DeMarco Murray isn’t the highest-priced free-agent bust, or the least productive big-money free agent ever signed. But Chip Kelly’s prize acquisition is the worst free-agent signing ever, definitely in the Millenial headline kind of way and maybe literally also.
It was one of the weirdest narratives of the offseason. Murray was the 2014 AP Offensive Player of the Year, his 2,261 yards from scrimmage the difference between several years of Tony Romo profligacy and 12-4. Yet, rumors the Cowboys saw Murray’s production as a product of their offense and not the other way around culminated in first letting him walk, then letting his replacements badmouth him.
This critique wasn’t entirely invalid; the Cowboys led the league in Adjusted Line Yards in 2014. Murray, who nearly doubled his previous career high of rushing attempts due to staying healthy for the first time in his career, hit few home runs and clearly slowed down the homestretch.
Even though signing a breakout running back to a big-money deal is like sitting at a slot machine that just paid out a jackpot, Kelly coveted his division rival’s tailback.
In theory, Kelly’s hat-on-a-hat run-blocking ethos works best with a back who bursts to and through the hole as quickly as possible. As talented as LeSean McCoy is, Kelly could plausibly have tired of McCoy’s east-west proclivities. That said, Kelly dealing the outspoken McCoy away for Oregon product Kiko Alonso seemed to be more about building a program in his image than improving the on-field product.
To fill the gaping hole in the backfield, General Manager Chip Kelly made a massive organizational commitment to Murray: A five-year, $42 million deal. It made Murray the fifth-best paid running back in terms of average annual value—higher than McCoy—and erased any lingering doubt that Kelly the GM would stop at nothing to rebuild the Eagles in his image.
And then Kelly the GM signed Ryan Mathews.
Perceived as the Eagles’ Plan B should Murray not sign, Murray’s signing deterred neither Mathews nor the Eagles from making a three-year, $11.5 million deal. Mathews’ talent had been evident in San Diego, but—like Murray’s three pre-breakout years—he struggled with health and ball security. Together with resident change-of-pace back Darren Sproles, the Eagles had signed a workhorse back and yoked him to two other runners.
Kelly’s other moves—lavishing a monster deal on one-trick corner Byron Maxwell, trading for quarterback Sam Bradford, running off Pro Bowl guard Evan Mathis—made no sense whatsoever, feeding a growing perception that as good as Head Coach Chip Kelly is at his job, General Manager Chip Kelly might be that bad.
After 13 games, Murray leads the team in rushing attempts with 176, and yards, barely, with 606. His miserable 3.4 yards-per-carry average is worse than every Eagle save Bradford. The offensive line Kelly the GM gutted just can’t execute Kelly the Coach’s physical scheme—and Murray doesn’t have the running lanes he was signed to run through. And he’s long since been relegated to rotational duty. With just 21 carries in the past three games, and just two for three yards in the Eagles’ most recent loss, Murray is clearly on the bottom of the totem pole.
“We’re just rotating our backs,” Kelly told the WIP Morning Show in his weekly interview on Monday, per Philly.com. “That was the rotation that we worked on during the week at practice.”
One wonders how Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Jamaal Charles or Arian Foster—the only five backs making more per year than Murray—would react if they were fully healthy, yet spent a week watching their supposed backups prepare to take 18 of 20 carries.
When ESPN’s Ed Werder reported Murray complained directly to owner Jeffrey Lurie about his situation, it spoke to the culture Kelly had created: When Kelly’s judge, jury and executioner, the only relief a wronged player has is a call to the governor.
— Jeff McLane (@Jeff_McLane) December 21, 2015
Murray’s $7 million base salary for 2016 is fully guaranteed, as is $2 million of his 2017 salary. Were the Eagles to trade or release him in the next league year, Murray would take a $13 million bite out of their 2016 salary cap—which could be nearly nine percent of their entire allotment.
If Murray were just a free-agent signing who didn’t work out, he wouldn’t be all that noteworthy—those happen all the time, every single year, even to great evaluators and cap managers. But Kelly the GM mortgaged his salary cap on a tailback Kelly the Coach couldn’t use, a failure of staggering scope.
Now, not only did Kelly intentionally destroy a contender-quality offense to build an obviously inferior unit, after three years in charge Kelly is farther away from realizing his vision than when he took over. Worse, it’s beginning to look like he may not have a coherent vision, other than Being in Charge.
Spending $63 million on three tailbacks who couldn’t possibly combine to replace the Pro Bowl talent he already had on the roster wasn’t crazy-like-a-fox, it was just plain crazy—and that everyone except Kelly could see it is a damning indictment of his ability to build a winner in the NFL.