Cardinals running back Andre Ellington (left) is averaging more than 22 touches a game -- and that is dwarfed by the 29 touches a game for Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray, who is on pace to have more than 400 rushing attempts.
Andre Ellington was the only Cardinal to have a rushing attempt last weekend, taking all 23 of the team's carries. The week before, he had 24 carries. It was unlike anything the Cardinals had asked him to do previously.
The idea that a back would be on pace for more than 400 carries in a season – like the Cowboys' DeMarco Murray, whom the Cardinals will face Sunday – gives Ellington pause.
Getting a lot of carries is cool, Ellington said. As long as they are productive.
"Anytime you don't have a breakout game when you are getting a whole lot of carries you kind of look back and wish you
didn't have all those carries because it takes a toll on your body," Ellington said.
That hasn't been a problem with Murray. He's on pace for 412 rushing attempts, which would be just short of the NFL record of 416 set by the Chiefs' Larry Johnson in 2006. But he's also on pace to rush for 2,108 yards, three more than the NFL record held by the Rams' Eric Dickerson.
It's big production on a big scale. And it's not unfair to wonder if it is sustainable.
Few NFL backs are used as true workhorses anymore. These two 20-plus-carry games for Ellington are the first two of his career. The Packers' Eddie Lacy is a huge, powerful back but his carries are usually in the mid-teens as Green Bay uses a lot of James Starks as well.
Then again, the Packers like to spread the field and let quarterback Aaron Rodgers loose. The Cowboys would prefer quarterback Tony Romo not throw as much. So they have spent first-round picks rebuilding the offensive line and feed Murray.
"They just do it the old-fashioned way," Cardinals defensive tackle Dan Williams said. "We get Dre 30 touches a game. It just so happens with the Cowboys and Murray, they hand it off 30 times."
History says that many players with heavy-duty (i.e. around 400 carries) work suffer a drop-off the next season. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said there is no concern about Murray being overworked, even as he will blow past his career high in carries Sunday (he had 217 last season).
"We like the idea of running the football, and he's certainly the bell cow of our running game," Garrett said.
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said each player is different. It depends on how a player plays and the hits he's willing to absorb. In 1986, when Arians was coaching at Temple, running back Paul Palmer had 346 carries in a mere 11 games – a pace that would have put him over 500 in a 16-game NFL season.
"Someone asked me one time, 'How are you going to let Paul Palmer carry it 40 times?' " Arians said. " 'It ain't real heavy, you know?' It's just those 40 tackles. Don't get hit."
That sometimes takes some work on its own. Ellington has done a nice job getting to the ground and getting out of bounds to avoid too much pounding on his increasing touches. He said one of the reasons he likes how Arians gets him his touches is that a handful are in the passing game, when he can get out into space and away from most of the defense.
Murray makes a lot of catches himself, but when he carries it, it's impossible to avoid too much contact. Add in Murray's insistence on fighting from going down – a reason he has already lost five fumbles this season – and the punishment isn't going away.
"I feel fine and I take care of myself throughout the week," Murray told dallasnews.com earlier this month. "My body feels good."
Already over 1,000 yards (1,054), Murray has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of his first eight games, which is an NFL record. That alone draws the attention of a unit that is third in the NFL in rushing defense at 77.9 yards a game.
The only individual back to crack the 100-yard barrier against the Cardinals in the last 26 games was Frank Gore, who did it more than a year ago – a string of 17 straight games for the Cards.
"You want to win, regardless of how you get it, but it would be kind of cool if you could stop something like that," linebacker Kevin Minter said. "But he's an extraordinary back and we're just trying to contain the dude."
Ellington simply said "we'll see" when asked whether Murray would be able to hold up in a 400-carry season. Ellington's own numbers, at his current pace, extrapolate into 292 carries (for 1,061 yards) and 64 receptions (for 626) yards.
That would put Ellington above 22 touches a game for the season, which would be a big jump from where he was as a rookie.
And well below the 29 per game Murray would average.
"We'd like to continue using all three of (our backs) and spread it out a little bit," Garrett said. "But certainly at the end the day, DeMarco's going to be the guy who carries it most."
Images of the Cardinals cheerleaders from Sunday's win over the Eagles