Bob Ford, a longtime fan of Pro-Football-Reference and Football Perspective, has contributed today’s guest post. Bob is the owner and founder of GOATbacks.com, which looks at the greatest running backs of all time. Thanks to Bob for today’s article!
Is DeMarco Murray in Danger of Joining A Very Exclusive Club?
In 2014 DeMarco Murray rushed for 1,845 yards on 392 carries at 4.7 yards per carry and just over 115 yards a game. That’s a great rushing season by any standard, and it puts Murray in some pretty exclusive company. Since Jim Brown first broke 1,800 rushing yards in 1963, just 16 other running backs have done it a total of 20 times, and only 3 (Dickerson, Sanders and Simpson) did it more than once.
Among the 17 RBs who’ve rushed for 1,800 yards, 10 have posted at least 10,000 career rushing yards, and 4 have at least 9,000. Those 4 are Ahman Green with 9,205, Earl Campbell with 9,407, Chris Johnson with 9,442 and Shaun Alexander with 9,553. And only 2 who’ve retired, Terrell Davis with 7,607 career rushing yards, and Jamal Anderson with 5,336, have failed to break 9,000 career rushing yards. After 5 seasons and 5,228 career rushing yards, DeMarco Murray is still active, so we don’t know how many career rushing yards he’ll eventually have, but all running backs who’ve rushed for more than 1,800 yards in a season have always, with the exception of Anderson and the singularly unique exception of Davis, put up a minimum of 9,000 career rushing yards.
Why do I call Davis a “singularly unique” exception? I’ll get to that in a minute, but consider how far behind the rest of the group Jamal Anderson, who rushed for 1,846 yards in 1998, actually is. He’s nearly 2,300 yards behind Davis and nearly 4,000 behind Green. What’s more, and not enviable for Murray, is that it’s Anderson’s career, not Davis’ or any of the others’, that bears a striking resemblance to Murray’s, and that doesn’t bode well for Murray.
Among the 1,800-yard RBs with less than 10,000 career rushing yards, only Campbell is almost universally acknowledged as an all-time great. Alexander sometimes shows up on “all-time great” lists, provided they’re long enough, like top 20s, 25s or 30s, but he’s never in the discussion about the dozen or so greatest. Green and Johnson are often dismissed as at best generational talents, and at worst outright pretenders who got lucky for a season. Similar judgments are often handed down against Jamal Lewis, even though he did crack 10,000 career yards. I think Lewis, and in some ways Green and Johnson, are under-appreciated, which is not to say great, but that’s another discussion. The point is that historically among 1,800-yard running backs, 9,000 career rushing yards has been virtually, if not absolutely, automatic. Unless you’re Jamal Anderson. And quite possibly now, DeMarco Murray.
Terrell Davis. An Exception Among Exceptions.
So why earlier did I call Davis’ career “singularly unique?” Because he’s probably the one 1,800-yard rusher who warrants a pass in this discussion. Davis’ first 4 seasons, particularly his 2nd, 3rd and 4th, were so massively productive that they don’t bear a passing resemblance to the earliest seasons of Johnson, Green, Alexander, Murray or Anderson. In other words, although Davis does violate the strong tendency to gain 9,000 career yards, he was on such a meteoric pace prior to his catastrophic knee injury that no one could credibly deny he would have easily done it if he’d stayed healthy, something that can’t be said with any degree of certainty about Anderson or Murray. Davis in fact came within just 50 yards of being the 4th running back ever to post multiple 1,800-yard rushing seasons, and even at that his 1,750-yard season in ’97 was just 15 games.
His first 4 seasons Davis posted 6,413 rushing yards, nearly 1,200 more than Murray has in 5 seasons and 1,100 more than Anderson had in 8. To say that Davis would have gained 2,600 more rushing yards if he’d stayed healthy doesn’t seem like much of a stretch, even if he didn’t maintain the insane pace he was on his first 4 seasons. Even if his production fell to something like 1,200 or 1,300 yards a season, he still hits 9,000 career rushing yards with relative ease.
The point about Davis is that his failure to hit 9,000 yards isn’t about production, it’s about injury. It illustrates that Davis, even among backs who did hit 9,000 yards, put up production comparable only to Campbell’s, among the most prolific ever, and that having less than 9,000 career yards is where any similarity between Jamal Anderson and Terrell Davis, or Davis and Murray for that matter, absolutely, positively ends. At running back, the most hazardous position on the field, sudden career-ending injury can put the lie to virtually any “rule of thumb” very quickly. Even so, and Davis’ career notwithstanding, the 1800/9000 rule still feels pretty solid.
Murray and Anderson. Troubling Parallels.
Before Jamal Anderson, every 1,800-yard running back since Brown in 1963 gained at least 9,000 career rushing yards, so up to that time the 1800/9000 “rule of thumb” proved true 100% of the time, even though up to Anderson only 6 running backs, Brown, Simpson, Payton, Campbell, Dickerson, and Sanders had done it. 6 guys is admittedly a small sample size, but a sample that spans 45 years. I’d asterisk Davis onto that list too, and I’ve just talked about why, but if you leave him off as a nod to the purists I’d get it.
8 running backs, if we omit Davis, have done it since Anderson and up to the currently-active Murray. Anderson suffered a career-ending knee injury himself in 2001, a full three seasons after his 1,800-yard season, but above-average production was never there even before his 1,800-yard season. Aside from 4 statistically meaningless, partial seasons, Anderson posted three complete seasons of just over 1,000 yards rushing each and averaged about 63 yards a game.
Murray has posted comparable, if not identical production during the 4 seasons other than his 1,800-yard campaign in 2014. In fact in those 4 seasons Murray has only put up over 1,000 yards rushing once, 1,121 yards in 2013 to be exact, when he went to his first of two Pro Bowls. I’m not sure 1,100 yards rushing and 350 yards receiving screams Pro Bowl, but he did average 5.2 yards per carry that season, so maybe that had something to do with it. He put up his 1,800-yard season his 4th year, but his 5th season in 2015 was nothing short of a dumpster fire, as he posted 702 yards rushing, had less than half the carries he had in ’14, and rushed at 3.6 yards per carry even when he did get the ball.
The point isn’t that DeMarco Murray is a “bad” running back. The point is that his production so far bears little resemblance to that of Johnson, Green, Alexander, or any of the others, but bears a strong resemblance to that of Jamal Anderson, and strong resemblances often result in similar fates, so that’s not a resemblance Murray should be comfortable with. After 5 seasons Chris Johnson had already posted 6,888 of his current 9,442 career rushing yards. Ahman Green’s first 5 seasons didn’t even include his 1,800-yard season, but his 1,800-yard season came in the middle of a 5-year stretch in which he put up 6,848 rushing yards. Shaun Alexander’s 5-season stretch that peaked with his 1,800-yard rushing season totaled 7,505 yards. Earl Campbell put up 5,081 rushing yards his first 3 seasons and after just 4 had amassed 6,457 yards, 1,200 more than Murray has right now.
Every running back who ever gained 9,000 career rushing yards had a 3, 4 or 5-year productive stretch in which their “big season” was augmented by at least a few, even a pair, of above-average and in some cases great, rushing seasons. But both are absent from Murray’s resume, as they are from Anderson’s. There’s no solidly above-average 5 or even 3-season stretch of production, no additional 1,300, 1,400, even 1,200-yard seasons. Like Anderson’s, Murray’s 1,800-yard rushing effort is about as statistically lonely as they come, and unless he ramps up the production very soon, he may well become just the third running back to ever put up 1,800 rushing yards in a single season but fall short of 9,000 for his career.
Murray’s 2015 debacle can at least partially be blamed on lack of carries and Coach Kelly and Co.’s overall laboratory explosion. But whether or not you blame Kelly for everything from the Eagles’ failures to the Kennedy assassination and Rio’s foul water problem, the fact remains that on-field execution had at least something to do with it, and Murray isn’t exempt from those indictments. Granted, when even great running backs have been suffocated by bad schemes, bad coaching and poor execution, perilously few have overcome that many strikes working against them. But even so, Murray’s ’15 season suggests he might not be a particularly adaptable running back, in which case something approaching “ideal” scheme and coaching conditions might be necessary for him to get back to meaningful production, and “ideal” doesn’t happen very often.
Murray’s overall low production notwithstanding, he does have one thing going for him. Low mileage. He’s got just 1,127 carries in 5 seasons, an average of 225 carries a season, even factoring in his 392 carries in ’14. Average his other 4 seasons by themselves and it works out to about 184 carries a season. Either way, relative to the other running backs in this discussion, Murray, who turned 28 in February, should still be on reasonably fresh legs. A few above-average rushing seasons, maybe even another 1,500 or 1,600 yarder, and he turns the whole thing around and takes those dire similarities to Jamal Anderson completely off the table.
What does this all add up to? Simple. After 5 seasons, no small number for a running back in the NFL, DeMarco Murray looks a lot less like the 15 other 1800-yard running backs who posted at least 9,000 career rushing yards, and a lot more like the one running back who didn’t. There’s always room for new precedent, and here’s hoping Murray can set it. But history’s already lining up against him.