DeMarco Murray is just 87 yards shy of breaking Emmitt Smith’s single-season franchise record for rushing yards.
Dallas Cowboys Nation and Murray fantasy football owners can only cross their fingers in hopes that Murray can return to action faster than the Hall of Fame running back whose record he’s chasing.
The Cowboys announced Monday that Murray had surgery to repair a fractured fourth metacarpal in his left hand, which is the bone that runs from the wrist to the ring finger. He has not been ruled out for Sunday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts.
Smith suffered a similar injury in 1999 when his right hand got caught in the facemask of a defender. He underwent surgery to insert a plate and six screws and missed the following game.
The good news is that the injury is to Murray’s left hand. He carries the ball predominantly with his right hand, so he might not be severely restricted on the field.
ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell said Monday that the door is definitely open for Murray to take the field in Week 16. “That hardware actually makes this more stable,” Bell said in a video posted to her ESPN Blog. “If there was no surgery, you’d worry about the risk of displacing the fracture and setting the injury back. It would probably mean a longer absence. With the surgery and the hardware, it actually reinforces the area, so it allows for the potential of a sooner return.”
Still, the question remains: if Murray is able to suit up, how effective will he be?
Craig Zumsteg, who runs the sports injury blog Questionable to Start, has doubts about Murray’s ability to resume his workhorse pace of 2014. Zumsteg wrote, “Usually players cannot play through metacarpal fractures the way they sometimes can with finger fractures. This might be especially true at the running back position where the player needs a fully functioning hand in order to take handoffs, secure the ball, catch passes and block.”
In his post “Murray’s metacarpal mishap,” Zumsteg examines the injuries to running backs Willis McGahee and Ryan Torain, both of whom had hardware inserted into their damaged hand to repair a fracture.
McGahee missed one game in 2011 after surgery to install a metal plate and five pins to repair the fourth metacarpal in his right hand.
Also in 2011, Torain fractured his left, third metacarpal (not fourth like Murray and McGahee) and had four screws installed during surgery.
Zumsteg notes that Torain’s first game back was the final pre-season game. He wrote, “If ever there was a game to hold players out of, that’s often the one, so the three-week absence most likely reflects his true health.”
The sample size of recent metacarpal injuries may be limited, but a number of running backs were sidelined by hand injuries in 2014.
Carolina Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams has missed the last two games after fracturing the bone at the base of his right middle finger.
Mark Ingram of the New Orleans Saints had two screws inserted to repair a displaced fracture above his left thumb, causing him to miss three games.
Oakland Raiders RB Maurice Jones-Drew missed two games in September after suffering an undisclosed injury to his right hand.
With everything taken into account, what are reasonable expectations for Murray?
If history is any indication, Murray is likely to miss at least one game. However, if he’s able to go, you’d best bet the Cowboys, who currently lead the NFC East by one game, are going to run Murray out onto the field on Sunday.
Just don’t expect the high-volume workload to persist for Murray, who has carried the ball a league-high 351 times for 1,687 yards and 11 touchdowns. Murray will most likely be in line for early down carries, with backups Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar taking his place on passing downs and goal-line situations.