Eagles coaching staff are eager to “mix ingredients” of new-look backfield


The Eagles Offense has seen a complete overhaul this offseason. From the additions of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, to the drafting of Donnel Pumphrey, an abundance of new faces look set to do more than turn heads in 2017. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of all is the Eagles backfield and just how the team plan on using such a versatile and dynamic group of players.

The Eagles are simply stacked at running back. The signing of veteran rusher LeGarrette Blount finally added a three-down back and short-yardage specialist to a backfield that lacked such a presence, while the combination of Sproles and Pumphrey will do more than just cause headaches for defensive coordinators. Not only that, but with Wendell Smallwood looming as a change of pace rusher, the ceiling appears to be sky-high for a unit that may have finally found its identity, a true committee effort.

It’s not something that’s lost on the Eagles coaching staff either. In fact, the idea of getting every running back on the field is something that seemed to excite Frank Reich when asked about the position yesterday.

“I’m excited about the run game.” Reich told the media. “Last year I think we finished 11th in rushing offense. I think we finished fifth in run efficiency. I won’t go into that stat, but when we were running it, we were efficient. But I just think we need to continue … Excited about getting [RB] LeGarrette [Blount] in, the role that he’ll play. You know with Coach Pederson we’re always going to be … All the backs are going to be involved. They’re all going to contribute in a big way. He’ll play a major role. He’s a big, strong back. You can already see the vision and the experience, the feel, the knack that he has even in the drills that we’re doing right now. So, [we are] excited about that.”

The role that Blount will play may seem obvious, but where the seven-year veteran really helps the Eagles of course, is an area where they simply struggled last year; converting on third down. The team converted third downs on the ground just 45% of the time last year, 23% less than they did under Chip Kelly just one year beforehand. Blount’s prowess as a dominant downhill runner who can force something out of nothing will no doubt be invaluable to an Eagles backfield that lacked that lone lone element. If the Eagles can avoid forcing Wentz to throw on third and short, or relying on screens and slants to move the chains early on, then the Offense will evolve and find a new balance through natural adaptation. Something that again, Reich was quick to allude to.

“And then we just need to score more points early so we can be in some more four-minute offense late in the game and don’t have to get in kind of pass mode early in games. If we get in that mode, we’re going to be in good shape. If we can get in run mode, that’s going to be a big-time advantage to our team.”

But it’s the Eagles offensive coordinator’s initial comment about getting all backs involved that stands out…because it was only one year ago that the Birds’ began to experiment with some new ideas at the NovaCare Complex. Doug Pederson and Duce Staley caught many off guard by experimenting with pistol formations during OTA’s..and with an even more dynamic approach this year, the Eagles coaching staff may have even more aces up their sleeve..especially given that  with such a strong group in terms of versatility, backs will have to go above and beyond to prove themselves worthy of a spot in rotation. Last year’s OTA’s may have been a sign of things to come, as Reich explained that the team are already in the Kitchen looking for various ways to split the backfield and make the most of the talent available.

Yeah, that goes back to the cooking illustration. I think we’re always trying to formationally and personnel-wise mix ingredients together and taste it and see how it presents itself, see what it tastes like, what it feels like. And so now with some new personnel, that’s what we’re doing.

One of those talents just so happens to be San Diego State star, rookie Donnel Pumphrey. The versatile back brings with him a plethora of comparisons and questions, but more than anything a sense of excitement. When it comes to OTA’s, Pumphrey has spent time fielding punts and lining up as a receiving threat in the slot. While he may only stand at 5’8, it doesn’t stop him from doing more than enough to raise the eyebrows of Frank Reich.

“He’s looked good. Really, you can just tell.” Reich explained yesterday. “Obviously all that productivity he had in college. He came in and it’s like, okay, here’s a guy, you know, he was a stud in college with all of his productivity. How is he going to fit into a pro system? Can he do it all? He had so much yardage from the backfield – how productive can he be if we move him around and as a pass receiver? And it’s early. You don’t get too excited about it just yet, but I am excited about his ball skills. I’m excited about his route-running skills. I think he’s on the right track.

Those same questions were alluded to by Doug Pederson at the start of OTA’s. When asked about the backfield, Pederson responded by referencing the various skillsets of the players lining up behind Carson Wentz and some of the combinations that have already crossed his mind.

“You self-evaluate and you self-scheme what you did last year. I got to find out, one, where and how LeGarrette [Blount] fits. We know what Darren [Sproles] can do. We know what Wendell [Smallwood] can do. You’ve got [RB] Donnel Pumphrey sitting there. I want to see what he can do. There are some combinations with some backs there. And then even [RB] Byron Marshall, cross-training Byron Marshall, as we’ve talked about already this spring. Utilizing a couple of those guys because they’re nifty, they’re quick. They can be a matchup issue for linebackers or safeties. I just want to check those things out. Now is the time to do that before we get too deep into training camp.”

It’s still very early days, but it’s refreshing to see a clear direction in the backfield. It was something that evaded the Eagles last year, who would see both Sproles and Mathews take on just about every rushing role possible with no real overwhelming sense of stability. From dominant wins against Pittsburgh and Atlanta, to embarrassing disappearing acts against the Bengals, there was just no consistency. However that looks set to change in 2017, with a fortified offensive line and every style of running back accounted for.

It’s a true committee effort for the Eagles this year, and it won’t be the first time that Pederson and Reich have experienced coaching such an offense. From the Kansas City offense in 2015 that was led by Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, to the various backs that supported Phillip Rivers during Reich’s time as the Chargers Offensive Coordinator, all of that experience will now be invaluable moving forward.

It’s a new era in Philadelphia, and from top to bottom, the front office seem excited to cook in the Kitchen that will feed an Offense in need of a big year. The stakes are high, but the Chefs have all the ingredients of an explosive unit at their disposal. The question is, can they now provide more than last year’s starter dish?

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports