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Position Series: Murray’s Backup Needs To Be Solved

Posted Jan 8, 2013

(Editor's Note: This is the second of a 12-part series analyzing every position on the Cowboys roster, providing a quick look back before addressing the needs of each spot on the field and how it can be improved heading into the 2013 season. Today we examine the running backs.)

Pressing Matters: DeMarco Murray entered the season as the obvious top back and further established that with his 2012 campaign, far surpassing the production of the rest of the group when he was healthy. The problem is he did that while missing almost half the year. Murray was injured for six games this season and his durability’s become a bit of an issue. Felix Jones, playing on two bad knees this year and not doing much when Murray went out, may not return next season. The pressing matter will be figuring out who will be the top back behind Murray next year. If the Cowboys don’t resign Jones, that answer could come in the draft or free agency. If not, they’ll have to hope Phillip Tanner or Lance Dunbar can make tremendous strides in the offseason to be able to accept the role of primary backup, playing behind a bruising running back who sacrifices his body throughout the season. That primary backup needs to be ready to handle a full workload.

2012 Evaluation: The running game was as poor as it’s ever been, and by far the poorest in Jason Garrett’s tenure as offensive coordinator and head coach in Dallas. Much of that can be pinned on a struggling offensive line and an abandonment of the running game while trailing every week. Their 355 rushing attempts tied for the team’s fewest in a 16-game season, equaling the number set in 1989. They finished 31st in the league in rushing with 1,265 yards, their fewest in a 16-game season. While a lot can be said for the lack of rushing attempts, they still averaged only 3.6 yards per carry, putting them 30th in the league in the category. DeMarco Murray bettered those numbers, finishing with 4.1 yards per carry, the same as Arian Foster, who finished sixth in the league in rushing. Still, the rushing attack was poor all around, and letting go of running backs coach Skip Peete was the first staff move of the offseason.  

Need More From … : As long as Murray stays on the field, he’s playing his part. The Cowboys need more from the backups. They need a player who’s capable of entering the game and getting 10 to 15 carries without needing to rely too heavily on Murray to the point he wears down. It’s rare these days in this league to find a backfield where the backup doesn’t get a fair share of carries every week. The rest of the Cowboys’ backs averaged 3.6 yards per carry or fewer, which won’t get it done.

Upgrades Needed: Murray missed three games his first season and six games this year. When he’s healthy, he’s the obvious best back, capable of turning losses into short gains on any carry. He doesn’t always need a hole to break open a run, which was especially useful given the state of the line this year. But the Cowboys don’t have a backup who’s demonstrated he can consistently do the same or similar. The Cowboys have a lot of needs in the draft this year, but maybe a young back who can spell Murray throughout the game would be worth looking at in the middle rounds. If not, whoever the new running backs coach will be might need to really turn Tanner or Dunbar into a more reliable back.

Position Analysis:

DeMarco Murray – Missing six games meant the rushing attack turned from mediocre to appalling. Murray’s best performance came in the opener, with 131 yards against the Giants, marking the only time he hit the 100-yard mark this season. He likely would have had his best game against the Ravens, amassing 93 yards before getting hurt.

Felix Jones – The free agent didn’t do much playing on two hurt knees to enter the offseason with any confidence he’ll be returning in a Cowboys uniform. As the primary rusher while Murray was out, Jones’ best game came in a 71-yard rushing performance against the Eagles. In two of his starts, he totaled fewer than 20 rushing yards.

Lance Dunbar – The preseason speedster earned a call up to the active roster to provide more depth at running back. At times, he had a tendency to try to do a little too much, which resulted in some negative carries. He finished with the same rushing average as Jones, at 3.6 per carry.

Phillip Tanner – Tanner carried the ball 25 times in a four-game stretch midway through the season, then contributed solely on special teams the rest of the way. He had nine carries against Baltimore after Murray got hurt, then contributed with 13 against the Panthers. But after rushing three more times without a yard to show, he finished the year with only 2.4 yards per carry.

Scout’s Take:

Bryan Broaddus on the Cowboys’ current RB situation:

It doesn’t take an NFL scout to see that when DeMarco Murray was not in the lineup, this offense was completely different in their attempt to run the ball. In a media session with offensive line coach Bill Callahan he even addressed Murray’s ability and how he made his line’s jobs easier but even taking that a step further, Murray made Tony Romo’s job easier. Without Murray in the lineup, this offense  .... (read more here)

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