The Dallas Cowboys wanted DeMarco Murray back, and Murray wanted to come back.
But the Philadelphia Eagles offered Murray a deal too rich for the Cowboys to match, and too rich for Murray to turn down.
The star running back took the money and ran Thursday, signing a five-year, $42 million contract, with $21 million guaranteed from an NFC East rival.
It ends his four-year stay in Dallas.
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“Things didn’t work out,” Murray said in a text message. “No hard feelings at all. Wish those guys the best.”
It took Murray three days into the official start of free agency before he found a deal to his liking with a team of his liking. It also took an Eagles trade of LeSean McCoy as well as Frank Gore having a change of heart.
Although the Cowboys wanted Murray to return, they never came close to meeting his contract demands. They spent days analyzing every carry of Murray’s career as well as those of other backs.
The Cowboys came to a comfortable price and were unwilling to budge, citing the diminished value of the position as well as the decline in production of running backs as they age.
“We have great appreciation for his skills, and if there was no salary cap in place, DeMarco would be a Cowboy,” owner Jerry Jones said in a statement. “This came down to an allocation of dollars within the management of the salary cap.”
Murray, 27, had 497 touches last season, including two postseason games. He led the league in rushing, gaining a team-record 1,845 yards in the regular season, and earned the league’s Offensive Player of the Year award.
Bill Dudley was the last running back to change teams after leading the NFL in rushing, traded by the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Detroit Lions in 1947.
“All the way up until today, I was still thinking that we were going to be able to get DeMarco,” Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo said from Rangers spring training in Arizona. “Obviously, it’s not an ideal situation. I’m losing a close friend, too. That part of it is tough.
“But you have to trust the process, and the people making the decision. We have salary-cap implications, and other things that they have to decide. That plays a role in that stuff. The Eagles obviously thought as highly of him as we did. They’re getting a great player.”
Murray needed longer than expected to cash in on his record-setting season. He removed any mention of the Cowboys from his Twitter profile earlier this week.
After Philadelphia traded McCoy to the Bills and then Gore spurned the Eagles to sign instead with the Indianapolis Colts, Eagles coach Chip Kelly called Murray on Wednesday to express interest. The Eagles signed Murray after he arrived in Philadelphia on Thursday, and then made the signing of running back Ryan Mathews official, too.
Now that Murray has moved on, so have the Cowboys.
They concede Murray won’t be easy to replace as he gave the Cowboys their identity with his tough, punishing style. He’s the reason the Cowboys had 508 rushes and 506 passing plays last season.
The Cowboys have Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar and Ryan Williams as holdovers, though none are proven starters nor run with Murray’s physical style.
The team’s scouts continue to research the running backs remaining on the free agent market, including C.J. Spiller. But the Cowboys are in no rush to sign one, and are willing to wait out the market.
The Cowboys worked out fullback Ray Agnew on Wednesday before signing fullback Jed Collins to a one-year, $810,000 deal Thursday. But whom will Collins block for?
The Cowboys could go to a running back-by-committee approach in 2015, but quality running back prospects abound in the draft. Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon rate as first-rounders, while Indiana’s Tevin Coleman, the running back most like Murray in this year’s draft, should go later.
Staff writer Jeff Wilson contributed to this report.
The Cowboys have signed two of their own players and one free agent. They have seen six players depart since free agency started Tuesday. Here is the rundown:
1 year, $810,000
3 years, $15 million
4 years, $13.6 million
4 years, $17 million
3 years, $10.8 million
5 years, $17.5 million
1 year, $3.75 million
5 years, $42 million
5 years, $32 million