Halfway to history, Dallas Cowboys tailback DeMarco Murray vastly prefers running his feet to running his mouth.
At his mandatory media availability Thursday, Murray looked like a man who would opt for an elective root canal rather than talk to a bunch of reporters about his historic start to the season. He has run for an NFL-best 1,054 yards, putting him on pace to eclipse the single-season rushing mark of 2,105 set by Eric Dickerson of the Los Angeles Rams in 1984.
Murray is as intentionally bland and colorless off the field as he is creative and electric on it.
His answers on Sunday’s opponent, the Arizona Cardinals, were as flat as west Texas.
“They’re a good defense, a very physical defense,” he said. “We’ll have our hands full. We’re excited about the challenge.”
Murray’s neatly arranged stall in the Cowboys locker room might as well be nicknamed the Shutdown Corner, and not just because he shoos away reporters. After all, that’s what Pete Carroll wanted him to be when he recruited Murray to USC in 2005. He envisioned Murray, a star running back at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, as a defensive back.
“Pete probably could have made him an NFL corner because DeMarco is so long and athletic,” recalled his high school coach, David White. “DeMarco was curious and interested about it, but he really wanted a shot at running back, and USC had three or four guys committed already. He just wanted a real chance to see if he could make it at the next level at running back.”
So Murray chose Oklahoma, which already had a budding superstar in Adrian Peterson. They overlapped for one season in college, and now Murray is chasing the rushing record that Peterson fell just short of breaking two years ago.
When the TV cameras clicked off after his two-minute media session Thursday, Murray perked up ever so slightly at the mention of his high school coach. He also was intrigued by a recent comment by Hall-of-Famer Marcus Allen, who praised Murray’s ability to improvise with the ball in his hands.
“If you get the right coach that allows and understands the DNA of a running back,” Allen told The Times, “the great ones, that there is a distinctiveness about them. Yeah, the play’s over there, but they may go somewhere else.… You want a coach that understands that and allows that to flourish.”
Reversing his field from his typical tight-lipped ways, Murray agreed with that assessment and said he has that latitude with the Cowboys coaches.
“That’s the good thing about here,” Murray said. “They give me the opportunities. They don’t coach me up on where the ball should go or where it needs to go. They kind of give me examples, ‘Hey, this is where we’re blocking and how we’re doing it,’ and then they let me use my eyes, trust my eyes and make it work.
“Sometimes I’m wrong, and I’ll get it fixed on the sideline. But being a running back is a lot of instincts. And stuff doesn’t always happen the way it’s drawn up.”
There’s an old saying in football: When you think, you stink. With running backs in particular, they’re usually at their best when they are in reaction mode, rather than following the script as drawn.
“When I was at my best, I was a little bit tired, breathing hard,” Allen said. “So there was less thinking and more consciousness, allowing my body to do what it does. That’s why I always tried to get a good sweat during pregame warmups, because I didn’t want to think about anything. I just wanted to play. I just wanted to be instinctive.
“We would go back and watch films on Monday, and players would say, ‘How did you do that?’ And the honest answer always was, ‘I don’t know. I just did it.’ ”
The Cowboys love that about Murray, and they point to runs such as one in the fourth quarter against the New York Giants in Week 7. All the blocking was set up for him to run left, but he saw something he liked to the right, and he cut back against the grain for a 17-yard gain.
“In the running game, you have your initial steps, your blocking scheme, you know the front, the secondary.… You have all that information, but once that ball’s in your hands, you’ve just got to go play football,” Cowboys Coach Jason Garrett said. “You know where the play’s supposed to go, but if it isn’t there, just go be a football player.
“DeMarco’s a really disciplined player. He does all the stuff the right way, then he just goes out there and plays.”
Were Murray to duplicate his current yardage total in the second half of the season, he would finish with three more yards than Dickerson. There’s a lot of football to be played, though, and one of the NFL’s more popular water-cooler topics this season is whether Murray can maintain his current pace. He’s gotten 206 carries so far, just off the 2006 record-setting pace of Kansas City’s Larry Johnson (416 carries).
Whether Murray likes it or not, the spotlight is focused squarely on him. He’s in the final season of his four-year, $2.9-million rookie contract, a modest deal for such a prolific producer. He is on track for a huge pay bump, if he can avoid being ground to a nub by season’s end.
The Cardinals will put him to the test. Their run defense is tied for the league low, giving up an average of 3.3 yards per carry. He is expected to shoulder more of the offensive load, too, because of Dallas’ uncertainty at quarterback. Tony Romo hasn’t practiced this week after suffering an undisclosed back injury in Monday night’s loss to Washington, and backup Brandon Weeden has taken all the snaps. So far, Romo hasn’t been ruled out.
Murray is the first NFL back to begin a season with eight consecutive 100-yard rushing performances. The previous record of six such games was set by Hall of Famer Jim Brown in 1958.
By all indications, Murray is concentrating on the next juke, the stiff-arm, the next touchdown, and not the history books.
And if he were, he probably wouldn’t say so anyway.