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DeMarco Murray did everything the Cowboys asked of him, and more. So how is it that the All-Pro appears headed for a breakup with Big D?

IT WAS one of DeMarco Murray's few false steps all season. After receiving the Offensive Player of the Year award at the NFL Honors show on the eve of Super Bowl XLIX, the Cowboys running back pivoted to his left in search of the presenters who would escort him offstage. But they were, in fact, standing to his right, resulting in an ungainly 360 and a rare negative play for the All-Pro.

Murray's minor faux pas was eclipsed by the graciousness of his acceptance speech, during which he thanked, among others, "the Jones family"—Dallas owner Jerry and executive vice president Stephen—"for taking a chance on me.... It's been a privilege to play there."

"Hopefully," he added, with a comic's timing, "we can continue that."

The Cowboys in the house laughed hard, just as they'd cracked up earlier in the evening when emcee Seth Meyers announced his intention to show some safe-tackling footage but instead screened slow-motion video of Jerry's and Stephen's awk-sauce man hug with New Jersey governor Chris Christie.

The laughter has long since died down at the Cowboys' Valley Ranch headquarters, and not just because, with a week to go before the start of NFL free agency, on March 10, they were still waiting, nervously, for the (inevitable? possible?) release of a video believed to show receiver Dez Bryant doing something unsavory. And while no such video had surfaced as SI went to press, its existence—rumored or otherwise—certainly did not allay any concerns the club might have about signing Bryant to a long-term deal, which helps explain why, on Monday, the Cowboys franchise-tagged him, at a cost of roughly $13 million.

If the club is going to pay Dez, goes the conventional thinking, they'll probably have to part ways with Murray, whose 1,845 rushing yards in 2014 led all backs by nearly 500 yards. Jerry Jones and coach Jason Garrett have one-upped themselves in their effusive praise of Murray, but it remains to be seen whether Dallas is willing to match those words with the quantities of cash that some rushing-deprived team (sidebar, page 35) is sure to throw at this guy: a deal in the Arian Foster--LeSean McCoy neighborhood of five years, $45 million minimum, $20 million guaranteed.

"I do know this," says former Cowboys quarterback Babe Laufenberg, now a color analyst on Dallas radio: "Jerry has never lost a player he really wanted to keep."

Following the awards show, the Cowboys contingent filed onto Jerry's party bus, a Greyhound-sized, luxuriously appointed sin bin that whisked them away to Lon's, a high-end eatery in Scottsdale, Ariz.. There, Jones stopped by the tables of other diners, making small talk and apologizing—"Sorry if we were a little loud"—before eventually joining Murray, quarterback Tony Romo, tight end Jason Witten and the rest of their raucous cohort on the bus, a traveling billboard that combines the team-building aspects of an office party with the convenience of a designated driver. It is, in short, an idea whose time has come.

It may also be time, non--Cowboys partisans, to set down your stein of Haterade and admit that Jones, now 72, has been on a bit of a roll lately. Old Jerry, '90s Jerry, may have come off sometimes as a showman, a huckster, a carnival barker in a $5,000 suit. New Jerry, while still a marketing genius, has about him an aura of near-gravitas. New Jerry is steadfast and farsighted, more Warren Buffett than P.T. Barnum. He's patient. Jones didn't blow up his coaching staff after three straight .500 seasons. He tinkered with it but retained his promising young coach. He didn't draft Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel, regardless of the marketing windfall it would've reaped. ("Somebody duct-tape him to a chair," Laufenberg recalls thinking of Jones as Dallas's first-round pick approached last May and Johnny Football remained available.) Instead, the Cowboys used the 16th pick on Notre Dame lineman Zack Martin, who became one of three Cowboys hogs to make the Pro Bowl, along with left tackle Tyron Smith and center Travis Frederick.

After paying it lip service for three years, Dallas fully committed to the run in 2014. The results were dazzling. The Cowboys rushed for 147.1 yards per game, second best in the NFL. With room and time to operate, as defenses crowded the box to stop the run, Romo turned in arguably the finest season of his 11-year career. At 34, he led the NFL in completion percentage (69.9), yards per attempt (8.5) and passer rating (113.2). Romo will be around next season—he'll count $28 million against the cap, but hey, it's tough to begrudge that of a franchise QB—and so too will his most dangerous target, Bryant, the skywalking wideout whose talent is matched only by his volatility.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum is the stoic, low-key Murray, whom the Cowboys also failed to lock up before the start of free agency. He will now test the market—not an encouraging sign for Dallas. "If he's going into this, he's going into this with an open mind," says his agent, Johnson, who remains hopeful the two parties can come together. "The Cowboys have a history of finding a way to keep great players, particularly when they're great people."

Murray put up great numbers last season. But does anyone believe he's a great back? And will Dallas pay him accordingly? His absence could wound this club more deeply than it realizes. The intense, reserved and somewhat inscrutable Murray is a master of what Garrett calls, admiringly, "dirty runs," the guy who did more than any other player to infuse this offense with its identity. The 2014 Cowboys played with a gritty, borderline-nasty rep that they've been missing for two decades, since Emmitt Smith was slicing through holes opened by such ill-tempered behemoths as Larry Allen, Erik Williams, Nate Newton and Kevin Gogan, a player so dirty that he was once ejected from a Pro Bowl.

Granted, Murray doesn't look particularly imposing, unless he's glowering—he's a private person disinclined to disguise his displeasure at the sight of reporters gathered around his locker—or swinging at you. He's friends with UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta and trains with MMA fighters in the off-season. Listed at 6 feet, 217 pounds, Murray looked 10 pounds lighter by the end of 2014. That's what 392 carries—plus 57 receptions, not to mention another 48 total touches in the postseason—will do to you.

"He looks slender," says Dallas's running backs coach, Gary Brown, "but he plays bigger than what he looks."

And more tenacious. One thing that's surprised Murray's coaches, says Garrett, "is how physically tough he is at the end of runs." Upon watching Murray as a rookie, it delighted the Cowboys that "at the end of runs he was always going forward," Garrett goes on. "Always going downhill. You thought he made four [yards], but he made six. You thought he made six, but he made a first down."

The most extreme expression of Murray's toughness came in Week 16 this season. One day after he broke a metacarpal in his left (nondominant) hand during a mid-December win over the Eagles, he underwent surgery: Doctors implanted a plate and eight screws. When his agent, Bill Johnson, raised the possibility that he take some time to recover, Murray cut him off: "My legs work fine. They can cover my hand. I can deal with the pain. I'm going to practice."

Two days after surgery he practiced. The following Sunday he had 22 carries and a touchdown in a 42--7 rout of the Colts, a win that clinched the NFC East for the Cowboys, snapping a four-year playoff drought. Suspecting that Indy would target his left hand, he tucked the ball into his left arm on his very first carry, "to throw them off a little," he said afterward with a smile.

He is, for the most part, a smoldering, unsmiling young man whose demeanor made this reporter wonder: What is pissing this guy off? During a brief, unscheduled one-on-one with Murray in a Cowboys Stadium corridor after the team's wild-card win over the Lions, I noted that he seemed to play with a measure of anger, then asked him (not in so many words), Is something pissing you off?

I had some ideas ahead of time. He'd entered 2014 with a reputation, dating to his Oklahoma days, for being slightly brittle. He'd slipped to the third round of the '11 draft, in which five running backs were taken ahead of him, none of whom has gone on to reach even 1,000 rushing yards in a season. ("Of course, there's a desire, to make teams wish they didn't pass him over," his agent, Johnson, confides. "Whether he articulates it or not.")

"I don't worry about where I was drafted, or what people say about me," said Murray. "Anything that's said outside this locker room, I couldn't care less about. My motivation is, I love playing football, I love playing for these guys, I love winning."

But would he agree that he seemed to play angry? With edge? "It's a physical game, and the way you earn respect, the way you get guys ignited, is making big plays, obviously, but also being physical. You can't outrun everyone; you can't make everyone miss. So sometimes you've gotta try to impose your will on the opposition." Ever so briefly, he smiled.

HERE'S WHAT made DeMarco so tough," says his father, Kevin Murray. "His older brothers were always challenging him. They were rough on him, and if he cried, they told him, 'Shut up!'"

DeMarco grew up outside of Las Vegas, the youngest boy of Kevin and Lorraine Murray, who had four sons and three daughters. The couple split up when DeMarco was seven: Lorraine took the girls, and the boys went with Kevin. And while DeMarco's older brothers didn't pamper him, their old man wasn't exactly a port in the storm, either.

An old-school disciplinarian, Kevin Murray insisted that his sons work for their money, starting when they were nine or 10. He recalls, "These boys didn't grow up with a silver spoon." If he felt DeMarco had given less than his best effort at a Pop Warner practice, that day's training continued when they got home. As darkness fell, "I'd have him out in the middle of the street, doing up-downs," says Kevin. And if the kid squirted a few tears during those drills? That was no reason to stop.

DeMarco longed to play running back for his team, the Firebirds, but they already had a sensational back, Quinton Carter (a free safety for the Broncos in 2014), and so Murray was relegated to linebacker.

Was he any good? "He was vicious," says his father. Going into his freshman season at Bishop Gorman, a private school, DeMarco announced that he intended to play running back.

That seemed like a bad idea. He'd never played the position in his life, and he would be under Carter on the depth chart. Nonetheless, Murray was adamant. After two days with the freshman team he was moved up to junior varsity. A week later he was starting for the varsity. Carter transferred to a public school.

David White was hired as Bishop Gorman's coach after Murray's freshman season. Before meeting Murray, he saw pictures of his star tailback with his hair braided in rows, adorned by white beads. "I remember asking someone, 'Who's this with the Rick James look?'"

By his sophomore season Murray had sheared off those rows. He and White became close, but not right away. He was standoffish, "kept me at arm's length," the coach recalls. "Not in a rude way. He was just very private." Gradually coach gained the trust of player.

Gifted as he was, Murray was not demonstrative. "There were times I wanted him to be more excited about what was going on," says White, who notes that, despite starting as a freshman, Murray wasn't named team captain until his senior season.

Instead, Murray let his actions speak for him, like the time White was walking through the gym alongside Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and Sooners running backs coach Cale Gundy. Neither coach could talk to Murray, who was then an underclassman; they were there to visit another player. But that didn't mean Murray couldn't leave an impression on them.

"Why don't you show 'em a little something?" White suggested to Murray, who obliged by throwing down the type of elaborate, high-flying dunk that becomes legend. Gundy recalls Murray bouncing the ball off the backboard, catching it mid-flight, then slamming it through. In White's version the dunk features a 360. Either way, Stoops looked at his assistant and posed two questions: "Are you kidding me?" And, "We've offered him, right?"

Oklahoma's primary competition for Murray came from USC, but Trojans coach Pete Carroll looked at Murray and saw ... a cornerback.

The Oklahoma coaches half agreed, such was Murray's supreme athleticism. "He could've been a first-round pick as a corner," says Gundy. But with Adrian Peterson having just bolted for the NFL, they needed Murray in the backfield. And while he never ran out of Peterson's shadow in Norman—the dislocated right kneecap in 2007 and the ruptured left hamstring in '08 didn't help—Murray did set the school record for career all-purpose yards (6,498) and touchdowns (64).

In that time he earned the admiration of Barry Switzer, who'd coached both the Sooners and the Cowboys in his day and now lived 800 yards from Oklahoma's stadium. As the 2011 draft approached, Switzer made himself a bit of a pest, repeatedly reminding his former boss, Jerry Jones, that the Murray kid would be a nice fit in the Cowboys' offense.

"So I'm watching the draft that year, the third round's coming up, and my phone rings," Switzer recalls. "It's Jerry, in the war room. He says, 'Barry, tell these guys what you told me.'" Switzer obliged thusly: "You all are the luckiest sons of bitches in the world because this kid is a first-round talent falling into your lap, and if you don't take him, you're as crazy as that time you didn't take Randy Moss."

Over the speakerphone came a wave of laughter. Moments later Dallas drafted DeMarco Murray.

FOUR YEARS later, will they keep him? The arguments against:

• He's just turned 27, late-middle-age for an NFL running back. With nearly 500 total touches last season, more than any player in the past 16 seasons, the question is valid: How much tread remains on his tires?

• Any old Joe could rush for 1,000 yards behind that line, right?

• It's 2015. Running backs have been devalued; that's been well covered. Why pay Murray top dollar—or close to it—when you can bring in another veteran and divvy up carries between him and Todd Gurley, the home-run-hitting back out of Georgia who, due to his left ACL tear in November, could still be available in the April 30 draft when the Cowboys pick at No. 27?

The case for holding? That argument is eloquently made at 7:30 every weekday morning during the season, when Murray meets with Brown, the running backs coach, and they spend an hour eating breakfast while geeking out on ... defensive fronts.

"You've got to understand where the guys are lined up, where the weakness is going to be," says Brown. "The great ones I've worked with, they understand the game beyond, I'm gonna run to the five hole."

Finding the creases in the Cowboys' zone-blocking schemes is part art, part science. Murray is really good at it; a savant, the best in the business. Not everyone figures it out. Maybe the 'Boys draft Gurley and it turns out that he, too, has a superb knack for reading fronts, setting up his blocks and finding that daylight.

Then again, maybe he doesn't.

That night on the bus, after hitting the DirecTV bash outside of Phoenix, Jerry and Stephen and Garrett and Romo and Witten and a few others were lounging around, shooting the breeze into the wee hours.

Talking to the elder Jones, Romo motioned to Garrett and Stephen. Those two, he estimated, "have another 25, 30 years" in the business. "You and me," said the quarterback to the owner, "we've got three to five."

The window is open, in other words. But it won't be for long.

All the more reason to keep Murray on the bus.

"Always going downhill," Garrett says. "You thought he made four yards, but he made six. You thought he made six, but he made a first down."

"If you don't take him," Switzer told the Cowboys on draft day 2011, "you're as crazy as that time you didn't take Randy Moss."


Three teams that could sign Murray


Ahmad Bradshaw: has-been. Trent Richardson: never-was. Dan Herron: meh. Indy—$42 million under the cap—can afford a marquee name.


You thought they only needed a better third-string QB? Arizona ranked 31st in rushing last year. Situation: desperate.


The Steven Jackson experiment fizzled out. Murray's style is a perfect match for new coordinator Kyle Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme.


Photograph by Mike McGinnis Getty Images

MURRAY'S LAW Before 2014 the 1,800-yard rushing mark had been broken 20 times, and every one of those backs returned to his team the following year. The Cowboys may end that streak when free agency begins.



STAR BRIGHT Emmitt Smith, the most famous Cowboy (and the NFL's alltime leading rusher), never broke 377 carries or 1,773 yards in a season. Murray blew by both in his fourth year.



BLOCK LIKE ME The debate in Dallas: Who to credit for the Cowboys' rush to success—Murray or the guys like Martin (70), who opened his running lanes.