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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.

  • sacramento gold miners

    Murray’s 392 carries in 2014 were more than his 2012 and 2013 workload combined, and we have to add he was very unhappy in Philadelphia. Not sure what the future holds for Murray.

    While he fell 233 yards shy of the 1,800 figure in 1983, William Andrews was another back who may have finished with more than 9,000 career yards. His first five seasons netted 5,772 rushing yards, which include the nine game 1982 shortened season. Had his career best output running at his age 28 season, and was a more versatile back than some of the others mentioned above.

    Andrews was more of a tank than a breakaway back, so we don’t know how he would have aged. A severe knee injury in practice effectively ended a great career in 1984.

    • Robert Ford

      Thanks for mentioning William Andrews, always a favorite of mine. He was a true collision rusher, as well as a receiving beast, particularly compared to guys like Gerald Riggs. It’s interesting that you mention Andrews since the pivotal “comparison” RB of this post was Anderson, another Falcon. Ronnie Lott said Andrews hit harder than any RB he ever faced. I’d rank Andrews higher than Riggs, but that’s just an informed opinion. Back then an ACL/MCL and you were done. Even when Davis’ injury happened. It’s amazing what they can do just in the past 6-8 years.

      • sacramento gold miners

        That knee injury also involved nerve damage, and cost Andrews two full seasons. His 1986 comeback attempt fell short, and it does seem like Andrews has been somewhat lost to history. With that neck roll he would wear, I always felt he looked like a tank out on the field.

        There are likely other HOF backs who could have attained both the 1,800 and 9,000+ club had their offenses not had other weapons, Franco Harris comes to mind. For long term success, it’s probably not advantageous to have the high number of rushing attempts required for a 1,800 yard season.

        • Richie

          I wish the neck roll would come back.

  • Richie

    Jamal Anderson may have technically played in 2000 and 2001, but he had a career-destroying injury in 1999.

    I’m not sure how comparable Anderson is to Murray. Anderson doesn’t have the big seasons leading up to 1,800 yards possibly because of usage. Of all the guys to ever rush for 1800+ yards, only Jamal Anderson and Terrell Davis were drafted after the 3rd round. Anderson only had 41 carries in his first 2 years combined.

    Then in 1996 he rushed for 1,000 yards on only 232 carries (4.5ypc). Not HOF numbers, but not pedestrian either. He had another 1,000 yards in 1997 but wasn’t nearly as efficient.

    Then in 1999 he blew out his knee.

    I agree that Anderson didn’t have the meteoric rise of Terrell Davis. But I think injuries ended his shot at 9,000 career yards just like they did for Davis. Although, not being a full-time back until age 26 probably put him behind the 8-ball as well.

    That 1998 season for the Falcons is such a strange season. Not only did you have Anderson putting up a rare 1,800-yard season, but you had Chris Chandler putting up the 2nd-best (at the time, it was #1) yards-per-attempt season ever. And that Falcons season was bookended by multiple losing seasons on each side.

  • Anders

    Over reason Murray does not have any other super productive seasons, is because he can’t stay healthy, because if you look at his efficiency, it’s there he just can’t stay healthy

  • This is good stuff, Bob. But I agree with Richie, in that I’m not sure about the Jamal Anderson comparison. One reason is what Richie pointed out: Anderson’s career is tough to evaluate for the same reason as Terrell Davis — they both suffered career-destroying injuries in 1999. Anderson only had four seasons in which he started four or more games, and in all four, he rushed for over 1,000 yards.

    That said, I think Murray’s body of work already compares favorably to Anderson’s. RB production is lower now than it was in the late ’90s and early ’00s. In context, Murray’s best season was better than Anderson’s best season. His 2nd-best season (1121 rushing, 5.2 avg, 1471 YFS, 10 TD) was better than Anderson’s 2nd-best season (1055 rush, 4.5 avg, 1528 YFS, 6 TD). His 3rd-best season was better (897 rush, 5.5 avg) than Anderson’s (1024 rush, 3.6 avg), his 4th-best is close, and 5th is easily Murray’s, since Anderson only had four seasons in which he did anything of consequence.

    Murray has a higher number of productive seasons than Anderson did, and until Philadelphia, he always played very well, with his production limited by playing time, not talent. Murray averaged 4.85 yards per carry with the Cowboys. Anderson’s career-high rushing average was 4.55.

    Jamal Anderson, 1996-2000: 4986 rush yd, 4.04 avg, 6478 YFS, 38 TD, 19 fmbl
    DeMarco Murray, 2011-2015: 5228 rush yd, 4.64 avg, 6750 YFS, 36 TD, 14 fmbl

    And again, RB production was lower from 2011-2015 than 1996-2000. Over the last five years, Murray is one of the five most productive RBs in football. He’s 6th in rushing yards, 4th in YFS, 8th in TDs, really good average. Anderson was barely among the top 10 most productive RBs from 1996-2000: 10th in rushing, 9th in YFS, t-8th in TDs, unimpressive average.

    I think your larger point is sound, and it’s a good article, but I’m not sure the Anderson parallel is as strong as you implied.

    • Robert Ford

      Thanks Brad, really appreciate it. Your points are compelling. I was aware, mainly because of a lack of precise, “one-to-one” data points, that the Murray/Anderson comparison would seem a little too “loose” for some of FP’s readers, but it’s a comparison I’d still stand by. And part of their “resemblance” simply lies in the fact of how little they both resemble the other 9,000-yard RBs, i.e. Green, Johnson, Alexander and Campbell.

      As for Anderson’s ’99 injury, which I notice has been cited a couple times in the comments, I’m not sure how “career destroying” that particular injury actually was. Anderson’s 2000 season, his overall production, is virtually identical to his ’96 and ’97 seasons, so I’m not sure that supports the contention that ’99 “destroyed” him.

      In fact, aside from his big, skewing, outlier season, Anderson’s 3 other meaningfully productive seasons are amazingly consistent with each other, i.e. yards per game, YPC, YFS, and so on. The same is true of Murray, though his non-outlier seasons show somewhat more variation than Anderson’s do, but not strikingly more.

      Murray’s been a vastly more efficient RB than Anderson ever was, but 1800/9000 “tendency”, which is a strong tendency, not a weak one, is about the relationship between overall, seasonal production and the likelihood of gaining a given amount of career yardage. YPC doesn’t really affect the 1800/9000 rule a whole lot. In other words the rule isn’t really about how you amass it, but about what you amass by season and how that affects your tendency to amass for career.

      During Murray’s non-outlier seasons, he’s put up about the same per-game yardage as Anderson did during his most productive, non-outlier seasons. Those things happened differently in the details, i.e. Murray a handful of fewer games (Anderson’s 4 meaningful non-outlier seasons were complete, 64 games), higher yds./game in ’13 offsetting abysmally low yds./game in ’15, etc.

      As for Murray having a higher number of productive seasons than Anderson, yes he does, by exactly one. The Anderson/Murray stats you cited actually speak more to how comparable the two are, as opposed to highlighting their differences. With, of course, the very noticeable exception of Murray’s superior efficiency.

      Like I said, your points are compelling, and in relative terms the Anderson/Murray comparison may feel stronger or weaker depending on how you choose to analyze the two careers. I think the comparison is stronger in more lines of analysis than it’s weaker, hence my post. Again, Brad, thanks so much for the thoughts and keen insights.

      • Let me begin by re-stating that I think you’re doing great work. I’ve written a series on the greatest RBs of all time (I plan to publish it beginning in May, after the NFL Draft), and it’s clear that we agree on a number of issues. RB is my favorite position, and it’s exciting to discuss these issues with knowledgable, like-minded people.

        As far as Anderson’s ’99 injury, I think efficiency is a critical factor. Before the injury, Anderson carried 992 times for 4,122 yards, a 4.16 average. After the injury, he carried 337 times for 1,214 yards, a 3.60 average. The injury occurred before his 27th birthday, so that doesn’t look like an aging effect. I just don’t think yardage alone is a sufficient way to measure Anderson’s production before and after the injury. He not only lost a year of his prime, he became one of the least efficient runners in the league.

        I would dispute that his 2000 season is virtually identical to his ’96 season.

        1996: 1055 rush yd, 4.55 avg, 1528 YFS, 6 TD, 4 fmbl
        2000: 1024 rush yd, 3.63 avg, 1406 YFS, 6 TD, 6 fmbl

        122 YFS and 2 fumbles aren’t huge, but .92 yds/att is huge. ’96 looks substantially better to me, and that’s without adjusting for context. 2000 was a historic year for running backs, shattering dozens of records, and ’96 was comparably blah. In context, I think Anderson was far better in 1996 than ’00. You’re right about ’97.

        It’s hard to evaluate Murray at this point in his career — and I applaud you for trying. I tend to agree that Murray looks more similar to Anderson than to Alexander and Campbell. But I think it’s dangerous to assume that not A implies B; that is, I don’t think Murray’s and Anderson’s dissimilarity from the others implies a close correlation between Murray and Anderson.

        I also think you’ve missed a crucial argument that could bolster your case: workload in the big season. Murray carried 392 times in 2014, including six games with at least 28 attempts, plus 57 receptions, the most ever by an 1800-yard rusher. He carried an additional 44 times in two playoff games. Anderson, of course, was similarly worked to death. Even if they weren’t similar before, the intense workload in a single season could have a similar effect on their careers afterwards. I might argue the same thing happened to Chris Johnson, who has never been the same since he had over 400 touches in 2009. Likewise with Alexander, and perhaps Campbell (though I think 1980 was a very different environment from the last decade).

        That’s the parallel with Anderson that I find most striking and significant.

        Lastly, I think we need to be careful about our use of round numbers: 1800 yards just barely excludes Larry Johnson, for instance, who also looks more similar to Anderson and Murray. You’ve found a pair of endpoints that produce interesting data, but we need to be cautious about how significant that data is.

        • Richie

          You reminded me that I wanted to see what the 1,800 yard endpoint did. Surprisingly, if you drop the number to 1,700 the only 2 players of interest who get added are Larry Johnson (as you mention) and Gerald Riggs (1,719 yards). Riggs finished his career with 8,188 rushing yards.

          I think the main thing I take away from Bob’s original post is that, for the most part, guys who rush for 1,800+ (or even 1,700+) yards are guys who end up with 9,000+ career rushing yards.

          It might be interesting to see if the 9,000 yards is due to compiling or efficiency. Or, does a player who has a big season like that just end up getting more future carries than an average back would?

          Maybe do something like calculate rushing yards over 50 in a game before and after the 1,800+ season to weed out the compilers.

        • Robert Ford

          Brad, you’re a very good analyst, and this is precisely the kind of dialogue I’d hoped the piece would produce. I’m very intrigued to read your upcoming series on RBs. Great news. It’s funny that even as our discussion is taking place Murray is now a Titan. How interesting it will be to see if he can produce what Chase called a “bounce back” season in his follow up post.

          Yes, those 408 touches in ’09 did in some way seem to deplete the best reserves of Chris Johnson. I’ve got some upcoming extended posts on my own site (goatbacks.com) that precisely relate to what you’re speaking to, which is to say precision and how it’s use (or lack thereof) can affect analysis, the actual epistomology of analytics, and logic progressions as they relate to conclusions drawn about football, and specifically running backs.

          Again, I hope you’ll keep me in the loop about your upcoming series. Very interested, and the dialogue here is greatly appreciated. By the way, you and I seem to regard “workload” as a key element in the evaluation of RBs, something I think at least “mainstream” media analysts often dismiss or overlook, as you just mentioned it in this most recent addition to the Murray/Anderson discussion. Workload considerations already figure prominently in much of my own analysis on my new site and will continue to in the future.

          Thanks and I hope to stay in the loop about your extended analysis on RBs.

          Thanks again.