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Eagles' Murray needs to jump-start rushing game vs. Cowboys

A small plane landed in Philadelphia at 3:08 p.m. March 12. The stairs came down, and three people walked off. One of them was DeMarco Murray.

Eagles running back DeMarco Murray.
Eagles running back DeMarco Murray.Read more(David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)

A small plane landed in Philadelphia at 3:08 p.m. March 12. The stairs came down, and three people walked off. One of them was DeMarco Murray.

At that moment, enough fuel was added to the Eagles' rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys to get the aircraft back to Texas. Murray switched sides one season after leading the NFL in rushing yards while helping the Cowboys win the NFC East over the Eagles.

Hours after his flight landed, Murray signed a five-year deal with the Eagles worth as much as $42 million. He became a high-profile piece of the Eagles' offseason overhaul, a move that was supposed to bolster the Eagles and weaken the Cowboys.

Murray faces his former team for the first time on Sunday, when the Cowboys visit Philadelphia for the Eagles' home opener. A performance that harks back to Murray's 2014 season will not just show the Cowboys what they lost, but also show the Eagles what they gained.

It didn't happen in the opener.

Murray rushed for 9 yards on eight carries in his first regular-season game with the team. It was the third-lowest yardage total of his career, and the worst since he was a rookie in 2011. He played only 45 percent of the offensive snaps. The Eagles need more from the Cowboys' former star this week.

"We're not freaking out or trying to change a bunch of things," Murray said. "We believe in what we're doing. We know we have the right players and the right coaches to get the job done."

Grounded game

The Eagles' 63 rushing yards in Week 1 were tied for third worst in the NFL, but their 16 carries were tied for the fewest. That created a version of the chicken-or-the-egg conundrum: Did the Eagles not run the ball because they weren't running well, or did they not run well because they didn't run enough?

"I think it's a misconception to say that we didn't run the ball very well," coach Chip Kelly said. "It's tough to evaluate the run if we are not running it. We threw the ball [in the second half] because . . . we could move the ball very quickly down the field by getting the ball in the air."

The offensive linemen did not shy away from taking responsibility. Poor blocking and penalties grounded the ground game. Center Jason Kelce said the Eagles went away from the running game "because we had really bad run plays in the first half." It was the first regular-season game with Allen Barbre and Andrew Gardner starting together, although Kelly said the guards graded well, even though they were evaluated mostly as pass blockers.

Kelly's point about the passing offense was accurate - the Eagles had success moving the ball through the air in the second half, when Sam Bradford was 21 of 25 and the receivers in the middle of the field were reliable targets.

But the offense must be able to run the ball to realize its potential. The Eagles signed Murray and Ryan Mathews to join Darren Sproles in what might be the league's best backfield. Sixteen carries, regardless of the score, is too few.

"I think you're always trying to get what moves the offense, and there are going to be times when we run the ball 60 times, and there are going to be times when we have to pass the ball 60 times," Kelly said. ". . . You don't know if you're going to be up 20-3 or down 20-3. I think a lot of that is you've got to let the game play itself out, so that's always been our approach."

Running backs are best with rhythm. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said Murray is the type of rusher who improves as the game progresses. His eight carries did not allow for a rhythm. He lost 4 yards on four first-half carries and gained 15 yards on four second-half carries.

"It was a little tough," Murray said. "I felt there were some good things in the passing game that got us on the board, and we were playing well in the second. . . . But you always want to get as many rushes as you can and get your hands on the ball."

Murray's rushing numbers aside, his playing time also was noteworthy. The Eagles planned to use a rotation in the backfield, but playing only 45 percent of the snaps stands out for a player as important to the offense as Murray.

Sproles played 34 percent of the snaps, and Mathews played 22 percent. The Eagles did not use two running backs on the field together. If the Eagles use the multidimensional Sproles with Murray or Mathews, they could get the running backs more playing time. That would require taking a wide receiver or tight end off the field, though.

"You can do whatever you want," Kelly said. "We have five eligible receivers out there. We could get all three running backs in at the same time. If you are asking me theoretically can we do that, we can theoretically do that, yes."

Kelly leaves playing time distribution to running backs coach Duce Staley. They determine a plan during the week, and they have certain packages that require specific personnel groupings. Otherwise, Staley is responsible.

Murray played 74 percent of the Cowboys' snaps last season and 67 percent in 2013. This Eagles backfield is deeper, but he's still the reigning rushing champion.

"A little surprising, but as long as we're winning, I'm fine with it," Murray said. "We've got a lot of individual players that need the ball in their hands. . . . We'll see this weekend."

No hard feelings

The Cowboys entered the offseason with both Murray and star wide receiver Dez Bryant set to become free agents. Both were homegrown Pro Bowl players instrumental to the Cowboys' success. There's only so much salary-cap space to allocate and only one franchise tag to use, and Dallas fell victim to that reality. The Cowboys used the tag on Bryant and let Murray hit the open market.

"We had a situation where we had a few different guys up, and they hit free agency at the same time, and in a salary-cap era you can't keep everybody," Garrett said. "DeMarco was a great player for us. . . . Everybody in our organization wanted to keep him. Sometimes the business of the NFL gets in the way."

Garrett said the Cowboys were not dissuaded because of Murray's workload last season, when his 392 carries were the most of any player since 2007. He said that the Cowboys would have acted if they noticed any diminishing returns, but that was not the case.

Murray became the first rushing champion to change teams before the next season since 1947. On the day he signed, he called the contract "a great opportunity for me to win a Super Bowl" and said the Eagles' deal "definitely wasn't the biggest contract" offered. But it trumped the number Dallas was willing to pay.

Murray said he was approaching this game "like any other week," and he did not hold hard feelings against Dallas.

"Not from my end at all," Murray said. "This is a true business. I'm very emotionless when it comes to a lot of things - especially the business side."

So he flew from Dallas to Philadelphia, and the Eagles hope he tilted the balance of power in the division when he did it. But the unbridled optimism about the Eagles in the preseason turned to concern last week.

At the end of Murray's news conference on Wednesday, the backdrop banner behind him fell. Murray turned around and caught it with one hand just before it fell on his head.

Murray kept the sky from falling on him once last week. He must do the same for the Eagles on Sunday.