The salary cap era in professional sports can be a bitch. And Cowboys fans found out just how much of one yesterday in the form of a double edged sword that not only took their star running back from them, but also planted him firmly in the backfield of their biggest and most hated division rival, the Philadelphia Eagles.
DeMarco Murray, who rushed for more yards (1,845) last year than any Cowboy back ever in a single season – more than Hill, more than Dorsett, more than Smith – and led the NFL in rushing as well along the way, will now be wearing silver and white wings on his helmet instead of the famous blue star. ESPN reports the deal is 5 years for $42 million, with $21 million guaranteed, a price the Cowboys obviously weren’t willing to come close to for the 27 year-old back (Ed Werder is reporting this morning that the Cowboys top offer was $6 million per year with only $12 million guaranteed).
Murray accounted for a whopping 36.8 % of Dallas’ total offensive yards in 2014 and 13 TDs, and the team made the playoffs for the first time since 2009, in large part because of Murray’s production and ability to stay on the field. There is no doubt the Cowboys would have loved to have kept Murray in the fold, but the money difference was just too great. So now the big question now for Jerry Jones is who’s going to replace those type of numbers for the Boys?
Murray’s back-up Joseph Randle proved to be effective in limited carries last year (51 carries for 343 yards), but his small stature rule him out as an every down workhorse back. Toss into the mix his shoplifting tendencies and potential legal issues from an alleged domestic dispute, and the confidence meter has to be teetering on the former OK State Cowboy. Free agent running backs still on the market include C.J. Spiller, Reggie Bush, Darren McFadden, Ahmad Bradshaw and Trent Richardson. Some nice names but nothing to really get Cowboys Nation’s collective blood pumping (although I fear the oft-injured McFadden’s Razorback pedigree may have the same effect on Jerry as Viagra).
The draft on the other hand is deep this year in running backs, with the consensus top two prospects being Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Georgia’s Todd Gurley. Picking 27th in the first round the Cowboys should be able to grab one of those two without having to move up to do so. Both are big backs like Murray, Gordon standing 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds with a 4.53 forty time, and Gurley listed at 6-foot-1 and 222 pounds, but comes with a bit of a risk. He’s an exceptional athlete with explosive speed, but is coming off a torn ACL in his left knee. If the Cowboys aren’t comfortable drafting a back in the first round, there should still be quality available for them in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, although not at the level of Gordon and Gurley.
The hot rumor of course is that Adrian Peterson will somehow find his way back to his home state of Texas and the silver and blue. Peterson however is still under contract for three more years with the Vikings, starting at $12.75 million for 2015. When you factor in his pro-rated signing and workout bonuses, Minnesota is on the books for cap hits of $15.4 million for 2015, $15 million in 2016 and $17 million in 2017, huge numbers for a running back, even the best in the business. It’s extremely doubtful the Cowboys would trade for Peterson and acquire those numbers no matter how much Jerry is enamored with him, so unless Peterson would be willing to renegotiate his contract to a much lower number (which the NFLPA would not be thrilled with), he won’t be toting the rock at AT&T Stadium this year unless it’s from the visitor’s sideline.
But let’s not forget another option that is still out there, that Peterson tries to force the Vikings to outright release him, making make him a free agent. But to do so, once again, he’d have to be willing to give up tens of millions of dollars just to play in a different city, something I have a hard time believing he (or his agent) would do. But ya never know. For their part the Vikings insist they want him back in the fold, which isn’t a shock when you consider he’s the most prolific talent to have ever played for the Vikings. But when you look at those types of contract numbers for a back that will turn 30 in just 8 days, it’s something Minnesota’s front office has to at least be looking at internally (especially if Peterson starts missing scheduled team workouts).
I’ve thought for the last few years that if Murray would have been able to stay healthy the Cowboys would have been much better then the .500 team they were. But there in lies one of the reasons I think Jerry and his Valley Ranch brain trust were smart to let him walk for the numbers Philly threw at him – he gets injured. This year was the aberration for Murray, not the norm as far as his health. Although he did play in every game this year and at an extremely high level, he still suffered a broken hand in week 14, and in his first three years in the league he missed 11 games total due to injury.
After touching the ball as many times as Murray did last season I also wouldn’t bet the farm on him repeating those historic numbers he posted. Murray ran the ball 392 times last year and touched the ball 449 times, staggering numbers that NFL history shows are tough to repeat, as backs that carry that much of the load in a season tend to have their numbers drop off significantly the next year. But the bottom line is the Eagles now have a very skilled and determined (to show the Cowboys they made a mistake) back in DeMarco Murray. He’ll be reunited in the Philly backfield with his old college roommate and buddy Sam Bradford, as long as Bradford can avoid injury too. But will Murray be better for Philly than LeSean McCoy was the last few seasons? That remains to be seen and it’s what Eagles fans will be judging as they continue to watch Chip Kelly’s off-season maneuverings with an arched eyebrow and wonder how to get back to the playoffs.
So what will Dallas end up doing with the running back position? Will they be able to find a replacement that can produce numbers anywhere close to what Murray rang up for them last year? Will Jerry use the money he saved by not signing Murray wisely? We can’t forget that the Cowboys offensive line is still here, and that should ease the mind of every Cowboys fan who is fretting over Murray’s departure. But while the Cowboys were very good last year, they weren’t good enough to make it to the Super Bowl, which is the measuring stick for Cowboys teams each and every year. So just staying the same wont be good enough – somehow after losing one of their top players they’ll still have to find a way to improve. As always when it comes to the Cowboys, it will be interesting to watch how this all plays out.