ARLINGTON, Texas It's too bad the Dallas Cowboys needed an injury to Felix Jones to remember what a lead running back looks like. For the second time in three weeks, rookie DeMarco Murray rushed for more than 100 yards in leading the Cowboys to a 23-13 win over the Seattle Seahawks.
Jones was originally drafted in the first round to be a complementary back to Marion Barber. He became a feature back by default for the Cowboys when it became clear Barber couldn't handle the job. Murray, a third-round pick out of Oklahoma, is threatening to return Jones to change-of-pace back status.
He battered a somewhat underrated Seattle front seven for 139 yards on 22 carries two weeks after hanging 253 yards on the Rams. Murray was thrilled to meet one of his heroes, Emmitt Smith, before the game. And late Sunday afternoon, the legendary Tony Dorsett tweeted "this Murray kid is the truth."
For the record, Dorsett once said something similar about Julius Jones. But for now, it looks like Murray could have a profound effect on this Cowboys team that saw its record improve to 4-4. In a watered-down NFC East, being .500 keeps you in the hunt.
In the first half of the season, the Cowboys' offense has had trouble finding an identity. There's been a lot of talk about how much Jason Garrett trusts quarterback Tony Romo after watching him throw away games against the Jets and Lions. But with the emergence of Murray, this no longer looks like such a one-dimensional offense.
Even when the Seahawks threatened to make a game of it in the fourth quarter, Murray put out the fire with five consecutive carries that ran more than three minutes off the clock. If the Seahawks do one thing well (I'm reaching), it's not allowing opposing backs to surpass 100 yards. The Seahawks hadn't allowed that to happen in the last 13 times space-eating defensive end out of Texas A&M, Red Bryant, played a full game.
But Murray already had 86 yards at halftime. The game was tied at 6, in part because of Garrett's reluctance to feed the ball to his running back near the goal line. Murray set the tone midway through the first quarter when he took a pitch from Romo and raced 14 yards before running over former University of Texas safety Earl Thomas. It felt like we were at the Cotton Bowl for a moment.
"I have no love for Texas," Murray said with a smile.
The former Sooner has been so good that he's caused Garrett to reconsider his pass-first (and second) approach. The Cowboys head coach has never been known for committing to the running game, but Murray isn't giving him a choice. The threat of the run opened things up for Romo in the passing game.
Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten each had catches of 30 yards or more in Sunday's win. And owner Jerry Jones seemed thrilled at the sight of Romo throwing the ball downfield.
"The respect for the running game helped Romo make some vintage type plays," said Jones. "Teams weren't having to deal with Romo being Romo. The running game will open that up."
Jones, who has vowed not to second-guess his head coach publicly, said it was premature to say whether Murray would replace Jones as the permanent starter. But even if Jones remains the starter, it will only be in a ceremonial role. Murray's the more complete back because he can bounce a run outside or punish a defense between the tackles. He also takes pressure off an offensive line that feels like it has to be perfect for Jones to break a long run.
Starting guards Montrae Holland and Kyle Kosier, who is playing with a torn plantar fascia, were effusive with their praise of Murray.
"The thing that stands out is his attitude," said Holland. "Every time he touches the ball, he wants to score. If we give him a crease, he can take it to the house."
The good news for Cowboys fans is that none of this seems to be going to Murray's head. When Julius Jones broke out during the second half of his rookie season (2004), Bill Parcells challenged him not to be a one-hit wonder. But Jones bathed in the adulation and was ultimately a bust. Murray has an impressive work ethic and he doesn't seem to have the slightest interest in his celebrity.
"It's too early to pat myself on the back and I'm definitely not going to do that," said Murray, who has 466 yards over the past three games. "I have a long road ahead of me."
With Austin re-injuring his right hamstring Sunday and perhaps missing at least next Sunday's game against the Bills, the Cowboys will continue to lean on Murray. As crazy it sounds, he may be the team's best hope of making a serious run at the playoffs.