In choosing the player each week to write this Focus Thing, I'm given a pretty wide range of choices; in that the man at WFAA isn't screaming at me for who I choose to focus on. It's actually kind of rad.
Then again, sometimes the powers that be at Valley Ranch conspire to make things an obvious choice. Say, in a road game where you actually had the lead for thirty-eight minutes but somehow you leave having only ran the ball fourteen non-quarterback times. In a situation like that, I'd have to write about your running back that you think is your horse. That's the reality of the situation we have here. Jones, Garrett, Romo, and Callahan have ensured that I couldn't have written about DeMarcus Ware's bull rushes. No, they're forcing my hand into focusing on DeMarco Murray.
First, the macro view on Murray; he's actually been pretty good so far. Yes, the 12 rushes for 25 yards he put in Arrowhead is pretty bad, but a lot of people seem to be in denial about just how good the Chiefs are- especially in the front seven. But that's underplaying Murray's effectiveness as a possession receiver. Murray was targeted six times, with five receptions, for 49 yards. Functionally, that means Murray touched the ball 18 times, for a total of 74 yards, which is a much more manageable 4.1 yards per touch.
The larger sample this season concurs with that average (it feels strange calling two games the larger sample. I hope you feel weird reading it. Not a bad weird, though). In the NYG game, Murray carried the ball twenty times, was targeted ten times, and amassed eight receptions for 39 yards. That works out to thirty touches (I'm counting targets as a touch for this, for average's sake) for 125 yards- 4.16 yards per. That makes your two-game total of 48 touches, 199 yards, 4.14 yards per touch.
Obviously it's not ideal to get your chief runner the ball through the air for 30 percent of his touches. Obviously you'd like to run him more and rely on him getting yards off the pass less. But even the most casual follower of the Cowboys over the last two decades knows that Valley Ranch has gone so far off ideal that getting back there is going to be a process. Going to be a process. In all three phases. Of the football game.
But the basic idea that the Cowboys are putting Murray on the shelf is a little off, given his quality as a receiver in both certainty (81.5% of passes to him have been completed) and his effectiveness (6.8 yards per reception, 3.6 of which come after the catch), subbing out a few passes for a few runs each game doesn't seem like a negative.
You'll hear an ideal 50/50 run/pass mix bandied about. Two teams had a 50/50 mix last year- Minnesota and the Jets. The Cowboys have what you might consider a different quarterback situation that that presented by Christian ponder and Mark Sanchez. Meanwhile, Kansas City, San Francisco, Washington and Seattle were the only teams that actually ran appreciably more than they passed. You'll notice a trend in those teams; most ran with sensational young running quarterbacks, using the read option. Then there was KC, who had Jamal Charles at running back and a pile of mostly dry kindle at QB.
It's a passing league now. That doesn't excuse the Cowboys from using their ground game like KC did to them on Sunday; get the lead though the air with Bryant, Witten, and Austin, then use Murray to simultaneously beat the opposing defense and the clock. The team was one Dez Bryant drop away from being able to try that strategy.
(Ok, in all fairness, they were one Dez Bryant drop, one Bruce Carter drop, and one Lance Dunbar drop away from being able to use that strategy.)
There's also the issue of whether Murray's leaving yards on the field or not. His long run of the Chiefs game was six yards; against the Giants, that was 13. I'm as absolutely amateur of an opinion as you'll find in terms of scouting, but I get the sense Murray has taken the North-South way of living to an extreme. I just haven't seen Murray make use of what elusiveness and straight-line speed he does have; rather, he seems to have taken the late-stage Marion Barber style of 'see defender, hit defender, gain three yards, set up third and long, get up nodding aggressively'. However, for a guy who was good for a 20-yard run every other week, I'd hope for a more aggressive style in terms of yardage, rather than bruised sternums.
For a good example, check out 3:32 in the first. The team runs a sweep to the left, with Tyron and Leary pulling ahead of him (the way Tyron gets around the corner and seals off inside pursuit would be impressive for a guy fifty pounds lighter than him, by the way). Murray does a good job of cutting inside Smith's block, and turns it into a six yard gain. For a bad example, look at Murray's run on Second-and Goal from the two, 1:25 in the first. Murray get the handoff out of an offset-I, with Phil Costa impersonating his lead blocker. Costa leads off the strong side tight end, and while he does a terrible job of not getting cut by the Chief's CB, he does a very good job of lying on top of him for a few seconds. Murray, rather than following Costa and Bernadeau, runs right into the scrum Dontari Poe creates by submarining Frederick off the line. If Murray follows his blockers, he had a chance to string the run out towards the sideline. Instead, Murray shoots straight into the 635-at-rush-hour-like pile Poe has created.
North-South is great as a guiding principle, but sometimes it's better to stick to the spirit of the law rather than the wording.
Paradoxically, maybe it's Lance Dunbar stepping up that would have the greatest effect on Murray. The last three times Dunbar has touched the ball, he's gained a total of sixty yards- while fumbling twice and injuring himself once. Dunbar absolutely has the ability to help the team on Sundays, and his skills fit the third-down role very neatly. Getting Murray off the field on third downs would lower the amount of times he has to stay in for pass protection. For a guy who's missed roughly a quarter of the games since he came into the league, lowering the amount of collisions with linebackers and defensive ends seems like a solid assist.
I also feel like the other North Texas alum on the roster seeing more playing time will have a positive effect on Murray, but I have not been shy about calling Mackenzie Bernadeau a dumpster fire. That's probably not fair, as a lot of people who's opinion I trust think he grades out pretty well on tape. Then again, maybe they're just underrating dumpster fires.
It's central to my sports philosophy to bet on talent in the long run. No doubting Murray's a talent. And in the ever-shrinking-resources game that NFL football is, there's no doubt that Garret and Callahan are going to use the running game more than they did versus KC. The hope is that it squares itself away before the Cowboys lose a game where Dez catches that bomb, or Carter picks off that pass, or Dunbar doesn't drop that ball because of the lack of a running game.