due to injury, the Cowboys’ record is 5-6. When he is available and they feed him the ball (20 carries or more in a game) the Cowboys are 11-0.

Now, that is a chicken-or-the-egg stat; maybe Murray gets 20 carries because the Cowboys are ahead and they are just playing ball-control. But the number is nevertheless in his favor.

And still, Murray’s status as a former third-round pick proves the thesis here: As good as he is, this level of "good” is relatively easy to find. … and to find affordably.

Murray is entering the final year of a deal that pays him an average of about $750,000 annually. This season he’ll make $1.55 million – still a relative bargain.

And then the Cowboys will be faced with a decision that should not be difficult.

As they approach 2015, they should not re-sign DeMarco Murray.

This is not an indictment of his skills. Nor is it a full endorsement of the talents of rookie Joseph Randle, last year’s fifth-round pick. But Randle makes $495,000 this year and $585,000 in 2015.

 In terms of philosophy, a team can win at running back with a player

1)Still playing on his rookie contract and therefore making $700,000 or so.

Or

2)A "star” who gets a new deal like, say, Matt Forte’s 2012 contract with Chicago which pays him about $7 million or so.

You are trying to beat the opponent. But you are also trying to beat the cap. Can you do the former without paying DeMarco Murray $7 million? Can you do the former by relying on Randle (or somebody like him) with help from Lance Dunbar (being paid $570,000 with some scatback skills that could allow new playcaller Scott Linehan to employ him as Linehan did Detroit’s Reggie Bush)?

Dallas has one more philosophical issue in the backfield, but this isn’t about beating the coming camp of $127.6 million. Late in the year, the Cowboys – who’d previously pledged to be a tight-end-heavy offense using a single back – signed street free-agent Tyler Clutts, an old-school fullback. It appears they signed him to a two-year deal so he’s under contract in Dallas in 2014 at $645,000.

The Cowboys have some 2014 work to do on offensive philosophy in regard to how they employ their running backs. And then in 2015, they have some work to do on who they employ at running back.