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The Value of DeMarco Murray in 2016 (Part 1)

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Reviewing the Titans’ 2016 season, focusing on DeMarco Murray’s important role in the team’s 2016 turnaround (Part 1 of 2).

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

As the anticipation for the 2017 NFL season grows by the day, It can be difficult to remember what the expectations were like for DeMarco Murray entering 2016.

Murray’s disastrous 2015 campaign with the Philadelphia Eagles loomed large, as did concerns with the Titans’ offensive line.

The trade to bring DeMarco Murray to Tennessee was announced on March 7, 2016 (my 24th birthday), with the trade terms emerging two days later. The Titans had agreed to drop back 13 spots in the upcoming 2016 NFL Draft in return for the rights to negotiate a new contract with DeMarco Murray.

While the obvious consensus is that DeMarco Murray had a “down year” for the Eagles in 2015, his 702 rushing yards would’ve easily led the Titans backfield, where Antonio Andrews was the most productive back with just 520 yards on 3.6 yards per carry.

In fact, the Titans were entering 2016 coming off of six consecutive seasons outside the top-10 in the NFL in rushing yards, with no running back reaching 100 rushing yards in a single game since Chris Johnson did it in December of 2013.

Tennessee Titans Team Rush Yards

Year Attempts Yards Yards Per Carry
Year Attempts Yards Yards Per Carry
2010 406 (23) 1727 (17) 4.3 (14)
2011 376 (30) 1438 (31) 3.8 (29)
2012 378 (T-26) 1687 (21) 4.5 (10)
2013 462 (10) 1894 (14) 4.1 (19)
2014 356 (29) 1447 (26) 4.1 (18)
2015 371 (28) 1485 (25) 4.0 (17)
2016 476 (4) 2187 (3) 4.6 (4)
(NFL rank in parenthesis)

So those expectations for DeMarco Murray, outside of the Tennessee Titans fanbase? Yeah, they were pretty low...

Cameron De Silva of Fox Sports wrote an article ranking all 32 NFL rushing offenses before the 2016 season. He had this to say of the Titans, ranking them 20th:

Had it not been for Marcus Mariota's 252 yards on the ground, the Titans would have had the worst rushing offense in the NFL last season. Even still, they were just 25th. The front office made a concerted effort to change that, trading for DeMarco Murray and drafting Derrick Henry, giving them a "thunder and thunder" duo. The ground game will improve thanks to those additions, but the offensive line still leaves plenty to be desired. Mariota adds another dynamic on offense, which should help -- just not enough to make them dangerous. The Titans will finish towards the bottom of the league in rushing once again as Murray clearly isn't the same player he was in Dallas in 2014.

Preseason

It didn’t take long for DeMarco Murray to prove himself in Tennessee. He brought more than just a fresh pair of legs to the Titans’ backfield; Murray demonstrated a much-needed level of savvy, veteran professionalism that had been lacking from the roster the past few years.

He made an impression early in OTAs, as Jim Wyatt wrote for TitansOnline.com:

Titans running backs coach Sylvester Croom is sold on veteran running back DeMarco Murray. He loves his work ethic, his leadership skills, and his ability. He’s been blown away by what he’s seen this offseason.

“He’s a coach’s dream,’’ Croom said of Murray.

In the preseason, the Titans rushing attack was firing on all cylinders. In the first quarter of the first game against the former San Diego Chargers, DeMarco Murray broke off a 71-yard touchdown run on a 3rd-and-1 carry.

“Exotic Smashmouth” was on full display. The Titans finished the preseason ranked second in the NFL in team rushing yards with 644 on 5.4 yards-per-attempt.

The impact of new offensive line coach Russ Grimm was not overlooked. John Glennon wrote about it in the Tennessean:

One of the primary reasons for Lewan’s optimism is new offensive line coach Russ Grimm, who replaced Bob Bostad.

“I think Russ Grimm has everything to do with it,” Lewan said. “He’s got a real laid-back attitude. He demands certain things out of you, but he doesn’t do it in a rude, mean, malicious way. ... So it should be better. It’s going to be a lot better this year.”

Week 1

When the regular season began, Titans 2nd-year quarterback Marcus Mariota was surrounded by many new faces: he was handing off to two new running backs in the backfield; his top three receivers were added in the offseason, with Andre Johnson not joining the team until the day before training camp began; he had two new offensive linemen starting in front of him (soon to be three), including the one handing him the ball on every play; and, also of note, Mariota was learning to run a new offense under first-year offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie.

It’s no surprise the team leaned heavily on DeMarco Murray early in the season. It was Murray’s tough running and sheer determination that set the tone early for the Titans and allowed the team to jump out to an early lead against the Vikings in Week One.

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Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worst for the Titans in the second half. Under heavy pressure, Mariota threw an ill-advised pass into the arms of Eric Kendricks, who took it 77 yards the other way for a touchdown. Just plays later, the unfamiliarity between Mariota and Murray resulted in a botched handoff exchange, which Danielle Hunter picked up and returned for a second Vikings’ defensive score.

The Titans couldn’t overcome the mistakes and started the season with a losing record.

Week 2

On the road against the Detroit Lions in Week Two, the Titans had trouble getting anything going on offense, even giving up a safety after a pre-snap miscommunication between Mariota and his offensive line.

It was DeMarco Murray, showing off his vision and burst, who was able to break off one big play in the first half, but it would take a lot more for the Titans to get back in the game.

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With just over three minutes to play and still needing a touchdown, the Titans were faced with a crucial 3rd-and-1. Mariota cycled through his reads before finding his fifth option and the only player open for a first down: DeMarco Murray.

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On the very next play, Murray, leading the comeback for the Titans, put a move on Detroit linebacker Terron Armstead (#50), and Mariota found him for a 22-yard pickup, putting the Titans in striking distance at the Detroit 24-yard line.

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A few plays later, Mariota found Andre Johnson for the game-winning score on 4th down, making the Titans a 1-1 team for the fourth consecutive year.

Mariota was a remarkable 9-of-9 passing on the final drive. He led the Titans to victory with the help of DeMarco Murray, who racked up 49 total yards himself on the 83-yard game-winning drive.

Week 3

Returning home the following week to face the Oakland Raiders, the Titans adopted a gameplan similar to the one used in Minnesota, utilizing power run formations featuring DeMarco Murray.

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Although the power run game was working, problems on third down doomed the Titans’ offense, as they went 2-for-12 on third-down conversions in the game.

That failure to convert eventually ended the game for the Titans, as they missed on a 4th-and-goal with a chance to tie the game.

DeMarco Murray turned his 16 carries into the franchise’s first 100-yard rushing performance from a running back in nearly three years, finishing with 114 rushing yards and adding 41 yards through the air on 5 receptions, as well as the team’s first rushing touchdown of the season on a diving effort.

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Week 4

It did not get easier for the Titans in Week Four against the division rival Houston Texans. Despite going down 17-0 early in the game, the Titans stuck with the running game and allowed DeMarco Murray to lead another comeback.

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Murray tied it up with a one-yard plunge shortly before halftime.

Unfortunately, the Titans’ ineptitude on special teams cost them this game. A punt return touchdown by Will Fuller ended up being the deciding factor when the Titans failed to convert on a late 4th-and-6.

DeMarco Murray finished the game with 119 total yards and two touchdowns.

Week 5

The Titans continued to ride DeMarco Murray despite the team’s 1-3 start. Against the Miami Dolphins in Week Five, it was a successful strategy.

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Not to take anything away from Marcus Mariota’s four-touchdown performance against the Dolphins, but Murray was sensational in Miami, again setting a tough and physical tone with plays like the one above.

Although Murray didn’t score any touchdowns himself, he put the team in scoring position multiple times with his 121 yards on a whopping 27 carries.

His presence in the backfield allowed Marcus Mariota to score in the below play:

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ProFootballFocus noted the number of missed tackles Murray forced in Week 5 as the most of any running back in any game in 2016.

Week 6

The Cleveland Browns had clearly seen the Titans’ commitment to giving DeMarco Murray the football throughout the first five weeks of the season. Smartly, they focused on stopping Murray, but that only opened up the field for 40+ yard plays like this one:

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The play-action fake draws the free safety forward, allowing Kendall Wright to get behind the defense for a 48-yard touchdown.

The Titans built up a large early lead and were able to maintain it despite the Browns late push, giving the Titans their first winning streak since 2013 and bringing their record to 3-3.

Murray surpassed Antonio Andrews’ 2015 season rushing total (520 yards) in Week 6 of 2016.

Week 7

The Week 7 game against Indianapolis was heartbreaking. The Titans battled back from a 17-6 first-half deficit to take a 23-20 lead late in the third quarter.

Murray was again a crucial piece of the offense, contributing 107 yards on 25 carries and 20 yards receiving, including this unbelievable effort to reach the ball across the goal line for the touchdown:

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After allowing the Colts to regain the lead 27-23 with just under two minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Titans got the ball back with a chance to drive down and win the game.

Unfortunately, on the first play of the drive, Mariota was sacked, stripped, fumbled, and the Colts recovered for a game-sealing touchdown.

Week 8

The Titans headed into their annual Thursday Night Football matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars with a 3-4 record and a bad taste in their mouths from the previous week’s loss.

By halftime, the game was a 27-0 blowout. But it came with a price...

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Just after the two-minute warning, Murray took a 3rd-and-13 carry for 19 yards and a first down, but injured his toe on the run.

That injury would go on to linger for the remainder of the season.

Despite the injury, Murray returned to the game in the second half and finished with 123 yards and a touchdown on an average of 5.9 yards per carry. He became the first Titans running back to record back-to-back hundred-yard games since Weeks 10 and 11 of the 2012 season, when Chris Johnson ran for 141 and 126 yards, respectively.

Marcus Mariota had a phenomenal game himself; it seemed the Jaguars were simply not prepared to face the Titans’ offense in this short week. Mariota was 18/22 passing, and three of his incompletions were throw-aways, giving him an adjusted completion percentage of 95%, with two touchdowns and zero turnovers in a win so dominant that Matt Cassell finished the game. His 36-yard touchdown pass to Kendall Wright was set up by play-action similarly to the 48-yarder against Cleveland.

Murray’s influence was starting, over the last four games, to really open things up for the passing game.

As the month of October ended, marking the season’s halfway point through eight weeks, DeMarco Murray was the NFL’s 2nd-leading rusher behind Ezekiel Elliot.

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