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November 05, 2015

Was Eagles RB DeMarco Murray playing hurt earlier this season?

Eagles NFL

The "Case of DeMarco Murray's Struggles" reached a tipping point following the Philadelphia Eagles' Week 2 home opener against Murray's former team, the Dallas Cowboys. Ever since, it's gotten more and more perplexing; one clue leads to another until we find out the first clue was either intentionally misleading or just plain wrong.

In that 20-10 loss, Murray rushed for two yards on 13 carries -- the entire team finished with just seven yards on 17 carries. And coming off a poor rushing performance the week prior, the Eagles suddenly found themselves among some historically bad company.

Perhaps one explanation for why Murray, the NFL's leading rusher a year ago, was so ineffective was due to a banged up offensive line that was still recovering from losing both its guards in the offseason. The Eagles have run the ball much more effectively in recent weeks, although they could be without Jason Peters in Sunday night's rematch in Dallas. 

But what if it wasn't just the offensive line? What if Murray was actually hurt? 

Yes, we know he suffered a hamstring injury that ultimately forced him to miss the Jets game. But that didn't happen until the Wednesday after the Cowboys game, and in the four games since returning, Murray's averaged 4.4 yards/carry, up significantly from the 0.5 yards/carry he averaged through the first two games.

On Wednesday, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur let it slip that the team's prize free agent acquisition may not have been as healthy as the team was letting on earlier this season.

"[DeMarco's] much healthier now than he was early in the season," he said when asked why the outside zone run hadn't been working for Murray. "We anticipate that he'll make better runs than he did early."

Hold on, what?

Shurmur tried to backtrack when he was asked to clarify.

"I wouldn't say [Murray's health held him back]," he added. "He's healthier now, though. He was healthy enough to play when he played. Nobody's totally healthy when they're out there after the first snap of the game."

While that makes some sense, it does so only in the vacuum of the present. Because once you take a step back at look at the big picture -- all the way back to training camp -- an interesting pattern begins to emerge, one that makes a lot more sense than Shurmur's half-baked explanation. 

"I feel better now than I did earlier in the year, but I wasn't hurt," he said when asked to explain how Murray can be healthier now if he was never hurt in the first place "You know what I mean? I think that's where I'm going."

From Day 1 of camp, Murray was noticeably absent from several practices -- some full, some limited -- and little reason was given by Chip Kelly, Shurmur, or even Murray. The closest thing we got to an explanation was failed hydration tests and sports science, which now is beginning to seem like a convenient way to hide an injury more than anything else.

It's not just what Murray, and his coaches, have said -- or, more accurately, what they haven't said -- that hint at the fact his rough start was due to health. It's also what we've seen from him on the field.

The one thing that was made abundantly clear: DeMarco Murray was not injured.

Still, there's a difference between being hurt and being injured. Maybe that's what Shurmur was getting at when he said Murray is healthier now; it could all just be a big misunderstanding. At least that would explain why Kelly seemingly had no idea what his offensive coordinator was talking about.

"I don't think so, no," Kelly said Thursday when asked if Murray wasn't 100 percent early on. "That's a good question for DeMarco. He's been up for every game and active for every game. He missed the Jets game obviously. That's a question for him in terms of what he says on that one.

"We didn't look at it when the games he was active [like] ‘Let's limit his carries because we don't think he's healthy.’ He was healthy enough to go in all those games. He was good to go."

The coach has a point there. Considering how careful the Eagles were with Murray in camp -- if he was indeed hurting -- it would seem strange for them to rush him into game action. They have two more-than-capable backups in Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles. He may not have had a serious injury, but rather just some bumps and bruises that collectively hurt Murray enough to slow him down.

Following practice on Thursday, Murray was asked whether or not he was hurt the last time his team faced the Cowboys.

"I played in the game," Murray said, avoiding a direct yes or no answer. "I was out there playing."

But that's the way the 27-year-old rusher's been all along. Even when pressed later about Shurmur's comments, Murray was rather vague in his response.

"Everyone is [healthier] coming off a bye week," he said.

It's not just what Murray, and his coaches, have said -- or, more accurately, what they haven't said -- that hint at the fact his rough start was due to health. It's also what we've seen from him on the field.

Over the last four games, Murray has looked like a different back. He's looked faster, quicker and more powerful. He's been getting to the corner and making his way to the second level of opposing defenses rather than being tackled before making it back to the line of scrimmage. So while the offensive line's improved play has certainly aided his recent improvement -- as well as that of Mathews and Sproles -- they can't be responsible for improving Murray's speed and agility. 

If there were any concerns about the ex-Cowboy's health heading into their first meeting with Dallas, that likely won't be the case this weekend. Coming off a bye, Murray has had plenty of time to rest -- after all, he did carry the ball a league-high 392 times last year -- and that could be more important than ever this weekend.

Not only are the stakes high -- a win will keep the Eagles atop the NFC East -- but the offense could be without Mathews, its leading rusher, for the first time all season. Despite being a limited participant in Wednesday's practice, Mathews sat out on Thursday after injuring his groin in the team's Week 7 loss to Carolina.

Whether or not Murray will get the last laugh against his former team remains to be seen, but it likely won't be for a lack of trying. Even if Mathews plays, his touches will likely be limited. And facing an improved Dallas pass rush -- possibly without Jason Peters -- could lead to even more touches for Murray.

This time around, however, they'll need to go more than an average of 0.15 yards. Assuming he's healthy, that shouldn't be a problem.

Although, with the Eagles, it's never safe to assume.

Additional reporting by PhillyVoice's Jimmy Kempski.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin