On the Mathews Over Murray Argument

Why Mathews may be the better option for now.

Photo by: Jeff Fusco.

Photo by: Jeff Fusco.

Asked about the differences in the running styles of DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews, Chip Kelly instead talked about why they are the same.

“I think they’re both tough, hard-nosed, physical guys that are going to make one decision on their cut and stick their foot in the ground and go. I think that’s why I say they are similar. I think they’re a lot more similar than they are different, to be honest with you,” he said.

That was the narrative heading into the season: that Kelly picked up a pair of north-south runners that fit his system (unlike freestyler LeSean McCoy). Take one out and put the other in, and defenses were going to get hit with the same type of hammer.

But the impact of the swings have been different, at least through the first quarter of the season. Mathews has 132 yards on 33 carries (4.0 avg.), most of which came in the win over the Jets when Murray was sidelined with a hamstring strain. Murray, meanwhile, has 47 yards on 29 attempts (1.6 avg.) heading into the Saints game. The gap in production has introduced a public conversation about whether Mathews is the better fit for Kelly’s offense. Given the limited sample size, using  four games to draw any firm conclusions — especially when one back was out with an injury for one of those games — is premature. It’s interesting to note, though, that this opinion was being whispered by some people in the know well before the Eagles took their first snap of the 2015 season.

Count Brian Westbrook among those who believe Mathews is better suited for this offense.

“[Dating back to] earlier in the season, I kind of felt that his style probably fit this offense a little bit better just because of the way he runs and his ability to be shifty in certain situations,” said Westbrook.

“With DeMarco, I actually like him as a running back. The problem is that the style that he has kind of lends itself to making people miss downfield instead of in the backfield. And because of the struggles the offensive line has had and because of some of the types of runs that Chip has DeMarco running, it really doesn’t play into his favor.”

“If DeMarco Murray is running outside zone [or the sweep], so he’s running parallel to the line almost until he gets outside of the tight end/tackle, then he has to turn up. That’s not really what he can do,” Westbrook continued. “Murray is much better once he gets his pads going downhill, meaning if he can get three, four yards downfield, you’ll see a different type of running back than we’ve seen the first couple weeks here.”

One insider likened Mathews to a sports car and Murray to a muscle car. Both good, but one can get from zero-to-sixty faster and is more adept at making quick turns, while the other needs to be opened up a little more before hitting its stride.

Murray, then, needs a little room to operate around the line of scrimmage to gather steam. Last year he was afforded that space behind Dallas’ stout offensive line. According to numbers tabulated by Pro Football Focus, initial contact on Murray runs came at the 2.2 yard line last season. So far this year, contact is coming at the -0.4 yard line on average. He’s been hit in the backfield on 41.4 percent of his runs this season compared to 19.1 percent in 2014.

“What’s happening right now to the Eagles offensive line is that they’re allowing penetration on almost every single play,” said Westbrook. “So now he has to make a guy miss in the backfield which basically stops his momentum. It’s a stop and start type of thing, and for bigger backs that’s not as easy…they want to get their momentum going and then be able to make a cut.

“You see it on the long run he had last week: once you get him going, he’s a load to deal with down the field. But you have to get him going.”

Another way “to get him going” is to continue to feed him. Murray is accustomed to being the workhouse. Following the loss to Washington, Murray said he does not feel he’s getting enough touches. Ideally, he’d be able to work himself into a lather by getting, say, 20-25 carries.

“Yeah, but if you have 22 carries for zero yards, we better call another play. You know what I mean?” said Kelly of the current offensive struggles. “I would love to get everybody in a lather and going but when we’re not having success running the ball at all, then it’s tough to say, hey, we’re going to make sure we get him 22 carries and he’s lathered up.”

Plus, Murray now has to share the load with Mathews and Darren Sproles. 

“You always want to be on the field no matter what,” said Murray. “It just so happens that we haven’t been getting as many opportunities that they’ve gotten in the past when they’ve [run] seventy-some plays and we’ve only been getting forty, fifty, sixty plays, so it’s kind of cutting that a little short for us and for me individually. But you can only control what you can control, and the amount of plays that I’m in there, I can’t control that.”

Murray noted that this system is “totally different” from Dallas’ and took some getting used to early on, but it’s not like it is all that foreign to him, either. He said he ran the “same offense in college” and it obviously didn’t hurt him there, as he ran for over 3,600 yards and 50 touchdowns at Oklahoma.

Some tweaks could surely be made to put Murray in a better position here in Philly. Westbrook, for instance, suggests putting the quarterback under center more to alter the angle so Murray’s shoulders are square to the line of scrimmage. But it largely comes down to the offensive line doing its part so the 6-foot, 217-pound back doesn’t have to work through so much traffic at the point of attack.

Until that happens, the shiftier Mathews may in fact be the better option.