The presence of running back DeMarco Murray was felt throughout the offense in 2011. Murray provided a burst through the hole and versatility to line up all over the field as a rookie, but his biggest impact may have actually been reflected in Tony Romo’s stats. With a legitimate running game that forced defenses to move eight men into the box, the ‘Boys were able to “run to set up the pass” for the first time in a long time.
Of course, no one should expect Murray to maintain his blistering pace from last season. Murray averaged 5.47 yards-per-carry (YPC)—the fourth-best total for a rookie running back since 2000 (behind only Maurice Jones-Drew, Adrian Peterson, and Clinton Portis). YPC is a stat that tends to “regress toward the mean,” i.e. it evens out over time. Simply put, it isn’t reasonable to expect Murray to continually rush for 5.47 YPC (or even anything close to it).
When I was writing my book, I found that only around 40 percent of a running back’s YPC carries over from year to year, on average, with the other three-fifths regressing toward the league mean of 4.3. Thus, the calculation to predict Murray’s 2012 YPC is pretty simple: 0.6(4.3) + 0.4(5.47) = 4.77. All other things being equal, past running back production suggests Murray will rush for somewhere around 4.77 YPC in 2012.
When we talk about Murray’s 2012 stats, YPC isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. Instead, we want to know how many rushing yards he’ll put up. While Murray’s efficiency will be a factor in that calculation, the most important aspect of rushing for a lot of yards is simply getting the ball often.
Over the past three seasons, the top two running backs in Dallas have averaged 306 total carries. Assuming Murray and Felix Jones both remain healthy in 2012 (admittedly a big assumption), I don’t think there’s much reason to expect the team’s total carries to deviate from that 306 number too much.
Now, the big question becomes ‘How will Jason Garrett split up the carries?’ While fans might be clamoring for Murray to garner 75 percent of the running back workload, that simply isn’t going to happen. Garrett has never provided more than 65 percent of carries to a lead back, and I don’t expect it to happen this year, even with Murray’s talent. Don’t forget that Jones has also been an extremely efficient player whose perceived value has deteriorated because of injuries.
If we project Murray to secure 65 percent of the running back touches, that would give him 199 carries on the season. Just over 12 carries a game might sound low, but it’s unlikely Garrett is going to switch from a running back by committee system to an offense led by a workhorse back. Even at 70 percent of carries, which is really a peak projection, Murray would acquire only 214 carries. At the projected 4.77 YPC, that’s 1,021 rushing yards—a number I’d love to see Murray hit but one that many fans would consider sub-par.
An injury to Jones or another season of outstanding efficiency could catapult Murray even higher than 1,021 rushing yards, but at this point, I think somewhere between 950-1,050 yards is what we can expect from the second-year sensation.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.
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