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Four Downs: The Murray Train rolls on

11/14/2011

Editor's note: Eric Karabell is off this week. Tristan H. Cockcroft will be writing the Four Downs (Sunday night) and flex rankings (Thursday) KaraBlogs, KC Joyner will write the year-to-end ranks KaraBlog (Tuesday), and AJ Mass will write the "sneaky pickups" KaraBlog (Friday). Eric will return Sunday night (Nov. 20) with his Four Downs blog from Week 11.

Suffice to say that two of Week 10's fantasy stars -- other than the week-leading Chicago Bears defense/special teams (34 points!) -- were teammates who were scarcely intriguing commodities at the draft table this preseason.

Just four short weeks ago, DeMarco Murray (22 points Sunday) and Laurent Robinson (19 points) looked like no more than injury fill-ins, players who could help the Dallas Cowboys patch holes created by the injuries to Felix Jones (ankle) and Miles Austin (hamstring), their two much more desirable fantasy draft-day targets. Murray has received three such starts, in Weeks 8-10 -- plus what was effectively a fourth "start" when he had 25 carries in Week 7 -- and Robinson two, in Weeks 4 and 10.

While Robinson, two touchdowns and 19 fantasy points later, might still shape up as a temporary fix, the Murray-versus-Felix Jones debate will only increase in intensity in the coming weeks.

Count this columnist as a clear, firm Murray backer.

Murray has every bit the speed and power of Jones, but less injury risk, and if you've watched him closely the past three weeks, you've seen the seeds of what could quickly become one of the game's most complete running backs. He has averaged 8.0 yards per carry and 150.3 rushing yards per game the past four weeks, has totaled 10 receptions the past two weeks on six and seven targets in those respective games, and has provided quality blocking on passing downs. There's no reason for the Cowboys to yank him from the role now, with Jones healthy or not, though we'll soon learn to what degree a time share they'll endure. My take: Murray cannot possibly cede more than 30 percent of the work, and I'd plan accordingly.

Robinson, meanwhile, has totaled 13 catches on 18 targets for 238 yards in the three games Austin has missed this season, two of those starts, not to mention he had a quality game in Week 8 when Austin was healthy. Robinson has succeeded where former Cowboys injury plug-in Kevin Ogletree previously failed, the most noticeable objection from a skills perspective being the eight drops he has combined in 2010-11.

Unfortunately, unlike Murray, Robinson is less likely to retain the starting job once Austin heals, though in this offense he could still have value in deeper leagues working out of three-receiver sets; look at that Week 8 game as evidence. Robinson remains available in 86.9 percent of ESPN leagues, and despite the remote possibility that Austin might return for Week 11, he's well worth the pickup.

Combine the two and there's plenty to like about the Cowboys' offense as a whole, looking forward. Certainly their schedule is favorable, including games against the reeling Washington Redskins (Week 11), the weak upfront Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Week 15) and the weak in the secondary Arizona Cardinals (Week 13), among others.

Second down: Who doesn't love excuses for bad games? Mere minutes after Matthew Stafford put forth his worst (complete) game in nearly two calendar years, including four interceptions -- matching his total from the first eight games combined -- he admitted to playing with a fractured right index finger, suffered in the first half of the Week 8 game against the Denver Broncos. Remarkably, Stafford didn't blame the injury for his performance ... he blamed the wind.

Stafford wore a glove on the hand, and while he managed nine fantasy points -- which isn't too bad considering he threw four interceptions -- not to mention continued to earn credit for pushing hard to play through his injuries, the fact remains that this is again an injury ... something that has plagued him throughout his first three years in the NFL. Fantasy owners probably would've preferred, with the advantage of hindsight, that he sat out, giving them the option of plucking a Shaun Hill or another one-week matchups fill-in. But it's the long-term concern that's relevant, because while Stafford has shaped up as one of fantasy's top breakouts of 2011, he's trending downward if only because the lengthy season is taking a physical toll.

The Detroit Lions do have an above average to excellent remaining schedule for quarterbacks, and now that the bye weeks are nearly done, Stafford is quickly shaping up as one of the few quarterbacks for whom a handcuff is necessary.

Third down: All eyes will be on Frank Gore in the coming days, following a most disappointing Week 10 performance cut short by a knee injury (he also entered the week nursing an ankle issue). Get this: Following a monstrous hot streak of five consecutive 100-yard rushing games, during which he totaled 676 yards from scrimmage and averaged 6.3 yards per carry, Gore managed precisely zero rushing yards -- and eight yards from scrimmage -- on Sunday. Following the performance, San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh proclaimed Gore healthy enough to return for Week 11, but whispers that the team already planned to ease up on his workload only complicate matters.

Whether Gore misses further time or not, backup Kendall Hunter should rank as one of the week's top pickups, thanks to what has been one of the more impressive performances by an NFL backup so far this season. He managed a 17-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter and 40 yards on six carries for the day; Hunter has averaged at least four yards per carry in five of his past six games and 4.8 yards per carry for the season. What's more, he's quick enough to break off long touchdown runs -- a plus considering Anthony Dixon looked like a potential short-yardage option in Gore's absence -- and is a capable pass catcher. Granted, the 49ers do have some tough matchups ahead -- Week 12 at Baltimore Ravens, Week 16 at Seattle Seahawks -- but Hunter is a must-add for any Gore owner, and he's an interesting speculative pickup for others as well.

Fourth down: It has been a season of firsts for Mike Shanahan -- none of them good -- but also a season of those good, ol' reliable Shanahanigans. Sunday's loss gave Shahanan five consecutive losses for the first time in his coaching career, and two weeks prior to that, he was shut out for the first time.

One shouldn't say the "feats" were undeserved. Shanahan has long perplexed fantasy owners, almost to levels at which we might actually believe he's targeting us with his wacky, spur-of-the-moment decisions. While it's difficult to imagine an NFL coach specifically strategizing to ruin fantasy plans, never before have Shanahan's moves had such an obviously adverse effect on his NFL team. (And remember, this is a coach who has lost 38 of his past 64 games.)

Predictably, coming off a Redskins franchise-record 14 receptions in what was an official start for him, Roy Helu returned to the bench to begin Week 10. Shanahan instead tabbed Ryan Torain, owner of a 1.6 yards-per-carry average from Weeks 6-9 combined, his starter. Torain took each of the team's first 10 carries, totaling 20 yards, not one greater than five yards in length. Fortunately, Shanahan wised up after the half, turning things back to Helu, who managed 52 yards on eight total touches, two of those plays for double-digit yards.

And what of his quarterback? Naturally, there needed to be Shanahanigans there too; he tabbed Rex Grossman his starter in a move rumored Saturday and confirmed hours before kickoff. Not that fantasy owners care whether it's Beck or Grossman -- the Week 10 starter -- under center at this point, but it's fair to surmise that Shanahan's roster management is having a direct impact upon the performance of his players. Redskins wide receivers as a whole seemed out of synch with their quarterback, and didn't run especially crisp routes, spawning the kind of concern that leads the fantasy community to classify a team as a "must-avoid."

Helu might be the one bright spot on the roster, partly because he's the pass-catching back you can get behind in fantasy when his team is behind. We merely have to hope Shanahan will do the "right thing" next week.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.