Murray ready to take it up a notch

OXNARD, Calif. -- DeMarco Murray is pragmatic about his plight.

Yes, he ranks second among the 29 running backs selected in the 2011 draft with 2,681 yards, and he's second in receptions (113) and yards (780).

And yes, he's coming off the best season of his NFL career, with 1,121 yards, a 5.2 average per carry and 10 touchdowns.

But the Dallas Cowboys aren't interested in signing him to a long-term deal right now. Actually, it's near the bottom of their priority list.

The Cowboys want to see if Murray can play 16 games for the first time in his NFL career. At 26, they want to see if he maintains the speed to accelerate through the hole, because the number of running backs whose effectiveness diminishes the closer they move to 30 is vast.

Some of the Cowboys' reluctance to do a long-term deal with Murray has to do with position.

Running backs just aren't considered valuable commodities in today's NFL. Only four have been selected in the first round of the draft the past three years -- and none is considered a star.

This is a passing league, and most teams rely on a two-man tandem to run the ball, in part because the game is so physically demanding.

Not a single player averaged 20 carries a game last season. Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy led the NFL with 314 carries, a 19.6 average.

Just 10 seasons ago, the New York Jets' Curtis Martin averaged a league-high 23.2 carries per game and 10 players averaged more than 20 carries.

"I'm not worried about my contract or running the ball," Murray said after a recent practice. "What good would it do? I don't worry about stuff I can't control.

"I've always been like that. I can control how well I run the ball and how well I prepare for my opportunities."

Everything is in place for Murray to have the best season of his career.

The offensive line, fortified by three first-round picks in the past four seasons, is the best it has been in years. As long as Tony Romo is healthy, the Cowboys will have one of the best passing games in the NFL with receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten.

And coach Jason Garrett and play-caller Scott Linehan have promised to commit to the running game. We've heard that before, but this time they claim to mean it.

"We believe in being a physical football team. I feel like for the first time in a little while we have a chance to be that," Garrett said. "We've drafted good players on offensive line. Controlling the game and controlling the line of scrimmage is what's won in football for a long, long time."

That doesn't mean Murray is going average 20 carries, but what it does mean is the Cowboys will be more persistent when it doesn't work, especially early in a game.

Murray's understanding of the offense, the blocking scheme and defenses is why he says he's ready to perform at a high level this season.

"I'm better in every way than my rookie year," he said, "but I've really gotten better at understanding defensive fronts and how to attack them.

"Skip Peete was a really good running backs coach, but Gary Brown has taught me a lot. I knew about under and over fronts, but now I know all of them. I know how we should block it and where the defense should come from."

Brown said the idea was to make Murray's recognition of fronts so good he doesn't even have to think about it -- no different than asking him to recite multiplication tables.

So they meet every morning during the season and at offseason minicamps and during OTAs to study videotape.

Brown puts a defensive front on the computer, they dissect it and figure out what Murray's read is when the Cowboys run a certain play. Then they discuss where the defense should be strong and weak if blocked perfectly. Then they go over each lineman's blocking assignment.

Then it's on to the next play.

"It has to be second nature for him," Brown said. "We want him reacting, not thinking. He's done a great job of learning and understanding the system, and that's why he's able to do what he does."

The result is a confident player who understands that some team is going to pay him at the end of the season whether it's Dallas or not.