Latavius Murray is the running back the Raiders have been looking for
Despite another losing record, we’re finally starting to see signs of hope from the Raiders as talented young players emerge. Retired NFL defensive end Stephen White takes a closer look at Latavius Murray, the running back Oakland has been looking for.
What is up with the AFC West and these running backs coming out of nowhere?
First, it was the Chargers with Branden Oliver busting out for a few games while Ryan Mathews was out. Then the Broncos discovered a hidden gem on their roster when C.J. Anderson burst on the scene after injuries to Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball. Now, it appears the Raiders have a secret weapon of their own in Latavius Murray, a guy who might finally provide them with the bell cow in the backfield they’ve been searching for for several years now.
I meant to write about Murray after his brief, but electrifying performance against the Chiefs a few weeks back on Thursday Night Football. That rainy night two weeks ago, Murray only touched the ball four times, but he still ended up with 112 yards on the ground and two touchdowns, including one from 90 yards out. Unfortunately, on that fourth and final carry, Chiefs safety Kurt Coleman brought that #BLAAAAAAAAAAM right under Murray’s chin which left him concussed and unavailable for the rest of that game, as well as the Raiders’ next game against St Louis — one they lost in spectacular fashion. However, Murray had already done enough damage in those first four carries to help the Raiders secure their first win of the season, 24-20, over the Kansas City Chiefs.
Look, maybe the 90-yarder was a fluke, but it damn sure didn’t look like one to me at the time. In those limited carries, Murray showed me he had the ability to not just run over guys, but also around and past them as if they were standing still. Unlike Oliver and Anderson, Murray is built like the prototypical NFL “big back” at 6’3 and 230 pounds, give or take a cheeseburger. However, the University of Central Florida product also has speed to burn, clocking a 40-yard dash below 4.4 seconds during an on campus workout before the 2013 NFL Draft.
I wasn’t as into the draft that season as I was this past season and will be going forward, so I can’t tell you why a guy built like Murray, who rushed for over 1,000 yards and scored 15 touchdowns his final season at UCF, lasted all the way to the sixth round. But he did, somehow, and wound up being selected by the Raiders (insert Raiders love speed useless comment here). Unfortunately for Murray, he got hurt during training camp last year and spent his whole rookie season on injured reserve.
Prior to that Chiefs game, Murray had been used sparingly all season. He showed flashes here and there, but the Raiders were still committed to starting the consistently mediocre Darren McFadden. Even more maddening, they stuck with an ungracefully aging Maurice Jones-Drew as McFadden’s primary backup over Murray. No wonder the Chiefs weren’t prepared for Murray on that night because, hell, there might not have been 30 plays of him on film this season.
The 49ers at least had a glimpse of what Murray could do before they faced him last Sunday. In truth, they did do a decent job keeping Murray under wraps all game with his longest run only going for 16 yards. At the same time, while Murray wasn’t the homerun threat against the 49ers that he was against the Chiefs, he showed himself to be something worth much more to the Raiders in the long term: a steady, positive producer in the backfield.
His numbers weren’t gaudy at all with 23 carries for 76 yards, 3.3 yards per attempt, to go along with two catches for nine yards, but he was able to grind most of the day. When you watch the game file, Murray’s performance becomes even more impressive because of the — lets just call ‘em “interesting” — blocking schemes the Raiders decided to go with for much of the day. Time and time again there were unblocked defenders in the hole just waiting for Murray, but aside from two carries, he still found a way to at least get back to the line of scrimmage each time. Just for context, it’s worth noting that 76 yards rushing is nothing to sneeze at for a Raiders’ running back. Just ask McFadden, who has gone for 76 yards or more on the ground only once in his last 21 games. Mind you, Murray didn’t start Sunday, McFadden did.
It wasn’t just his work as a runner that impressed me about Murray, either. The guy appears to be able to do it all. He got completely jobbed on an offensive pass interference call where he ran a wheel route on 49ers’ rookie linebacker Chris Borland for 26 yards, but was flagged for pushing off. I swear I see guys get away with stuff much more blatant every week. But the thing that got me about that play was he had the awareness to push off to help him get open in the first place. It wasn’t some overt shove; it was just enough to create some separation. A veteran move, if you will. Murray also showed himself to be a decent pass blocker on blitz pickups, although this one time it did look like he was trying to give 49ers linebacker Michael Wilhoite a hug rather than knock him to the ground.
Let me also say this about Murray as a runner: the guy is all business to, and through, the hole. He isn’t dancing in the backfield waiting for a lane to open up like the Red Sea. Nope. He’s patient, but decisive, when he gets the rock, which allows him to be a net positive on most of his running plays. At the same time, like I said before, the kid can change direction in a flash, so even if he is running down hill to the right, he might well end up cutting it back left immediately if he sees an unblocked defender where he was headed. Not one big cut, but small, quick cuts which let him kind of slide through some very small lanes and get up into the second level of the opposing defense. He is a very, very smooth runner.
Unlike Anderson and Oliver, Murray isn’t going to be a key element of his team’s playoff drive this season, but that doesn’t mean these last three weeks aren’t also hugely important for him. If he can continue to perform and produce at a high level, I think the Raiders may have found the every-down back they need. That will only help the offense overall, as well as rookie quarterback Derek Carr going forward.
How refreshing was it to see Carr handing the ball off to Murray to run the clock down at the end of the game rather than watching Carr trying to furiously bring his team back from behind only to make a mistake and throw a pick or fumble the ball on a sack and blow the game? You are talking about taking a lot of pressure off of Carr when the running game is producing, and the kid has already shown he is pretty damn good. Carr and Murray could well end up being backfield mates for years to come, a potential foundation for a rebirth of the Raiders’ franchise.
I don’t know if this further devalues the running back position, or raises their price by showing how important a good running back can be to an offense late in the season. Or how much easier things operate when they have one, no matter who is at quarterback.
It sure has been fun to watch guys like Oliver, Anderson and Murray take full advantage of the opportunities that have presented themselves this season. I would expect every AFC West team to try to solidify their run defense during the offseason. Let me tell you this much, if those young, hungry running backs keep coming on strong next year, the whole division better get their big boy pads ready, or there’s gonna be trouble.