Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray is dominating the NFL right now, leading the league with 670 yards in five games, 210 more than the next guy, Le'Veon Bell. Murray got there on 130 attempts, an absurd number at this point of the season (sad-ass LeSean McCoy is in second place with 94). He's on track to pass his 217 career-high touches from last season rather quickly. Can the Cowboys limit their bell cow's usage and keep him healthy?
With that amount of activity, Murray unsurprisingly has the best DYAR and fifth-best DVOA for running backs. Let's take a look at the history of running backs who had 130 carries or more in their first five games, though. Per Pro Football Reference, since 1960, eight other players have achieved that feat: O.J. Simpson (152 touches!), Eddie George, Ricky Williams, Curtis Martin, Earl Campbell, Arian Foster, John Riggins, and Jerome Bettis. Of those eight, six played complete seasons. (Simpson's happened when the season was 14 games; Riggins and Bettis each played 15.) All but Bettis finished those seasons with the best or second-best rushing total of their career. There was no common age among the players. Some accomplished it near the beginning of their careers, others near the end, so there's no real body of evidence saying Murray is doomed to get burned out. George, Williams, and Foster all did it at or around 26 years old, the same age as Murray. Within their respective seasons and the seasons immediately following them, there was no stark decline. (Williams did abruptly retire from football in 2004, though, only to return in 2005.)
Murray's injury history, however, is concerning. With the Sooners, he dislocated his patella in 2007, and suffered a hamstring pull in 2008. He had more hamstring problems in the preseason of his NFL rookie season in 2011, but he jumped up the depth chart, surpassing an injured Felix Jones and sucky Tashard Choice. Murray ran for 253 yards on 25 touches in Week 7 against the Rams, but his breakout was cut short due to a fractured ankle in Week 14. He missed six games in 2012 after spraining his foot, and two games in 2013 for an MCL sprain. Running backs get banged up all the time, but Murray has a résumé stuffed with legitimate ailments. Giving him 130 carries in five games seems unwise, even if he's led the Cowboys to a 4-1 record.
For what it's worth, head coach Jason Garrett is aware of Murray's workload; he said backs Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar see more time in the future. Randle will likely get the first shot at the second string. It's a small sample size, but the sophomore's earned 61 yards on 11 carries. His existing 2014 film shows that he's exceptional at cutting, and he could be quite helpful in short-yardage situations. Dunbar hasn't had a touch since Week 2, but maybe that will change. However the touches are distributed among the three, they should find a lot of success behind the Cowboys' offensive line.
Murray is extremely talented, but the five guys up front have been just as important. According to Football Outsiders, Dallas has the fifth-best line in the league through five games, producing 4.49 adjusted line yards per carry. (For the unfamiliar, adjusted line yards factor in the line's performance on short to medium runs, which are broadly more attributable to the line than all runs.) Left tackle Tyron Smith, who signed a sneaky-bad deal this offseason, has been an excellent blocker for the run, as well as the pass. Right tackle Doug Free, who racked up an absurd 15 penalties in 2012 and eight in 2013, has had only one flag thrown on him so far. Rookie right guard Zack Martin, who was the pick that was almost Johnny Manziel—depending on how much you believe that—hasn't been perfect, but is still starter-worthy, and should improve with time.
On the play below, center Travis Frederick takes on linebacker Ramon Humber, while Martin delivers his first block and moves up the field. Multiple Cowboys blocked multiple defenders on the play. The GIF doesn't show the end, but Murray stayed on his feet and kept running for a 22-yard gain. The combination of an excellent line and excellent running back means plays like this can happen:
Here's another one, Smith and left guard Ronald Leary open up a hole, Murray uses his cuts, and Frederick gets to the second level. This resulted in a touchdown:
Murray finished the game with 149 rushing yards.
The line faced a big test in Week 5 against the Texans. Defensive end J.J. Watt can break down plays by himself, but against the Cowboys' line, he wasn't able to disrupt backfields like he normally does. Watt had two stops and four tackles, but Dallas didn't let him overwhelm the offense, and for the most part Leary handled him without needing help:
There were more runs away from Watt than at him, but the Texans end had a weak game by his standards. Murray finished with 136 rushing yards.
Murray combines speed, balance, fast and fluid cuts, and the strength to move piles, a lot like another fellow Sooner alum, Adrian Peterson. Murray and Peterson are nearly the same build, with Peterson being listed as one inch taller. Murray is already 26, and at that point Peterson had already played four superb seasons before a down year. In his age-27 year, he ran for 2,097 yards and won the MVP. He's been hampered by injuries, but given his age and style, it isn't unthinkable that Murray could enter a brief, sudden prime.
The only significant weakness of Murray right now is his ball security. He already has fumbles, more than any other running back. That's partially due to the sheer quantity of touches, but his security could get better.
The Cowboys are really riding Murray, because he keeps the offense from falling into the old broken record of incompletions or short gains on first down, followed by forced and hopeless prayers on third-and-ass. Dallas can eat up clock on the ground, and the passing offense gets to pick its spots more carefully.
A heavy reliance on Murray notwithstanding, he should get a break in next two games anyway: The Cowboys have the Seahawks' top rushing defense and the Giants' top-10 front coming up—games in which Murray really shouldn't be crashing into the line 30 times—and a few weeks later has its bye in Week 11. There's obviously no way to guarantee a healthy Murray for 16 games, but so long as the Cowboys don't break him on purpose, he has all the tools to keep busting up the league.