Rookie Murray's emergence has transformed Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys have pulled off quite a midseason transformation.
No longer are they a team that will only go as far as Tony Romo throws. No longer are they trying to pull out victories late in the fourth quarter.
Dallas has turned into a balanced club that can break games open early, then stay in control, all because of the emergence of a single player: rookie running back DeMarco Murray.
Since an injury to starter Felix Jones forced Murray to take on a bigger role, the third-round pick from Oklahoma has averaged 150 yards per game and the mere threat of him getting the ball has defenses jumping. Dallas has gone 3-1 in that span, moving within a game of first place in the NFC East.
''I definitely think I get too much credit,'' said Murray, who's been as humble as he's been effective.
Murray's breakout began with a franchise-record 253 yards against St. Louis. He's proven that he was no fluke by gaining 74 yards on just eight carries against Philadelphia, then racking up 139 yards against Seattle and 135 yards this past Sunday against Buffalo.
Consider this: he has three 100-yard games in the past month, while predecessor Jones has two in his 41-game career. NFL rushing king Emmitt Smith also had three 100-yard games as a rookie, but that was over 16 games; he never had two in a row.
And this: Murray's 601 yards rushing over a four-game span is 51 yards better than Smith ever had over a similar stretch. His outburst has lifted Dallas from near the bottom of the NFL in rushing to ninth-best. He's up to No. 11 in the league despite having had only 14 carries the first four games.
''He is and should be inspirational,'' Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. ''I haven't seen enough of DeMarco. I'd like to see five more years - at least.''
The Cowboys are 5-4 and play teams with losing records in each of their next three games, giving them a chance to keep this roll going.
Each of their three Murray-infused victories has gotten more impressive. The topper came Sunday with a 44-7 rout of the Buffalo Bills, a team that came in 5-3 and tied for the lead in the AFC East.
Dallas jumped ahead 21-0 and was hardly challenged. Romo set a franchise record by hitting 88.5 percent of his passes, the defense went from solid early to turnover-gobblers late and kicker Dan Bailey made three field goals. So why does Murray get the credit? Because each of those can be traced back to the running game.
Romo is no longer facing a secondary stacked to stop him. Now teams are committing the usual front seven to stopping the run and often adding an eighth man close to the line of scrimmage.
For a quarterback, it's like the difference between driving on an empty country road and a downtown highway during rush hour. Receivers benefit, too, because there's more room for them to roam.
''When (Murray) is bringing the safety down in the box because he is running the ball so well, it opens it up for us on the outside,'' said receiver Laurent Robinson, who found enough space to catch two touchdown passes Sunday.
Murray makes it work by finding creases regardless of how many guys are chasing him. He's turning plays that look doomed into short gains and getting first downs out of plays that look like short gains. His season average of 6.7 yards per carry practically laps the field among featured running backs. The next closest is Buffalo's Fred Jackson, who is at 5.6.
''When you can run the ball to eight-man fronts, it puts a dent in the defense,'' tight end Jason Witten said. ''And then when you have the weapons we have on the outside, and at quarterback, it puts a smile on your face. His expectations have not been a good run here and a good run there. His expectations and his standard have been high. That's good to see, because a lot of rookies aren't that way.''
Offensive linemen love run-blocking, and having success at it sends their confidence soaring. It's no coincidence that this unit, considered a liability early, has just gone back-to-back games without allowing a single sack.
''You see him every week: powerful runner, his vision is outstanding, he can stop on a dime,'' left guard Montrae Holland said. ''You saw it at the end of the first half when he reversed field. They had overplayed it. He turned back, reversed it and picked up (25) yards. That's a great back. I don't think we did anything there to help him out.''
The defense loves a ground game because that keeps the clock running and helps them rest more on the sideline. The more they rest, the more effective they can be.
That clearly happened Sunday, especially with Dallas up 28-7 at halftime and using Murray to grind out the clock in the second half. Cowboys fans remember a similar halftime lead that was squandered against Detroit earlier this season because Dallas didn't run enough to protect it.
This time, Murray got those second-half drives close enough to ask Bailey to finish them off. He did each time, giving the special teams a piece of the credit.
As Dallas looks ahead to playing at Washington on Sunday, there's a chance Jones' high-ankle sprain has healed enough to allow him to start practicing.
He might even be active Sunday. He certainly won't be the featured back. But he might make a nice complement to Murray. Being a part-time player could actually bring out his best. He had that role early in his career and in college, when he split time with Darren McFadden at Arkansas.
''We just want to get him back into action,'' coach Jason Garrett said Monday. ''He's been a really good football player for us the past few years. A dynamic player both in the run game and the pass games. We just want to get him some touches.''