Born into a family of Texans, I have loved the Dallas Cowboys my entire life. In the 1990’s with Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin, there was a lot to cheer about and I happily celebrated their 3 Super Bowl wins along with them. Since then, there hasn’t been much to cheer about with the team. Until this past season.
In 2014, the Cowboys not only finished with a winning record, but won the NFC East. They made it to the postseason and won their first round matchup. Alas, the season ended without a championship, but that was OK. There were still things to be excited about with this team and their vast improvement from years past was very evident. Tony Romo had the highest quarterback rating of his career, Dez Bryant set a franchise record with 16 touchdown catches and Demarco Murray led the league in rushing and was named the AP NFL Offensive player of the year. Not bad for a team that many thought wouldn’t even win 8 games. Things looked good for the Cowboys and it appeared as if the team (and fans) now had their new “Big Three” in Dallas.
Fast forward a couple of months and it’s now the offseason and free agency has just begun. Murray and Bryant are both free agents, so the team’s priority is getting them signed to new deals. Immediately, the Cowboys announced their plans to use their franchise tag on Bryant. Excellent, one free agent locked down.
But what about Demarco? The first bit of news we hear is not good - negotiations have stalled and Murray isn't happy with the direction things are going. About a week later it’s all done and Murray is gone, jumping ship for a longer contract and more money with the Philadelphia Eagles. The news is met with confusion, annoyance and sadness by fans. How could this happen? Why would the Cowboys let Murray walk away?! They have the league’s leading rusher, why wouldn’t they give him everything he wanted?
At first, the whole situation seems to make no sense and you have to question what the Cowboys are thinking with this decision. Then you look at the numbers and it starts to become a bit clearer. Yes, they are taking a risk by not re-signing Murray but statistics (and history) are actually on their side. And here’s why...
Studies have shown that running backs who touch the ball at least 390 times in a season are more likely to get hurt the following season or at least see their productivity decline. It’s called the “Curse of 370,” a term coined by Aaron Schatz in his 2004 study of running backs. Originally, Schatz only looked at players who ran the ball more than 370 times in a season. But in the decade since the idea was introduced, others (as well as Schatz) have revisited the subject and amended it to also include catches. The magic number is now 390 but this does little to change what Schatz originally found - If a back touches the ball at least 390 times in a season, the following year usually does not bode well for him. It sounds a little weird, but then you look at the list of guys who have fallen victim to the “curse.” They include:
- Terrell Davis, Denver Broncos. In 1998 Davis had a monster season, carrying the ball 392 times and rushing for over 2,000 yards. He only played in 17 more games after that, spread out over 3 injury plagued years.
- Jamal Anderson, Atlanta Falcons. Anderson carried the ball 410 in 1998. The following year he tore his ACL in Week 2 and missed the rest of the season.
- Eddie George, Tennessee Titans. George had the best year of his career in 2000, carried the ball 406 time, and amassed over 1,500 rushing yards. In 2001, George played in all 16 games for the Titans but experienced his worst numbers as a pro and failed to gain 1,000 yards for the first time in his career.
- Larry Johnson, Kanas City Chiefs. In 2006, Johnson of the ran the ball 416 times and totaled more than 1,700 yards. The following year, he missed half the season due to injury.
- Michael Turner, Atlanta Falcons. Turner played in all 16 games for the Falcons in 2008, amassed over 1,600 yards rushing and carried the ball 376 times. In 2009, he played in only 11 games and rushed for 871 yards.
- Arian Foster, Houston Texans. In 2012, Foster played every game for the Texans and touched the ball 391 times. In 2013, he played in only 8 games and underwent back surgery midseason.
In 2014, Demarco Murray carried the ball 392 during the regular season and caught 57 passes. Adding the two playoff games, his numbers jump to 436 carries and 61 catches for a total of 497 touches on the season. That’s a whole lot and you have to think that the Cowboys recognized this when making their decision to let him leave.
Then there are the statistics about age and the performances of running backs. Studies have found that running backs generally reach their peak between the ages of 24 - 27. After that their productivity begins to decline and many are forced to retire by the age of 34. Murray is 27 years old now and will turn 28 next February. Did age have something to do with this move? Probably. Murray wanted a 5 year deal from the Cowboys that would put him under contract until the old age (in NFL years) of 32. Putting a lot of money into a guy who statistically could be at the end of his peak is a risk, and one the Cowboys apparently did not want to take.
Another reason for letting Murray walk has to be his injury history. 2014 was actually the first complete season of Murray’s career. And while he played in all 16 games, he did suffer a hand injury and underwent surgery midseason. Murray's ability to stay healthy has been a concern that has followed him since his rookie year and the Cowboys know this. In fact, they are more than aware of this and have seen it firsthand with his previous seasons.
So when you look at all of this - the numbers and the history of the position, the Cowboys' decision to not re-sign Murray doesn’t look quite as crazy as we all originally thought. Of course, nothing is gauranteed and Murray could have an even better 2015 than 2014 season, but it’s difficult to go against the statistics. The Cowboys are taking a big risk with this one, but clearly they too have looked at the numbers.
As a fan, I am sad to see Murray go and will mourn the loss of the “Big Three” that could have been. But now I understand. It’s not what I had hoped would happen but I get it. Football is a game of numbers and the Cowboys chose to play it that way. Will they be right? We’ll have to wait and see.