DeMarco Murray Is Not A Bad Scheme Fit; He Is Just Playing Badly

DeMarco Murray is not struggling because of scheme fit or bad play calling. Murray is struggling because he is not the same player he was last year in Dallas.

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

Chip Kelly finally relegated DeMarco Murray last week in the win over the New England Patriots, treating Murray like a glorified third string running back.

The carry differential was drastic and sent a clear message: Murray will no longer garner the majority of touches simply because of his oversized contract:

Name

Carries

Yards

Y/A

Darren Sproles 15 66 4.4
Kenjon Barner 9 39 4.3
DeMarco Murray 8 24 3.0

It was a move I have advocated for since after the Eagles win over the Saints. Murray has struggled all season and has not looked like the same running back that led the NFL in rushing last year.

Without question, Murray has been out performed by his backfield counterpart, Ryan Mathews. Murray has averaged 3.5 yards per carry this year, ranking 41st among qualifying running backs, according to ESPN. Mathews, on the other hand, has averaged an impressive 5.7 yards per carry, which ranks first in the NFL. Add in the upgrade Sproles provides catching passes out of the backfield, and an argument can be made that Murray is the third best running back on this team.

For whatever reason, Kelly stuck with Murray despite his struggles. It raised legitimate questions over whether Kelly the GM was hamstringing Kelly the coach because he refused to admit his mistake signing Murray to a massive free agent contract.

But all bets were off after the Eagles were embarrassed on national television during Thanksgiving. With the season on the brink, Kelly promised to reevaluate everyone’s role with the team, and he upheld that promise by cutting Miles Austin and marginalizing Murray’s role with the team.

And while we can quibble over the length of time in which it took Kelly to make these moves, he still deserves credit for admitting his mistake and not allowing his ego to cost the team anymore games.

Some, including ESPN.com’s Ed Werder, have attempted to blame Murray’s lack of production on scheme fit issues with Chip Kelly’s offense. Werner raises two principal points in support of his theory:  (1) Murray is running out of the shotgun too often and is much better suited for running under center; and (2) Kelly is calling too many outside zone runs when Murray is a better runner between the tackles.

Here’s the only problem: the numbers don’t support this.

Let’s start first with the direction in which Murray is running, courtesy of ESPN.com.

2015 Murray Splits:

Play Direction

Att

Yds

Avg

Lng

TD

Right Side

21

59

2.8

9

0

Left Side

22

74

3.4

21

0

Middle

50

220

4.4

30

1

Left Sideline

39

127

3.3

24

1

Right Sideline

31

89

2.9

20

2

As you can see in the chart above, the 2015 numbers generally support Werder’s position: the only direction in which Murray is relatively competent this season are runs up the middle, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. Murray struggles getting to the outside (sideline runs) just as often as he struggles running between the tackles but to a specific side of the line (side runs).

Seems like Werner might be onto something right? Not so fast.

Look at his numbers from 2014. Murray’s worst production in 2014 were runs up the middle, while he excelled on outside runs.

2014

Play Direction

Att

Yds

Avg

Lng

TD

Right Side

115

540

4.7

27

6

Left Side

122

582

4.8

51

1

Middle

58

189

3.3

22

5

Left Sideline

48

294

6.1

44

0

Right Sideline

49

240

4.9

23

1

You can also view Murray’s numbers in 2013 (here), 2012 (here) and 2011 (here). You will see that Murray has not consistently struggled with runs to the outside. His numbers are fairly even throughout his career, save for minor differences that can likely be explained by a difference in talent at specific spots on the Cowboys offensive line (much like you will see the Eagles running backs excelling running behind Jason Peters over other positions).

In other words, we cannot blame Murray’s lack of production on Kelly calling too many outside runs.

So what about this whole running under shotgun theory? To Werder’s credit, Murray has run more from under center throughout his career, to the tune of 841 to 256 carries, per ProFootballReference.com. And as anyone who has played football will tell you, there is a difference between running under center versus running in the shotgun. So some growing pains were to be expected.

But looking at Murray’s production throws cold water on Werder’s theory: Murray has never struggled running from shotgun before in his career.

Here are Murray’s numbers from 2015:

Formation

Att

Yds

Avg

TD

Shotgun

133

491

3.7

3

Under Center

24

51

2.1

1

As you can see, Murray has actually done worse running under center this season than he has running from the shotgun formation, a fact that has been conveniently ignored by Murray’s supporters.

Now, here are Murray’s numbers from 2014:

Formation

Att

Yds

Avg

TD

Shotgun

36

170

4.7

2

Under Center

356

1,675

4.7

11

While Murray ran under center much more frequently than from shotgun, he did not experience any drop off in production. And before you yell “small sample size” at me, consider the following averages per carry for Murray throughout his career, again courtesy of ESPN.com:

2013

  • Shotgun: 5.2
  • Under Center: 5.1

2012

  • Shotgun: 4.0
  • Under Center: 4.1

2011

  • Shotgun: 6.5
  • Under Center: 5.4

I don’t want to discount the difference between running under center versus the shotgun, but the numbers just don’t back up the idea that Murray is better suited under center.

And while training camp proclamations don’t carry much weight, I did find the following comments from Murray in August to be interesting, courtesy of Zach Berman of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“Murray said he actually gets to ‘see more of the field’ when it’s a shotgun formation.

‘I get to see a lot of the things the offensive line are doing, and hear their calls and really know where the ball should go in different fronts,’ Murray said.”

Perhaps this was hyperbole. Murray certainly wouldn’t be the first, nor the last, player to ever speak rosily about his new team and scheme, especially when he is attempting to ingratiate himself to the entire fan-base. But there has to be a certain element of truth to these statements as well, which are backed up by the good production Murray has had from the shotgun formation over the years.

This is about the time where I turn to the tape to show you what I mean. But I’ve done this a number of times so far this season, and I don’t want to keep recycling the same material I’ve discussed at length before. Simply put, Murray is not decisive or explosive when he has a clear running lane, he tries to do too much instead of taking the easy yards, and, for whatever reason, he is not making smart decisions when given adequate blocking by the line.

The Cause of Murray’s Struggles

So why is Murray struggling if it is not scheme fit issues? I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but this point seems to be lost on a number of people who refuse to acknowledge that his drop of production is directly related to the heavy workload he experienced last season.

Murray carried the ball an absurd 497 times last year, including the playoffs, putting him directly within the cross hairs of the “Curse of 370.”

BleacherReport.com provides the full analysis of the Curse of 370 here, but the essential take-away is this: whenever a running back carries the ball over 370 times in a single season, he experiences a significant drop off in production the following year.

More specifically, of the 28 running backs in NFL history that have eclipsed the 370 carry mark:

  • 12 saw their production drop by half or more the following year;
  • 19 missed time due to injury the following year;
  • 5 missed at least half the year;
  • The average drop-off in production: a ridiculous 39.2%;

Perhaps the best illustrator is the following chart that shows the dropoff in production the year after a running back has eclipsed 370 carries:

Name

Att

Yards

Avg

TD

DeMarco Murray 163 569 3.5 4
Larry Johnson 178 581 3.3 0
Terrell Davis 67 211 3.1 2
Jamaal Anderson 19 59 3.1 0

Put another way, Murray’s drop off in production was a predictable outcome. That is why I advocated against the move this offseason. Kelly already had enough weapons at his disposal with Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles. He could have satisfied the third running back spot with much cheaper alternatives: running backs are routinely found at the tail end of the draft or via undrafted free agency.

Kelly invested too heavily in the running back position generally, and compounded that mistake by investing in a running back coming off a historic usage rate. This puts the Eagles in a bind not only for this season, but also next year as well.

Which brings me to the final, most important question:

What Should the Eagles Do?

The question of whether Murray is the best option for the Eagles moving forward was never really in doubt. At this point in his career, Murray is the third best option on this team. With Mathews healthy, an argument can even be made that Kelly should scratch Murray from the lineup and roll with Mathews, Sproles and Barner.

But the real problem comes next season, when Murray is due $8 million and cutting him would carry a $13 million cap hit.

For most of the season, I have considered it a lock that Murray would be back given that cap hit. Indeed, Murray’s $13 million dead cap hit represents 9% of the $143 million salary cap. It would be a dangerous proposition to rob an NFL franchise of that capital given the amount of holes on the Eagles roster.

But the more we see and hear from Murray, the more legitimate the discussion becomes about whether the Eagles should move on from Murray after this season.

Let’s start with the low hanging fruit: Murray has consistently thrown his teammates and coaches under the bus. Against Atlanta, Murray demonstrably yelled at the coaches while walking off the field, something that was caught on national television.

And how can we forget this look from Murray, which became an internet sensation?

Seemingly every time something goes wrong on offense, Murray is quick to show his disgust:

When someone like DeSean Jackson or LeSean McCoy pulled these kind of stunts, it was front page news and used by their detractors as proof positive for why Kelly got rid of them.

For whatever reason, Murray was given a pass. But his latest antics — going over Chip Kelly’s head to complain about his playing time to owner Jeffry Lurie — was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me.  Think of it this way: the Eagles just pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the year, beating Tom Brady and the Patriots at home. But instead of talking about that great win and the positive momentum it can carry forward, we are instead talking about Murray’s plane ride visit with Lurie.

While Murray has said all the right things publicly, he is clearly prioritizing his happiness and need for touches over the good of the team. And it has the trickle down effect of taking all the attention away from a huge win and placing it on Murray’s lack of touches.

If Murray is this unhappy now, after one game of being demoted, how unhappy will he be if this continues the rest of this season? And what if he is no longer the lead guy next year? Will Murray idly sit by and collect a paycheck? Or will he become a locker room cancer?

As hard as it would be for the Eagles to move his contract, they need to consider all options this offseason. Murray is not the running back he was last year and it is unreasonable to expect his production to improve given his age and high usage. Even if the Eagles have to eat a significant portion of his contract, it might be an addition by subtraction if they can somehow move him to another team.

Otherwise, all of the effort Kelly put into fostering a great locker room — or “culture” — will fall to the wayside.

 

UPDATE/CONCLUSION

I appreciate all the responses I’ve received to this article. Some of you have disagreed with my ultimate conclusion, while others might have misinterpreted what I am saying. So I wanted to clarify one thing: I am not discounting the effect that the new system or running out of the shotgun has on Murray. As I stated above, I am sure it has SOME impact on his success this year.

But, there is overwhelming evidence that suggests Murray’s just not as good as he used to be. The numbers above clearly show this. And as I’ve covered before, the tape supports this conclusion as well. Add in the history of running backs that have seen their production fall off a cliff after getting 370+ carries in a single season, and I think we are making a mistake if we assume the system change is the MAIN cause of his struggles.

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14 thoughts on “DeMarco Murray Is Not A Bad Scheme Fit; He Is Just Playing Badly

  1. Great post. I am curious about what the stats say for those running backs that go over the 370 carry mark, how they perform TWO years after that record year. Do they decline even further or is there a bounce back so to speak?

    Murray is definitely being a whiny bitch, and as a fan I cant ever side with Murray because he is not whats good for the team right now. I hope he changes his hypocritical and whiny behavior, but we also cant really rely on Mathews being healthy and we cant really afford to spend picks on the RB position since we need OL/WR priority.

    • Thanks. And I looked for answers to that, but most articles have focused solely on the following year. From three examples I used, however, the answer is they did not bounce back:

      Year 2:
      Larry Johnson: 193 carries, 874 yards, 5 touchdowns, 4.5 ypc. After that he never topped 200 carries in his career and washed out a few years later.
      Terrell Davis played three season after carrying the ball 392 times, and he had bad stats as well: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/D/DaviTe00.htm
      Jamal Anderson was never the same again. He averaged 3.1, 3.6 and 3.5 ypc in his last three years in the league following the season in which he carried the ball 410 times. http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/A/AndeJa00.htm

      Point being, I would not expect a bounce back year from Murray next season.

  2. Pingback: Eagles News: Stats suggest DeMarco Murray's struggles not due to scheme -

  3. That was a great post. It objectively proves what everyone has been wondering. Is it scheme, coaching, offensive line . . . or is it Murray? What may have contributed to Murray’s success last year is a great O-line coupled with a great receiving core. Defenses could not stack the box last year against Cowboys like they can against the Eagles. It may be that any running back with the Cowboys the last couple of years could have gone over 1500 yds with that.

    I do like Murray’s fight, but in the end, we’ve gotta go with production. I know he wants to do well, but sheesh, he looks so slow and indecisive sometimes.

    • Thanks much. And agreed — the eye test certainly backs up the numbers. I’ve broke down the film before and he just looks indecisive and slow to the lane. Even when he is getting inside zone run calls that don’t require speed to the outside, he is still too slow to make a move. Perhaps scheme fit is an issue to an extent, but I certainly don’t think it is THE issue as many think.

  4. One thing you neglect to mention about the effectiveness of Murray running from the shotgun vs. running from under center is that those 24 rush attempts are basically the only snaps from under center that have been run this year making it a dead give away.

    • Against the Saints, there were 17 plays run under center. But after that, Kelly has called some play action passes off that. So that is a fair point, but not entirely accurate.

  5. There are other important factors left out of these ( number based ) scenarios. How many plays were affected by – play action or run behind a fullback ? We’re the runs ( outside the tackles ) or ” very wide ” ( like Eagles ) outside – stretch plays ? Was the safety- up in the box ( is mostly against Eagles – no deep threat ) vs deep against Dallas ? These factors – have to be accounted for. Murry is not – slower / scared / burnt out. He is – not comfortable / confident / in right system. I am a Eagles die hard fan, not a Murry fan. But come on, he’s 27 almost 28 in great shape, he’s not all the sudden – worn out or done. McCoy struggled last year, early on ( offensive line issues ) in this same scheme …. is he done too. Yes, Murry does not hit the whole as fast as – Sproles and Matthews. But that should not preclude Murry from being effective – if Kelly puts him in right situation, to utilize HIS skill set.

    • I don’t disagree with you about unaccounted factors, but what situations should we put Murray in? Murray knew the style the Eagles ran, and he called us. Remember? He knew there were no fullbacks, good receivers, no i-formation, play-action, etc So, he’s the one who thought his skill-set fit this system. Kelly didn’t trick him or call him because he had plans to change the offense for the sake of his running style.

      Sproles, Barner, Mathews can all effectively run what’s given to them and they are supposedly inferior running backs. We’re talking about 3 different running backs with all different running styles that are outperforming him. This is beyond blaming the system. Rookie running backs can come in the NFL with a brand new team, coach, system, league, rules, with less experience and run better than Murray can right now. Forget all the numbers, calculations, and yearly comparisons and just look at this more simply.

    • I’m sure that these factors have an effect on his play as well. But we cannot ignore the impact that 497 touches has on a running back in one season. The empirical evidence is overwhelming: running backs, save for one (Erik Dickerson) have seen a sudden and dramatic decline in production the following year. Many of these running backs were Murray’s age or younger. So age is largely irrelevant. Think of it as a car. You can have a two year old car, but if you put 60,000 miles on it right away, it will have much more wear and tear than a 2 year old car with 20,000 miles on it.

      And to be clear: I haven’t just taken box scores and looked at this from a numbers perspective. I glossed over the film breakdown in this article only because I have covered it multiple times this year and didn’t want to keep rehashing the same material. The film confirms that Murray is not the same running back he used to be. He’s lost explosion, he’s slow to the hole, and — perhaps most surprisingly — he’s consistently made bad reads this year even when the line has blocked for him. When the numbers and the tape back up that he is playing poorly, I think it is hard to ignore.

      And as Jared points out: how do we explain the success that Mathews, who is known as a physical down hill runner in his own right? How do we explain that Jonathan Stewart and LeGarrete Blount excelled in this offense in college? They are even slower downhill bruisers than Murray.

      I’m not discounting that scheme or running out of the shotgun has SOME effect on Murray. I am saying that, from my review of the numbers, the tape, and the history of running backs that have similar high usage rate, we should not conclude that the system is THE cause for his struggles. I would rank it about 4th on the list.

  6. A good article, but, after mentioning the ‘curse of 370’, I really hoped you’d spend a little more time on why it’s complete BS. It sounds reasonable to think that Murray’s huge number of carries would have a hangover effect into the next season, but the statistical evidence that a RB with a high number of carries will experience a greater decline the following season than a RB with a moderate number of carries is virtually nonexistent.

    http://archive.advancedfootballanalytics.com/2008/07/drunkards-light-posts-and-myth-of-370.html This article from 2008 does a good job of explaining things in more detail, but their closing remarks in particular really bring it home:

    “To be fair to Football Outsiders, they have recently admitted there is nothing magical about 370. A RB isn’t just fine at 369 carries, and then on his 370th his legs will fall off. But unfortunately, that’s the only interpretation of the data that supports the overuse hypothesis. If you make it 371 or 369, the relationship between carries and decline crumbles. It’s circular to say that 370 proves overuse is real, then claim that 370 is only shorthand for the proven effect of overuse.”

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  8. Great article. Not sure why so many people refuse to accept that Murray looks shot. He’s slow. He’s indecisive. He makes terrible reads. And, he hasn’t been nearly as physically imposing as he was in the past. Everyone should be able to see that.

    Now, is that his fault or is that the schemes fault? I’m just not sure how you can blame the scheme when every other back that’s played in this system, regardless of style of runner, has been successful, and every other back on the roster has been much more successful.

    If Murray can only be successful running i-formation power runs through the A or B gaps behind a dominant offensive line, poses no threat on outside runs, can’t run out of the shot-gun, can’t run out of single back sets, and can’t run the ball when the line utilizes zone blocking and he has to choose his hole post snap…then how good of a RB is he really?

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