Murray and Mathews say they're happy sharing load
The helicopter that hovered over the NovaCare Complex on March 12 tracked DeMarco Murray - not Ryan Mathews. The cameras that clicked along the path to the lobby of the Eagles facility captured Murray, the reigning NFL offensive player of the year with the Dallas Cowboys, and not Mathews, a former first-round pick coming off the worst season of his career in San Diego.
The helicopter that hovered over the NovaCare Complex on March 12 tracked DeMarco Murray - not Ryan Mathews.
The cameras that clicked along the path to the lobby of the Eagles facility captured Murray, the reigning NFL offensive player of the year with the Dallas Cowboys, and not Mathews, a former first-round pick coming off the worst season of his career in San Diego.
Both players were at the complex that day, and both signed contracts to share the backfield with Darren Sproles. But it was clear that day which one was the main event and which one was the undercard.
Or at least that's how it appeared in March.
Entering Sunday's game against the Cowboys, Mathews has been the more productive running back this season. Mathews has 342 yards on 56 carries, an average of 6.1 yards per carry. Murray has rushed for 307 yards on 88 carries, averaging 3.5 yards.
Mathews has insisted that he knew what he signed up for and he's not dissatisfied with his role. Both running backs said the team's record trumps their statistical production.
"It doesn't matter who's in the game," Murray said. "We're all rooting for each other. This is probably the closest running back room I've ever been a part of in my life."
Expect Murray to play a bigger role Sunday because Mathews has been bothered by a groin injury and is questionable to play. Murray has improved in recent weeks after a dreadful start to the season. Both will be featured in the offense when healthy. But at some point, the playing time and the production must align.
"I think the production numbers after the fact are easy to look at," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "We go into a game anticipating certain things are going to happen and then we play the guys. . . . You've got to play all the running backs when you're running the ball like we want to. So whether one gets a handful more than the other, in our minds it really doesn't quite matter, as long as they're both playing and they're both contributing."
Sharing the load
The Eagles always planned to have a shared backfield this season. They wanted to run the ball often, and they did not want the drop-off between their No. 1 running back and their No. 2 that they previously had in Kelly's offense - or that Murray was used to in Dallas.
Murray had 392 carries last season, the most of any NFL running back since 2005. Kelly was not worried about the effect it would have on Murray this season because he did not anticipate that Murray would near that workload. That was the idea behind signing Mathews - so the team would not be so reliant on one rusher.
"I don't think we have to give that running back that many carries," Kelly said on the day Murray and Mathews signed. "We have to be able to distribute those carries."
Money is usually the most potent enticement during free agency, especially on a player's second contract, and the Eagles did not skimp in their compensation for the two running backs. Murray signed a five-year deal worth as much as $42 million, with $21 million guaranteed. Mathews' deal went for three years and is worth $11 million, with $5 million guaranteed.
But both players have been featured Pro Bowl running backs during their careers. So, other than the contract value, they needed to be satisfied with the situation they were entering.
"We didn't sell anything," Kelly said this week. "We were just very honest in terms of what we're doing, and we were bringing two guys in here and those were the two guys we wanted, so ... explained it straight out. They knew that they were both here ... so they knew exactly what was going on."
The plan to replace LeSean McCoy with two running backs seemed to include Mathews throughout the process. The Eagles first tried signing veteran running back Frank Gore before he eventually agreed to play for Indianapolis. Kelly said in March that they informed Mathews about both the interest in Gore and the eventual pursuit of Murray.
Mathews said after signing that playing time was not even a topic of conversation during his visit to Philadelphia. He wanted to join Kelly's system, and he also thought Kelly's sports science program could help keep him healthy. And to Mathews' credit, he has not wavered even while producing more than Murray.
"When I signed up here, I knew what it was going to be with DeMarco signing and with [Darren] Sproles," Mathews said. "This is right around where I expected to be, with me being the backup. . . . It's about the team. It's not about me."
Mathews has been more of a big-play running back. He has four runs that total 145 yards this season. Take those rushes out of 56 on the season, and he's averaging 3.8 yards per carry. But he's also been better at gaining positive yards. Mathews has failed to gain a yard on 19.6 percent of his carries this season; Murray has failed to gain a yard on 21.6 percent of his carries. The coaching staff discusses the running back rotation during the week, but it's up to running backs coach Duce Staley to make the determination during games.
Mathews said he's "always been in a running back rotation," although usually he's the lead back. Mathews led the Chargers in carries for three consecutive seasons before he was limited to six games in 2014. So signing with the Eagles was an adjustment, even if it's not a problem.
"It doesn't bother me much," Mathews said. "[Murray] has done a lot of great things in his career to get where he's at, and he deserves it."
Mathews' production overshadows the fact that Murray has also been productive - at least in recent weeks. He rushed 21 times for 11 yards in the first two games, missed Week 3 with a hamstring injury, and then carried the ball only eight times in Week 4. After that game, Murray admitted he did not think he was getting enough touches.
Since then, Murray has 59 carries for 260 yards and two touchdowns in three games. That's 4.4 yards per carry and 86.7 yards per game. Those numbers don't compare to his production with the Cowboys last season, but they're respectable and don't necessarily warrant a demotion.
What complicates his situation is Mathews' effectiveness and Murray's early struggles. Consider the Week 2 Cowboys game, when Murray was under the microscope and rushed for only 2 yards.
Murray said the offense is better now than it was then. Shurmur said Murray is healthier now, although neither Kelly nor Murray supported that claim.
"I think every week you get more comfortable with the plays and the schemes," Murray said.
In his first game in Dallas since they let him leave in free agency, Murray said he's "not trying to make a statement" and that "it's just another game," which falls in line with how Murray has crafted his public image.
There's a scheme and role adjustment for Murray, who was the focal point of the Cowboys offense. The Cowboys have cycled through running backs in his wake, but executive vice president Stephen Jones told the Associated Press this past week that the "same decision, we'd make it again" because of how the Cowboys decided to allocate their money.
"I don't have any regrets," Murray said. "There's none on my part, there's none on their part."
He returns to Dallas in a different situation from the one he left, but with a bigger contract and with less production than the last time he played in AT&T Stadium. When Murray signed, he knew he would be part of a rotation. He just needs more production to justify being the lead back and merit the attention that flew overhead when he signed.
"I don't think there is any selling job that has to go on," Kelly said. "It's just, 'This is what we do, here is the offense that we run, and these are the guys we want to have be a part of it.' They both liked it."