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DeMarco Murray's perilous workload

Former NFL running back Eddie George still remembers the daily routine. He'd trudge into the Tennessee Titans training room every Monday morning during the 2000 season, stretch his aching torso across a long table and inquire about the families of the team's medical staff.

Trainers wrapped huge sacks of ice across his throbbing knees and shoulders, then asked about any new aches and pains from the previous day's damage. George already knew what questions were coming long before they were ever posed, especially since he was pushing toward 400 carries that year. But George also knew the Titans' offense relied on his legs, and he didn't fret about the consequences.

It's a mentality that great runners share, one that George sees today in the Dallas Cowboys' DeMarco Murray. Just watching Murray chew up defenses every week at a pace that would set an NFL record for carries in a season -- at Murray's current clip, he would finish with 424 rushing attempts -- George can't help but wonder about the impact on Murray's body.

"I lived in the training room when I was doing that," said George, who ran for 1,509 yards on 403 rushing attempts for the Titans in 2000. "I'd get massages, do the ice tub, [electronic] stim, yoga, massages. Every day I was doing something to prepare my body, including my off day. That's why you rarely saw me out in public that year. I was too beat up. My body was a car wreck every week."

For Murray, coping with such a heavy workload comes with the territory. "I'm just concentrating on doing my job and doing what I can to help this team win," he said. "Whatever they ask me to do, like I've said since I've been here, I'm going to do it to the best of my ability. And I think that's it."

Dallas is 5-1 largely because of his 785 rushing yards and six touchdowns. But the Cowboys' reliance on Murray could be putting his body in imminent danger. At 6-feet and 217 pounds, Murray isn't likely to be confused with a banger in the first place. With an average of 26.5 carries per game in 2014 and an inability to play 16 games in any of his previous three NFL seasons, it's easy to think the Cowboys are taking a huge gamble with him.

Cowboys assistant coach Scott Linehan, who calls Dallas' offensive plays, said the team is conscious of Murray's workload. "We don't sit there and count and say he's on a pitch count or anything like that," Linehan said. "I think last week the difference was he didn't play every play of the game. He got some time where he wasn't on the field on third downs ... I think that probably helps get him some time. It doesn't necessarily matter [about the number of] carries. I think it's the amount of plays more than anything."

There have been only five runners in league history who have surpassed the 400-carry mark. That list includes George, James Wilder, Jamal Anderson, Eric Dickerson and Larry Johnson, who holds the current league record with 416 attempts in 2006. The disturbing fact also associated with that elite company is what happened to them after their 400-carry seasons. Aside from Dickerson, every other runner in that group became significantly less productive in subsequent years.

It's the curse and the blessing of the position: Every runner wants the ball, but few have the ability to know when to pull back.

"Damage is cumulative, and there is something to that number [400]," said Dr. Mark Adickes, an ESPN injury analyst who played seven NFL seasons as an offensive lineman. "It's just like the 30- or 40-minute mark in the NBA. I know that up until age 30, I could bounce back really well and then, I couldn't. There is something to the idea of worrying about what 400 carries can do to a player. The human body can only take so much."

"I think there's a correlation [between reaching the 400-carry mark and having it impact future performance]," George added. "The offseason after I did that was basically lost. I couldn't prepare the same way I did after I had that 400-carry season because I had toe surgery. I wasn't the same player the next year because I was still recovering from the previous year. That's why, when I look at a guy like Eric Dickerson -- he's a freak of nature."

Dickerson had 404 carries in 1986, his fourth NFL season with the Los Angeles Rams. Prior to that year, he had 390 carries as a rookie and 379 in his second year (when he set a league record with 2,105 rushing yards). After 1986, Dickerson had 388 attempts in his sixth season and 314 more in his seventh. It wasn't until 1991, when Dickerson was 31 years old, that he saw his yards-per-carry average drop below 4. By that point, he was playing on a lousy Indianapolis Colts team that would go 1-15.

"I liked carrying the football, and I am sure DeMarco feels the same way," Dickerson said. "I don't watch a lot of football, but when I have seen his games, I've seen him do a great job of following his blockers. The big thing he does is avoid the big shots. That's what I was able to do most of the time. ... I never really had a lot of those bumps and bruises [in 1986]. The injury that got me later in my career was a hamstring injury when I was in Indy. That thing lingered, and it was hard to escape. But I never really felt the pain of those carries. I was always in great shape during the season."

Dickerson's experience with 400 carries also was much different than some of the others in that esteemed group. Wilder was the first back to reach the mark (with 407 carries in 1984), but he surpassed the 1,000-yard mark only once in his final six seasons. Johnson suffered a season-ending foot injury halfway into the season after his monstrous 2006 campaign, and his career eventually ended with the Chiefs releasing him in the midst of off-the-field issues in 2009. He never rushed for more than 874 yards in a season after amassing 400 carries.

Like Dickerson, George was the focal point of a fairly one-dimensional offense. Aside from George and quarterback Steve McNair, the Titans didn't have many other viable weapons in 2000.

George also was playing for a squad that had narrowly lost the Super Bowl a year earlier to the St. Louis Rams and sorely wanted to return. So George sucked it up and played through every bit of pain he sustained. It wasn't an easy task.

George sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in a Week 8 win over Baltimore. He came back the following week and tore cartilage in his ribs in a win over Washington. The week after that, in a victory over Pittsburgh, George lined up out wide in a five-receiver set and sustained a torn toe ligament while running off the line of scrimmage. Nevertheless, George had 34 rushing attempts in that game and had three more games with at least 30 carries that season.

"At the time, I didn't think about the wear and tear on my body," said George, who was in his fifth season at the time. "I didn't know then what kind of toll all that was taking."

George ran for only 939 yards the next season. He also never averaged more than 3.4 yards per carry after that point, even though he still had more than 300 attempts in three of his last four years in the NFL.

George actually fared much better than Atlanta's Anderson. After helping the Falcons reach the Super Bowl in the 1998 season with 410 carries for 1,846 yards, Anderson tore the ACL in his right knee in only the second game of 1999.

Anderson doesn't believe his injury had as much to do with workload as it did bad luck. However, he does sympathize with the choices runners such as Murray have to make once they become the centerpiece of their respective offenses. Like Murray, Anderson didn't start his career with the belief he would be a 30-carry back. He spent his first three years playing in the run-and-shoot and pining so much for more carries that he once told Pittsburgh's workhorse runner Jerome Bettis, "I can't wait until I get to run the ball like you do."

That opportunity arrived for Anderson in 1997, when the Falcons hired Dan Reeves as their head coach. Anderson got the ball so much the next season that he didn't know when to say no. During a win over San Francisco in 1998, he left a game with 30 carries and needing just a couple yards to reach the 100-yard mark. When Reeves asked Anderson if he wanted to hit the century mark, Anderson rushed back into action, only to be clobbered by a linebacker.

When Anderson returned to the sideline, he gave Reeves a pointed request. "The next time I tell you that I want to go back into game like that, make sure you tell me 'no.'"

Anderson doesn't regret the opportunity to run the ball as much as he did that season. He also believes Atlanta handled him the same way the Cowboys should be handling Murray.

"Murray definitely has an interesting injury history," Anderson said. "But you also can't be concerned with those things right now. You have to consider the way he's running and attacking the defenses. His offensive line is doing a great job of getting to the second level and getting on linebackers, and that's giving him great lanes to run through. When you have that going for you, you have to go with it. This game is about winning championships, and if he's their engine for that, then they have to ride him."

Said Reeves: "It ultimately comes down to the running back to let the coach know when he needs a break. Nobody knows their bodies better than the people carrying the football. So they just have to be honest. But if a guy has it going, I believe that you have to keep giving it to them."

The obvious problem with that approach is not every back is built for such punishment. Anderson noted that George might have absorbed a harsher beating because the former Titans star had a 6-3, 235-pound frame that represented a massive target for defenders to strike. Anderson also felt he didn't face nearly as many in-season injuries during his 400-carry season because he had a stockier build at 5-11 and 237 pounds. Johnson (6-1, 228), Wilder (6-3, 225) and Dickerson (6-3, 220) all had more size than Murray.

Still, Adickes actually believes mass isn't nearly as vital of a determinant in a runner's ability to handle 400 carries as bloodlines.

"Genetics play the biggest role," Adickes said. "What is your cartilage like? What is the shape of your joints? What is the alignment of your joints? Were you injured at any point earlier in your career? Once you have trauma [in your body], it's a different story. Your joints take a beating with every step. It's not a muscle thing. It's a cartilage thing."

Adickes added that sustained punishment to one part of the body could lead to more problems in other areas. As an example, he mentioned a recent study he performed in which he injected 20 ccs of fluid into a subject's knee to see how it impacted overall strength. The result indicated that even a small amount of fluid -- which equates to swelling -- deteriorated muscle strength in the patient's joint by 50 percent.

Said Adickes: "If you have any aches and pains in one area, you're going to favor that area, and that puts you at greater risk for other injuries [in other parts of the body]."

That doesn't bode well for Murray. A third-round pick in the 2011 draft, he made a name for himself by rushing for a franchise-record 253 yards against the Rams as a rookie. Murray also ended that season with a fractured right ankle, which was a sign of things to come as far as his durability was concerned. Murray also missed time with a sprained foot in 2012 and a sprained MCL in 2013. Overall, injuries sidelined him for 11 of his first 48 games in the NFL.

Those facts likely explain why Murray -- who joined Jim Brown as the only runners in league history to start a season with six consecutive 100-yard games -- is even hearing his own front offiice and coaches talking about the importance of limiting his workload. "I think last week we got Joe [Randle] and [Lance] Dunbar in more; hopefully, we can do the same [this week]," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "I don't think anyone wants to see him well over 30 in terms of his touches. Now it's ended up happening a few times, but the goal is to keep getting Joe and Dunbar some touches so that we don't expose [Murray] that many times, because he's just done an incredible job."

After Murray had a career-high 31 carries for 136 yards in a 20-17 win over Houston on Oct. 5, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said, "DeMarco was out there, and we think that's probably too many carries in the game, week in and week out. He ended up with 31, so we'd like to get that number lower. We'd really just like to get the other guys an opportunity."

It remains to be seen whether the Cowboys will stick with that belief. Randle and Dunbar, Murray's backups, have 28 carries between them this year, and Randle might face league discipline after recently being arrested for shoplifting. Dallas is also running the ball so well that quarterback Tony Romo has become more efficient, and a once-maligned defense has thrived lately.

As Anderson said, "We're not talking about the Dallas Cowboys of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin anymore. When this team was 1-1, you had a lot of people saying they need to find an identity. Those questions are over now."

That might be true, but the questions for Murray are only beginning.

"If I could give DeMarco one bit of advice, I'd tell him to take care of his body," George said. "You don't want to take a dream season away from a guy, but it's imperative that he do the right thing. He's already in a contract year, so he's already going to push things. But if the plays aren't working for him, he needs to reel it back. He has to be very smart about how he handles this."

ESPN.com Cowboys reporter Todd Archer contributed to this report.