By Mickey Spagnola
IRVING, Texas — He's fast and elusive.
He's strong, powerful, and best of all, willing to stick his nose in the middle of things when necessary.
He has this quick-twitch burst and can cut laterally on a dime.
His hands are strong but pliable enough to snare the football out of midair.
And his maturity ... it's as if he has been here for years.
Please meet DeMarco Murray, capital D, capital M, the running back who has revitalized the Cowboys' running game at first blush since starting the past six games, the very guy the Cowboys have been searching high and far for ever since Emmitt Smith completed his journey with them to become the NFL's all-time leading rusher in the 2002 season.
And believe it, until the Cowboys found this prince of backs — assuming this early sample is for real — they sure sorted through a mess of guys, from Troy Hambrick to Julius Jones to Marion Barber to Tashard Choice to Felix Jones. But now, with five games remaining in the 2011 season, they are showcasing this double feature of Murray, the headliner, coinciding with the return from injury of Felix Jones, the backup act.
Talk about getting Wally Pipped.
Just how Murray got to The Ranch as a third-round draft choice almost supercedes the success he has had, and that success has been remarkable if you consider he broke out from, well, basically nowhere. Until he was featured for the first time six games into the season, Murray had run the ball only 25 times. He had caught only four passes. The farthest he had carried the football at one time was the 22 yards on the second of his only two kickoff returns, and that was in the fifth game.
A hamstring injury suffered training on his own during the locked-out offseason delayed his arrival to the Cowboys. The 23-year-old from Las Vegas essentially missed all of training camp, returning in time to receive only 17 nondescript carries during the preseason.
But when Jones suffered the high ankle sprain that deposited him on the game-day inactive list four consecutive weeks, it was Murray Time.
First, on Oct. 23 vs. St. Louis: Murray went 91 yards for his first NFL touchdown, the longest first career NFL TD run since the 1970 merger, and the second-longest TD run in the Cowboys' illustrious 52-year history, with only Tony Dorsett's 99-yarder longer.
In the game, Murray would rush for 253 yards on 25 carries, leapfrogging the franchise's previous single-game highs of Emmitt Smith (237) and Tony Dorsett (206), two Pro Football Hall of Famers, and leaving Murray almost embarrassed by his out-of-the-blue accomplishment that now ranks ninth all-time in NFL history and second to only Minnesota's Adrian Peterson (296) when it comes to rookie single-game performances.
Showing this was no fluke, Murray followed that up with two 100-yard rushing performances in his next three starts (the first starts of his career). His three 100-yard games are one short of the team's all-time rookie record, presently owned — maybe being rented because Murray still has five games remaining — by Duane Thomas (1970). He has as many rookie 100-yard games as Emmitt Smith, Calvin Hill and Julius Jones, but already more than Dorsett and Herschel Walker.
And Murray's six-game rushing total of 761 yards as the Cowboys moved to 7-4 following their 20-19 victory over Miami on Thanksgiving Day represents the most rushing yards in any six-game span in club history, wiping out Smith's mark of 744 yards in 1995.
Rather remarkable, no?
"He's been a dynamic player for us," says Cowboys TE Jason Witten, who has been here for the team's lengthy sojourn searching for Emmitt's replacement. "Our offense, and really our team, has been better and had success because of the way he plays."
But remember: Murray was just a third-round pick.
That brings us back to April 29, 2011, the second day of the NFL draft. Five running backs already were off the board, with the Cowboys creeping up on the seventh spot in the third round. They had gone into the draft looking for a running back, sort of a complementary one to Felix Jones. Just some guy who could take over third-down duties, pick up blitzes, catch the ball rather well, pitch in a series here and there, and maybe even return kickoffs.
To read the rest of Mickey Spagnola's feature on DeMarco Murray, finding out what convinced the Cowboys to draft Murray, purchase a copy of the current issue of Pro Football Weekly online at PFWstore.com. In this issue, you'll also have access to a feature evaluating the four rookie quarterbacks who have won starting jobs this season and a sidebar with a skinny on each rookie backup QB; our comprehensive fantasy football coverage; and our draft-related "Audibles" and "The Way We Hear It."