What DeMarco Murray did in 2014 was nothing short of remarkable.
He became the first player in NFL history to top 100 rushing yards in each of his first eight games and looked like a legitimate threat to set a new single-season record for rushing yards. Though he fell short of the latter record, he beat out several worthy candidates to win the AP Offensive Player of the Year award. Most importantly to Murray’s place in Cowboys lore, he led Dallas to an NFC East crown and the franchise’s second playoff win since 1996.
It was refreshing to see Murray break out during an era defined by air-it-out offenses in which running backs are replaceable commodities. And it was great to see him rewarded with a six-year, $42 million deal last week that grants him the 10th-most guaranteed money of any free agent this off-season.
So it hurts to say this next bit: There’s a good chance Murray won’t match the numbers he put up last season. And that’s not his fault. The odds—and history—simply aren’t in his favor after his massive workload in 2014.
First, there’s no irrefutable statistical evidence to declare Murray was a better player last year. Murray has always been quite good on a per-carry basis. His 4.71 yards per carry average in 2014 actually ranks third among his four NFL seasons. He just finally got the touches he deserved after a couple years spent sharing carries with Felix Jones.
Of course, the Cowboys didn’t just give Murray his fair share of carries in 2014. They asked him to run the ball 392 times, which tied for the seventh-most single-season carries in NFL history.
So is Murray a lock to sputter with the rival Eagles this upcoming season after his monster workload?
To examine further, we used sports research engine PointAfter to visualize the seven backs who toted the ball in one season as often as Murray did in 2014 (not counting Ricky Williams, who took a year off after his 392-carry season in 2003), then plotted their statistics the following year on a scatter plot.
Note: You can identify each player by hovering over each point, and see more details from that season by clicking on the corresponding dot.
The results aren’t encouraging. Only three came close to matching their previous workload, and none of that trio averaged more than 3.9 yards per carry.
Gerald Riggs had the best follow-up season, carrying 343 times for 1,327 yards and nine touchdowns for the 1986 Falcons, but his production looks worse on a per-carry basis (3.9 yards). The 1985 Buccaneers squeezed 365 more carries out of James Wilder for 1,300 yards (3.6 yards per carry) and 10 touchdowns before he promptly began a prolonged decline.
Every other high-volume back, from Eddie George in 2001 (poor performance) to Jamal Anderson and Terrell Davis (knee injuries) in 1999, failed to replicate the same gaudy stats in the following season. Most failed to reach those heights ever again.
To include a larger sample size, we lowered the threshold of minimum carries to 375. Here, the results are slightly sunnier for overworked backs.
Note: The color of a player’s dot signals whether their average carry was significantly above the mean (green), average (yellow) or significantly below-average (red).
Of the 22 running backs who racked up 375 carries in one season, exactly half rushed for 1,000 yards the following season. Only five (Eric Dickerson three times, Walter Payton and Jamal Lewis) did so while running for at least 4.0 yards per carry.
The other 11 tailbacks failed to live up to lofty expectations in the year following their workhorse seasons. Eight players suffered leg injuries at some point, including three ACL tears (Edgerrin James, Davis, Anderson). The others either saw major downturns in production (George), took a year off (Williams) or lost most of the season due to the 1987 players’ strike (Dickerson).
The clear outliers here are Dickerson’s absurd 2,105 yards on 379 attempts in 1984—which followed Dickerson’s 390-carry, 1,808-yard rookie year—and Payton’s 324 rush attempts and 1,551 yards for the legendary 1985 Bears, following a 381-carry, 1,684-yard season in ’84.
Dickerson and Payton are two of the most durable superstar tailbacks in NFL history. In the 10 seasons the two Hall of Famers combined to play before they turned 26, they missed a total of three games.
Murray has already missed 11 games in his first four seasons and probably should have sat out a few more at the tail end of last year, when he broke his left (non-carrying) hand and played anyway. He also missed a handful of games in college at Oklahoma, though he avoided any major injuries.
Murray gets banged up a lot, and given the ominous medical history of running backs who were overworked as much as he was last year, things don’t exactly bode well for his future, or for the five-year, $40 million contract the Eagles gave him.
Can Murray replicate his 2014? Sure, but doing so might be even more remarkable than what he did last season.
More from Will Laws:
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