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The Dallas Cowboys must keep on playing DeMarco Murray. Sports franchises should never sit their star players in meaningful situations, and injury avoidance is not a smart reason to sit a star.
Teams need their best players in games with playoff implications. Murray has been essential for the Cowboys, and he is on track to break franchise records. He is also the best rusher in the league in terms of picking up crucial first downs and in rushing efficiency statistics, as measured by Defence-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). The Cowboys have an excellent record at 7-3, but with six games to play, a playoff spot is not guaranteed. Dallas needs Murray to continue to carry the team in order to avoid disappointing a disgruntled fan base that hasn’t tasted the playoffs in four years.
Apart from a top seed in the final game of an NBA season, most teams will have something to play for. It could be home field advantage; it could be for an individual scoring record; it could be to install a specific strategy. Teams have immediate objectives to meet and need their stars in order to meet them.
Some may counter that San Antonio Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich’s willingness to bench starters was in order to keep his star players fresh and healthy down the stretch. They will argue that resting the stars earlier in the season helped the Spurs win the NBA Championship. But in the Spurs’ case, Popovich was right in benching his starters because he was trying to implement a specific style of play. Against the Heat in last year’s regular season, Popovich wanted to give his bench confidence and also build chemistry in his alternate lineups through increased playtime. He had a strategic objective that went beyond protecting the health of his starting five.
As long as a team’s strategy is based around a star player, that player is needed in the game. Popovich’s strategy gave him the flexibility to pick multiple players. The Cowboys do not have a strategy that would allow them to sub in another running back for Murray and still be able to see the same levels of success.
Also, resting a player for a game is not going to preserve him in the long run. In the NBA, a star will play around 36 minutes a game. Over an 82-game season, 36 minutes of extra rest will have a minimal effect on protecting from wear and tear. Similarly, in the NFL, injuries are very common and happen throughout the entire season. Resting a player for one game does not remove the high risk of playing such a violent sport.
Teams should also play their stars out of respect for the fans. People worldwide dispense their cash on game tickets, television licenses, and merchandise. Fans coming out to games want to see the best players play. Think about the widespread frustration when Popovich benched his starters against the Heat. Administrations need to put the best sporting product on the field. That means putting the best players on the field.
Murray has accepted his workload and will do whatever the Dallas coaching staff asks of him. The Cowboys should keep giving him the rushing responsibility he deserves.
As an athlete’s performance improves, it stands to reason that his or her workload will often simultaneously increase. Pitchers will log more innings if they can be effective, goaltenders will start more often if they can make saves, and running backs will get more touches if they can help their team score points. All too often, however, scenarios pop up during which teams enjoy too much of a good thing too early in a season. Players get overworked and end up injured or exhausted late in the season, and they become unable to perform down the stretch or in the playoffs. To combat this problem, teams often opt to reduce the amount of time a player is used so that they can remain effective in the long run. This is what the Cowboys should do in the case of star running back DeMarco Murray.
This strategy is an effective one if employed properly. It should be made clear, however, that it is not possible for every team to do this. In order for it to work, a team’s roster needs to have enough depth and skill so that it can still win games, even when a star is on the sidelines.
As the San Antonio Spurs’ star players have grown older, Head Coach Gregg Popovich has opted to limit their minutes during the regular season, keeping them fresh for when the playoffs come around. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili all play far less than they did in their heyday, but the Spurs have remained a staple in the late rounds of the playoffs.
The ability to use star players somewhat sparingly is a large part of why depth is so important in sports. In hockey, having a competent backup goalie means that the starter does not need to play 60 to 70 games in the regular season. While there are freaks of nature who are capable of doing this—Jonathan Quick for example—most get worn down as the minutes pile up. Marc-Andre Fleury, for example, has become notoriously bad in the playoffs, but that may be related to the intensity of his regular season workload. The Penguins have not had a solid backup in quite some time, forcing Fleury to start 60-plus games in each full season since Pittsburgh last won the cup in 2008-2009. Even the legendary Martin Brodeur, who carried his New Jersey Devils teams to multiple Stanley Cups, eventually needed more rest during the regular season in order to be valuable during the playoffs.
One of the most famous iterations of this debate centred on Stephen Strasburg, a young pitcher for the Washington Nationals. Coming off of Tommy John surgery, Strasburg was shut down in the midst of the Nationals’ 2012 playoff run in order to protect him from further injury. The Nationals lost in the opening round, and many were quick to point to the decision to sit Strasburg as a reason for the team’s fate. Despite the disappointing finish, it was still the right call in the long run. Washington had a deep rotation at the time, and two years later, Strasburg is coming off of a 200-inning campaign in which the Nationals reached the playoffs.
While the Cowboys would be unwise to sit Murray altogether, Dallas should drastically reduce the amount of action he’s getting. Comparable running backs with similar stat lines in the past have historically regressed significantly in the second part of the season as they begin to get worn down. The Cowboys have a strong offensive line, competent backups, and a potent passing attack—all of which suggest that the offence would not be crippled with Murray seeing fewer touches. Giving him a chance to recover will not only help the Cowboys later this season, but will help ensure that Murray can be a force in Dallas’ backfield beyond this year.
—Wyatt Fine Gagné