Does Trading DeMarco Murray to the Titans Make Sense for the Eagles?

Murray was unhappy in Philadelphia, but Tennessee should welcome him with open arms.

San Francisco 49ers head coach Chip Kelly was always expected to make titanic waves when he cannonballed into the National Football League’s time-space continuum.

He integrated his Oregon “Blur” offense into the professional game, and for a year or so, his speed-spread approach worked. Once he was given the keys to the entire Philadelphia Eagles franchise, though, it all fell apart.

Even though this article isn’t about Kelly, it’s impossible to talk about the Eagles’ players of the last few years without noting the seismic impact their ego-drenched former head coach left on them.

Running back DeMarco Murray, for example, would never have been an Eagle if not for Kelly’s absurd spending spree on running backs last year and would never have been traded this week to the Tennessee Titans if not for that stockpiling. This is one of those â€œN if L” moments: what if Murray had re-signed with the Dallas Cowboys? What if the Eagles traded Ryan Mathews instead?

All of these situations also bring up questions about the future of our current timeline: will Murray be able to recover his career in the Music City?

Let’s hop into our time machines and find out.

Hindsight is 20/20

Let’s warp back almost exactly one year ago, to March 12th, 2015. DeMarco Murray -- coming off of a career year with the Dallas Cowboys in which he led the league in rushing yards -- signs a free agent contract with the rival Philadelphia Eagles. The Cowboys then went through the entire offseason without acquiring a major player at the running back position, except for ex-Oakland Raider Darren McFadden.

But what if Murray had re-signed with the Cowboys?

We can compare the 2015 fortunes of Murray and the Cowboys’ eventual lead back, McFadden, through traditional measures like rushing yards and touchdowns, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. At numberFire, we have the Net Expected Points (NEP) analytic that helps us assess a player’s real value.

NEP is a metric that helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and shows how that player did versus expectation. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. If Murray runs for five yards on 3rd-and-2, it means more to the game than it does on 3rd-and-10, and those plays should be valued accordingly. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

So, the table below depicts Murray and McFadden’s 2015 campaigns in terms of Rushing NEP and Reception NEP, and their ranks among running backs in each category. Did the Cowboys end up better for their decision?

Player Rush Rush NEP Per-Play Rush Success % Rec Rec NEP Per-Target
DeMarco Murray 194 -5.73 (32nd) -0.03 (t-30th) 33.51% (51st) 44 18.39 (19th) 0.33 (t-29th)
Darren McFadden 239 -4.41 (28th) -0.02 (t-25th) 41.42% (22nd) 40 16.26 (23rd) 0.31 (t-32nd)

Fascinatingly, there was only a marginal difference in the value of Darren McFadden behind the elite offensive line of the Cowboys and DeMarco Murray behind the decimated (primarily through trades and cuts) Eagles’ line. The value that each contributed was relatively similar, despite vastly different situations.

People have anecdotally described Murray looking slower and worn down since his 2014 breakout, and while it’s true that he’s not running behind the new millennium’s iteration of The Hogs anymore, his Rushing Success Rate -- the percent of runs resulting in positive NEP -- was the fourth-lowest among the 55 running backs with at least 100 opportunities in 2015. With a moderate efficiency rate but a poor Success Rate, this indicates that Murray relied a lot more on big plays in 2015 than consistent gains.

In the Moment

Our second question begs answering, then: were the Eagles better off keeping Mathews and trading Murray? Aside from the obvious issues Murray had with the organization itself, I wonder if the team sacrificed any value by moving their bigger-money “franchise back” to the Titans in this recent trade.

Fortunately for us, NEP helps us peer into the crystal ball and see what might be. The table below shows Murray again, but compared this time to remaining Philadelphia runners Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles. Who was the odd man out?

Player Rush Rush NEP Per-Play Rush Success % Rec Rec NEP Per-Target
DeMarco Murray 194 -5.73 (32nd) -0.03 (t-30th) 33.51% (51st) 44 18.39 (19th) 0.33 (t-29th)
Ryan Mathews 108 0.54 (17th) 0.00 (t-18th) 46.30% (6th) 20 8.71 (33rd) 0.31 (t-32nd)
Darren Sproles 83 7.22 (8th) 0.09 (4th) 45.78% (7th) 55 25.71 (9th) 0.31 (t-32nd)

There’s almost no division between Mathews and Sproles in terms of receiving value -- excepting only that Sproles had a whopping 55 more targets than his teammate -- and both had positive Rushing NEP marks, both in terms of total and per-play Rushing NEP. Sure, we have to take small sample size into account with this, but both also had top-10 Rushing Success Rates among the 55 qualified running backs this year.

Murray, on the other hand, never seemed to be a fit for the Eagles' rushing scheme, and it shows in his numbers when compared to his ex-teammates. His receiving values are comparable and slightly better on a per-target basis, but his rushing value is much worse than that of his peers.

It’s possible that Murray’s legs were not fresh due to his heavy 2014 workload, but I think it’s also entirely likely that he thrived in the Cowboys’ power-blocking scheme and faltered in the Eagles’ zone-blocking one.

Whatever Will Be, Will Be

Now, to the trade.

Murray finds himself on the Tennessee Titans with a much more exciting quarterback than he had with the Eagles in Marcus Mariota. The offenses were actually shockingly comparable last year, with the Eagles ranked 23rd in the NFL in Adjusted Offensive NEP per play (0.01) and the Titans ranked 31st in this metric (-0.03). The Eagles had better passing play last year, but remember that the Titans had to turn to subpar backup quarterbacks for five of their 16 games. We could see this unit greatly improve in 2016, especially if they draft Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil at the first overall selection in the NFL Draft.

But I digress. Did the Titans make the right call in trading for DeMarco Murray? Is there a spot for him on the team? We turn to NEP once more to discover the answer. The table below compares Murray to all of the Titans’ running backs from 2015 who had at least 100 total opportunities.

Player Rush Rush NEP Per-Play Rush Success % Rec Rec NEP Per-Target
DeMarco Murray 194 -5.73 (32nd) -0.03 (t-30th) 33.51% (51st) 44 18.39 (19th) 0.33 (t-29th)
Antonio Andrews 143 -21.32 (51st) -0.15 (51st) 35.66% (44th) 21 7.87 (34th) 0.27 (t-37th)

Yeah. I’d say it makes sense. Going forward, Titans head coach Mike Mularkey made it abundantly clear that he realized that the team’s 24th-ranked rushing attack was a big issue with the offense and that improving the ground game would take pressure off of young passer Mariota to carry the team on his shoulders.

By acquiring Murray, the Titans may have gotten a player on the downswing of his career but one who has a veteran presence, has no competition (which will make him very happy), and is still performing moderately well. On top of that, the Titans are likely to continue running a man-power blocking scheme under Mularkey, which we know Murray loves.

As for the Eagles, they acquire draft pick compensation to help restock a depleted roster and rid themselves of a major cap burden and locker room headache, while losing little-to-nothing in the run game.

This trade makes sense for both sides, even if the course of history it took to get here was a little bizarre.