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During their weekly radio show, WIP’s Ray Didinger and Comcast Sportsnet’s Reuben Frank (filling in for Glen Macnow) discussed the history of NFL runningbacks that had endured the amount of carries Eagles runningback DeMarco Murray tallied with the Dallas Cowboys last year. It was not very good. Didinger said specifically that “without exception”, backs had experienced a significant dropoff in production the following season. Obviously, this can be a very concerning trend for Eagles fans who are looking for Murray to be the offense’s workhorse after the Eagles made him a marquee signing this offseason in order to replace LeSean McCoy, the Eagles’ all-time leading rusher and a player who happens to be the exact same age as Murray. Murray’s injury history (he has missed 11 games in 4 seasons) is one concern, but so is his task of fully recovering from 392 regular season carries, in addition to 44 postseason attempts.
First, we have to look at the recent history of runningbacks coming off a similar workload. According to Pro Football Reference, 11 players have carried the ball 370 times or more in the regular season since 2000. Larry Johnson’s 416 attempts in 2006 were the most, while Michael Turner’s 376 for Atlanta in 2008 was the most recent example. Here is the entire list: Larry Johnson (2006, 416), Eddie George (2000, 403), DeMarco Murray (2014, 392), Ricky Williams (2003, 392), Jamal Lewis (2003, 387), Edgerrin James (2000, 387), Ricky Williams (2002, 383), Michael Turner (2008, 376), LaDainian Tomlinson (2002, 372), Curtis Martin (2004, 371), Shaun Alexander (2005, 371). Of the nine listed that aren’t Murray or Ricky Williams’ 2003 season (Ricky retired for a year after that season), they missed a combined 37 games the following season, equaling an average of about four games, an astronomical rate.
You could attribute that to the fact that they play a position that seemingly gets hurt more than any other. However, when you look at the durability of these players before their heavy workload seasons, the impacts are even more astounding. Those 9 players missed, in 30 seasons, a combined 41 games, including Jamal Lewis’ 2001 training camp torn ACL that kept him out of the entire season. Those numbers equal just one and one third games missed per season, 2.7 games missed per season lower than the year after their 370+ rushing attempt seasons.
Murray’s workload this season might be another factor to consider. He will most likely not be asked to carry the ball as many times as he was in Dallas, but he is nonetheless Chip Kelly’s featured back in an offense that likes to run a lot of plays, substitute very little on offense, and feature its runningbacks. In Kelly’s first two years with the Eagles, featured back LeSean McCoy did not miss a game and had nearly identical attempts in both seasons (314 in 2013 and 312 in 2014; average of 19.6 per game, although the Eagles ran an average of five fewer plays per game in 2013 than in 2014). Murray’s workload could be less than McCoy’s, however, because of the prominent second back in Ryan Mathews, something McCoy did not have as much of – despite our yearning for more Darren Sproles. Looking at Kelly’s four years with Oregon, I think the carry distribution will most likely resemble that of 2011, when the Ducks featured LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner, and De’Anthony Thomas (this year it will be Murray, Mathews, and Sproles). That season, the Ducks averaged two more plays than last year’s Birds, and if we break down the rushing attempts per play, James equaled .243, Barner rushed at a rate of .150 times per play, and Thomas reached .054 (something to note is that Ducks QB Darren Thomas had many attempts of his own, and is more mobile than Sam Bradford, but Eagles QBs last year rushed 0.047 times per play compared to Thomas’ 0.055 in 2011 – a somewhat meaningless difference).
If we extrapolate those numbers to 70.4 plays per game (the Eagles’ 2014 total), and agree that Murray will serve the LaMichael James role, he will be asked to rush 274 times during the regular season. Of the ten seasons discussed at the beginning, just three of them were followed up with attempts that eclipsed that mark, two by the four backs younger than Murray is now. Maybe Chip believes that a reduced workload can keep Murray on the field this season. Maybe he thinks his sports science can do the trick. History will be against him.