DeMarco Murray can't be rushed

IRVING, Texas -- As tempting as it might be, the Dallas Cowboys don't need to play DeMarco Murray on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.

They might want to rest him on Thanksgiving against Washington as well, but with a 10-day break before they play Philadelphia at Cowboys Stadium, playing him on the holiday makes some sense.

But what people need to remember is that this was a significant injury. Murray came within a whisker of having his season end because of ligament damage to his foot. He was close to needing major surgery and prolonged rehabilitation.

Timetables for a return in the Jason Garrett administration are difficult to come by with the coach's preference to live in the moment, but generally these are four-to-six week injuries.

Sunday will be the fifth week since Murray got hurt. You can do the math on where he would be leading into the Redskins game.

The fact that Murray can miss four games and still be the Cowboys' leading rusher speaks to how tempting it must be for the Cowboys to get him back on the field.

Murray has 330 yards on 75 carries. Felix Jones has 278 yards on 74 carries.

In the past four games, Cowboys running backs not named Murray have picked up 260 yards on 85 carries (3.1 yards per carry).

Jones had an effective 71 yards against Philadelphia but was unable to do much before that. Phillip Tanner's last six carries have gone for 1, 5, minus-2, 0, 0 and 0 yards. Lance Dunbar's work has some people excited, but he has averaged 3.3 yards per carry the past two games.

"We certainly would like to have DeMarco Murray playing for us," Garrett said. "He's a starter for us and he's been really productive for us as a runner. He's a good inside runner. He's physical. He plays downhill. I think our running game has been better when he's in there."

It has been better, but only marginally. Take away the 48-yard run in the season opener against the New York Giants that Murray basically made on his own, not because of great design, and he is averaging 3.8 yards per carry.

Before getting hurt against Baltimore on Oct. 14, he looked like the Murray of his rookie season with 93 yards on 14 carries. But everybody looks good against the Ravens' run defense, whether Ray Lewis is playing or not. Even Jones, who had 92 yards on 18 carries against Baltimore that day.

The Cowboys' run to playoff contention last season started with Murray's ascension to the top running back role. In a seven-game span he had at least 20 carries five times and more than 73 yards six times. He had 253 yards against St. Louis. He had back-to-back 130-plus-yard games against Seattle and Buffalo.

He made life easier for Tony Romo, and the Cowboys had a 5-2 record. And when Murray suffered a fractured ankle against the Giants on Dec. 11, 2011, the Cowboys' playoffs hopes went with him.

To make a run at playoff contention in 2012, the 4-5 Cowboys will need Murray again to put up big numbers.

Criticize Garrett all you want for his pass-happy play calling, but if you know the chances of gaining solid chunks of yardage are not as good as a quick throw to Jason Witten, then why repeatedly beat your head into the wall?

A gimpy Murray would not make life that much easier for Romo. A gimpy Murray wouldn't help Witten get his average per catch back into double digits. Even Murray knows he needs to be somewhat close to 100 percent to be truly effective.

"Once I do get out there, I want to stay out there and not take a couple of steps back," Murray said Wednesday.

The Cowboys could and should beat the Browns and Redskins over a five-day span at Cowboys Stadium, which would leave them at 6-5 and a half-game behind the Giants going into December.

After Thanksgiving, they will have five games left, against Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New Orleans and a rematch at Washington. Those teams have combined to allow only eight 100-yard rushers, and three are against the Saints and their 31st-ranked run defense.

That's when the Cowboys will need Murray most.

Just a little more patience will serve them well.