When DeMarco Murray gets away, it's trouble.
Such was the case in last year's Week 6 matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and the Dallas Cowboys. During the last three plays of the Cowboys' game-winning drive, the then Dallas running back caused major problems. It started with 25-and six-yard runs by Murray, who led the Cowboys' charge to Seattle's 15 with 4:02 remaining. It ended when he raced up the middle and into the end zone for a touchdown, leaving Seattle's run defense — the best in the league — flat on its face. (Even a takedown attempt by Seahawks' cornerback Richard Sherman near the goal line failed.)
The difficulty in stopping this gridiron troublemaker, who had 115 yards in the Cowboys' 30--23 win, lies in his body control and balance. When Murray finds a hole, he goes for it — sidestepping a linebacker here, wiggling away from a safety there — before surging upfield. If the running lane is clogged, he will stiff-arm a defender and accelerate. If that fails and someone gets a hand on him, he'll employ a spin move or two to slip away. Then he's gone.
"At the end of runs DeMarco was always going forward," Dallas coach Jason Garrett said after last season. "Always going downhill. You thought he made four [yards], but he made six. You thought he made six, but he made a first down."
Murray was again on the move during this year's free-agency period. In March, he bolted to the Philadelphia Eagles, signing a five-year, $42 million contract. The Cowboys' loss is now their NFC East rival's gain: Murray led the NFL in rushing last year (his 1,845 yards in 2014 set a Cowboys record) and is the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year. He also became the first player in league history to start the season with eight consecutive 100-yard rushing games.
As he begins his fifth NFL season, Murray is gearing up to slip right into Eagles coach Chip Kelly's fast-paced offense and take off.
Before Murray became notorious for escaping linebackers, he was one. During his youth football days in Las Vegas, Murray played on defense, while the running back position was filled by Quinton Carter, who played free safety for the Denver Broncos in 2014. Just before Murray arrived at Bishop Gorman High School, he switched to running back. It was a natural fit for him. "I went to a camp the summer before ninth grade and did different kinds of drills. Coaches saw potential in me at running back, and the rest is history," Murray says.
He powered Bishop Gorman to three conference championships. As a senior in 2005, he was named the Sunset Region Offensive Player of the Year after rushing for 1,947 yards and 27 touchdowns. When he wasn't breaking tackles, Murray was a forward on the school's basketball team (he helped the squad win a state title in his final year) and a 100-meter sprinter for the track and field team.
A four-star recruit and the top-ranked running back in Nevada, Murray chose to attend the University of Oklahoma, where Adrian Peterson was already breaking records at the position. Murray redshirted during his first year on campus, then got a chance to leave his own mark the following fall after Peterson left for the NFL.
Despite suffering a dislocated kneecap and a hamstring injury during his sophomore year, Murray averaged 6.9 yards for every rush, reception, or kickoff return over four seasons as a Sooner. His 6,718 all-purpose yards and 65 total touchdowns (3,685 yards and 50 TDs rushing) are school career records.
Rising to the Top
While Murray enjoyed an outstanding career at OU, NFL teams didn't think he was first-round draft material. Or second round. After five running backs — starting with Alabama's Mark Ingram, whom the New Orleans Saints chose — were picked in the 2011 NFL draft, the Cowboys finally selected Murray in the third round, with the 71st pick.
He ran for 897 yards during his first year in the league, and against the Rams, he even rushed for the second-highest rookie total in league history (253 yards). The following two seasons, Murray battled injuries that kept him off the field for eight games (a sprained foot and MCL). This worried fans — and fantasy team owners — who wondered if he was becoming injury-prone.
Despite his aches and pains, Murray broke 1,000 yards rushing and received a Pro Bowl nod in 2013. Then came an impressive 2014 during which he confirmed that when healthy, he's nearly unstoppable. He carried the ball 392 times and scored 13 rushing touchdowns last season — the most in his career. The workload, although taxing, made him a menace to opposing teams. And there was no stopping him. Not even when he broke his hand in December against the Eagles. He had surgery the next day, before rushing for a touchdown in a win over the Indianapolis Colts the following Sunday.
Record-setting feats aside, Murray also helped shift the perception of Dallas as an overrated and underachieving team. With help from their star running back, the Cowboys were changing minds with statement wins against the Seahawks and the Colts. They won the NFC East and returned to the posteason after a four-year hiatus, though the team lost in its NFC divisional game to the Green Bay Packers — despite 123 yards on the ground from Murray.
"It was such a fun year, and individual success is always a blessing. But we came up short as a team," Murray says.
A Rival No Longer
Murray now starts a new chapter in Philadelphia. With the assistance of quarterback Sam Bradford, who was traded from the St. Louis Rams to the Eagles in the off-season, Philadelphia made a big pitch to land the prized running back. Bradford, Murray's roommate at Oklahoma, recruited his old teammate for a reunion. There were no emojis used (so it was nothing like NBA teams vying for DeAndre Jordan); Murray said they spoke by phone.
The familiarity of an old pal made the decision easier. "He didn't have to say too much. We're good friends," Murray says. "To get a chance to play with Sam again, I thought would be great."
Kelly's up-tempo, zone read offense was also appealing to Murray. "I'm fortunate to have landed on a team that loves to run the ball," he says. "Making this choice, it just felt right."
During the off-season, Murray studied the Eagles' games and tried to absorb as much information as possible. The self-proclaimed football nerd even put pen to paper when he was in study mode.
"I pride myself on being a student of the game. I watch a lot of film and take a ton of notes, not only on my position but also on offensive linemen, receivers, routes, blocking, and passing concepts. I've watched every game of theirs from last season," he says.
Is his handwriting legible though?
"It's pretty good, I think," Murray says. "It's not too sloppy. As long as I can read it, it's fine."
In between study sessions, Murray will be tasked with giving the Eagles a jolt. The team has finished 10--6 in each of the past two seasons and has made the playoffs only once in the last three years. (Philly lost its wild-card game in 2013.)
It'll be a tough job for Murray, who at 27 has reached late middle age for a running back. He's far from old, certainly, but he's not young in football terms, especially considering that the average pro career length at his position is less than four years. Knowing Murray, he'll just run with it.
Photos: Heinz Kluetmeier for Sports Illustrated (portrait), Ronald Martinez/Getty Images (Cowboys), Chris Szagola/AP (Eagles)