Demarco Murray and the Commitment to Creating a Culture
In today’s version of the NFL, the position of running back is one that is ever evolving. While production from the position is still critical, the overall importance of a solitary talent at the position has become less relevant. Quality of play of other positions, committee approaches involving multiple backs specializing in certain areas based on scheme, and proof that years of heavy use lowers effectiveness are all factors that have contributed to teams committing less money to the position. This is why many successful tailbacks have changed teams during their careers, and why many recent big money running back signings have not ended successfully. One of the best examples of this can be seen in the career of Demarco Murray. However, unlike many previous backs whose careers never recovered, Murray decided to take a different approach to achieve better results.
In 2014, Murray established himself as one of the best running backs in the league. In a year where he gained over 2000 yards from scrimmage, he won the NFL Offensive Player of the Year award, and helped the Cowboys reestablish themselves as a contender. Despite all these accomplishments, the 2015 off-season quickly brought drama and uncertainty as the Cowboys showed resistance to committing long term to their stalwart tailback. Enter Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles. Despite coming off their own dramatic situation with the trade of LeSean McCoy, Kelly and the Eagles wanted quality talent in their backfield. On March 13th, Murray signed a five year, 42 million dollar deal with the Eagles that included 21 million guaranteed. Murray was quoted as saying, “I felt it was a great opportunity for me to win a Super Bowl, at the end of the day.” Many looked at the Eagles as being the favorites in the East and having a bounce back season. However, the reality of the 2015 season was the exact opposite of what many had hoped and predicted. A season full of negative news and health concerns dominated the headlines in Philly, especially surrounding Murray and how he fit Kelly’s scheme. This was one of the major contributing factors to Kelly being fired on December 29th, 2015, and made it almost certain Murray would be traded or released due to his unfavorable contract. As had happened so many times before, Murray’s contract had quickly become a liability no one seemed to want. In a year’s time frame, Murray went from arguably the NFL’s best back to a unwanted veteran with injury concerns and a large contract.
Around the the time the Eagles were ridding themselves of their coach, the Tennessee Titans were looking to hire a new general manager. In the middle of January in 2016, they made their choice with the hire of young exec Jon Robinson, one who had a reputation of identifying talent through the draft and free agency. However, Jon Robinson’s first major move as an NFL GM came on March 9th, 2016, when he moved back 10 picks in the fourth round to acquire the rights to Demarco Murray. Many in the media praised Howie Rosman, the Eagles GM, for finding away to get rid of Murray’s big contract. Others simply viewed it as the Titans wanting to get a known name on the field for a franchise that had won five games in the previous two seasons. Very few considered it to be a move that would make the Titans significantly better, or a situation for Murray to return to being an elite back. Murray’s outlook took another significant hit during the 2016 draft, when after trading the number 1 overall pick, the Titans used one of the acquired picks to draft Heisman trophy winner Derrick Henry. After a tumultuous 2015 season, several NFL experts viewed the handling of Murray in the off-season as a sign he, like many others before, would have a short NFL career and that his productive days were behind him.
As can be seen above, heading into the summer of 2016, Demarco Murray was viewed as just another running back whose career quickly had dropped off a cliff. Further injuries, ineffective play, off the field issues, and a large contract made many feel Murray was much more of a burden than cornerstone of success. However, one thing that Murray clearly displayed that many running backs in the past had not was a team focused mindset. Instead of trying to focus the attention on himself, Murray bought into the Titans overall plan to get back to winning football, and welcomed the addition of Derrick Henry. In the words of coach Mike Mularkey, the Titans were looking to form a brand known as “Exotic Smashmouth”, a hard-nosed offense centered around running the football and winning at the line of scrimmage. While many scoffed at the idea of a run-centric offense in an era were passing was more prevalent than ever, Murray, Henry, Marcus Mariota, and the offensive line all went to work buying into the team and perfecting their assignments to achieve success. That effort led to results beyond what many had hoped during the 2016 season. The Titans improved by six wins, the offensive line was considered one of the best units in the NFL, Mariota’s production reached a level many did not expect from him so quickly, and Derrick Henry delivered on the potential the Titans saw in him. While each individual contributed to the success, the biggest impact on the offense as a whole came through Demarco Murray. Murray emerged from all the turmoil over the previous year to lead the AFC in rushing, during a season in which he played half his games with a bad foot. His professionalism and work ethic, as well as his determination to play through injury, served as an inspiration to the rest of his team during many comeback wins. While they finished just short of the playoffs, a culture of winning football had been created, with Demarco Murray being a cornerstone.
The 2017 continued the progress of the Titans reestablishing themselves as a successful organization. While the offense as a whole regressed, the team achieved its first playoff victory in a decade. Unfortunately, Demarco Murray was not able to contribute, as his season had been cut short again by leg injuries. Despite an injury filled year and a reduced role, Murray continued to be a significant presence for many Titans, supporting the team even when he could not play. Following the season, and with no guaranteed money owed, the Titans parted ways with him. While it was the right move for the team on the field, it was one that many in the organization did not enjoy completing. While he only played two years for the Titans, Murray’s contributions go far beyond the field or box score. The way he handled himself through adversity, his work ethic and preparation, the support he showed others, and his role in helping the Titans develop an identity to achieve long term success are all examples of how Murray made a positive impact on many that will resonate for years. Murray retired this past Sunday after seven years in the NFL. While many may remember him for the elite ceiling that he displayed over multiple years, or his time as Cowboy, Murray will likely be most revered in Tennessee for not only his play on the field, but the effort he put in to laying the foundation for a future culture of success off of it.