Depending on who you ask it might sound like the Raiders suddenly have the running back position all figured out. That might be a bit presumptuous, though they could be in good shape. And even that is far from an utmost certainty.
The sudden confidence, despite the Raiders having statistically the worst rushing attack in the NFL, comes from Latavius Murray and it stems from what amounts to four pretty good games and one 90-yard touchdown run inside of a six-game stretch over the last portion of last season. Hardly enough to say definitively that he is ready to step up and become the feature back the Raiders want him to be. But enough to offer some optimism.
Murray's breakout came in week 11 in San Diego when, after the team had a total of 23 yards on 13 carries (1.7 yards per carry) he took his first two carries for sizable gains of 14 and 23 yards and made everyone ask ‘where has this been all year?'
He had a total of four carries in that game for 43 yards (10.75 yards per carry). The rest of the team had 28 yards on 15 carries (1.8 yards per carry).
Prior to that game, there was a stretch where Murray had been completely phased out of the Raiders attack. He had six carries in the first ten games including a five-game stretch where he didn't have a single carry. He had begun the season returning kicks but as of week six he wasn't even doing that. And as completely non-existent the Raiders rushing attack was, it was downright weird to think the team wasn't at least using him to troubleshoot their issues in the run game.
Then suddenly, out of nowhere, he goes from a ghost to being the potential savior. The Raiders were 0-10 and desperately seeking answers and the fans, starved for any kind of running game to help out rookie QB Derek Carr, wanted to see if Murray could be that guy. All this from four carries.
Even with the salivation from the small window of his talents, and the 3.3 yards per carry the team was getting from Darren McFadden, it was McFadden who once again got the start the following week against the Chiefs on Thursday night.
After three carries from McFadden for 7 yards, they handed it to Murray and he picked up 6 yards on one carry. A few plays later, they handed it to him again and he shot up the middle for an 11-yard touchdown. The answer seemed pretty clear.
The next time the ball was handed off it went to Murray and Murray went 90 yards for the score. That did it. Sold. Whatever the problem was with the Raiders run game, Murray was the solution. He would have one more carry, get hit hard, and left with a concussion. Aaaand, back to McFadden.
Even still, his two touchdowns helped earn the Raiders their first win of the season over a playoff contending, division rival, at home. That's instant folk hero status.
Folk hero or no, can he maintain in and be the workhorse feature back this team needs him to be?
"I think he's shown enough of the traits to make him a candidate to be that guy," Del Rio said in a meeting with local media on Thursday. "I don't know that he's earned that, yet. I think he's shown that there's potential there and we're excited about working with him and developing him to his fullest, and having him compete and whoever ends up being the best guy, we'll let the best guy play. He's done enough things that peak your interest."
What he likes about Murray are the same things Dennis Allen and later Tony Sparano all said they liked about him "Good size." But the criticism is also the same, and it was the reason Sparano said he hadn't gone to Murray earlier than week 11.
"There's some things that we'll need to work to improve," Del Rio continued. "In terms of overall awareness, football IQ, things like that, but we think we can help him with coaching, and some of the running lanes we want to provide him."
With Murray there's also the question of durability. He missed his entire rookie season due to issues with his feet which required surgeries. Then last season he had the concussion that cost him a game.
No, I am not saying he is ‘injury prone' - a term that gets thrown around all too freely. I am saying his durability is in question. He has not played for long enough stretches under a heavy workload for us to know if he can hold up to it. He has 82 carries in his young NFL career.
He also had a less than spectacular final four games of the season in which he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry with no touchdowns. While that is certainly better than the 3.4 yards per carry Darren McFadden averaged last season, it still isn't great.
It is possible that what we saw in his breakout games was simply the defense not having enough tape to game plan against him. Once they learned some of his tendencies, they weren't caught off guard as easily.
The overarching issue for the Raiders is the play of the offensive line. If they are able to pick up their play, Murray or any back the Raiders put back there will have greater success. Del Rio commented on that Thursday as well.
"Quite frankly, there weren't enough holes last year for backs to get loose and do their thing," Del Rio added. "We want to make sure we're doing our job up front, creating holes, knocking people off the ball and creating running lanes for guys like he and others that we talked about earlier, to have a chance to do their thing."
For now, Murray is certainly the best option as the Raiders starting running back. Even in those final four games in which he was just good but not great, you could tell he brought something the other backs did not.
Whether he has consistent success is only partially in his hands (or legs, as it were). If he can stay on the field and the Raiders get improved play from the offensive line, specifically from the right side, I could definitely see Murray being that guy.
And having a good change-of-pace back would help as well.