The Eagles stunned many when they announced that they were keeping five running backs on the final roster. Both Donnel Pumphrey and Corey Clement were able to show the coaching staff enough during the offseason to justify being kept around, leaving the Eagles with a backfield ticking all the boxes. From downhill dominators to threatening thrashers, the Eagles have it all. The question now becomes, how will they use them?
“I think number one, obviously, we’re not going to take five into a game.” Doug Pederson told the media on Monday. “One of them will be down, obviously. Maybe even two [will be down], depending on our needs for that particular week.”
Now that we get into these weeks, [we] begin to game plan a little bit, [and] get a little specific with guys, by personnel, by play type, and really hone that in this week. It starts on Wednesday. We begin our base game plan, and then we carry it on to Thursday and Friday, and get these guys going.
As Training camp approached, the general consensus was that it would be LeGarrette Blount seeing the Lion’s share of carries heading into the regular season. A disappointing preseason campaign raised some question marks over just how much tread on the tires remains for a back that carried the ball close to 300 times last year. The good news is that the team now have a flurry of contingency plans in place. The bad news is, with so many Sharks swimming in the water, it’s difficult to know exactly who’s going to leap out first.
“Again, it goes back to the game plan, quite honestly. We understand that [RB] LeGarrette [Blount] might be a little different runner even than [RB Darren] Sproles or [RB] Wendell [Smallwood].” Pederson said. “I think it’s game plan specific. It’s hard to go into a game saying, ‘LeGarrette, you’re going to get X number of touches,’ because you never know what the game — what circumstances might be posed during the game.”
This does sound eerily familiar however. Enter recently cut Ryan Mathews. The 29-year old started last season brightly against the Browns, rushing for 77 yards and a touchdown on 22 attempts..but after that, things started to unravel. The Eagles committee effort flourished against the Steelers, with Smallwood and Barner scoring their first NFL scores and giving a glimpse of what could be..but would never eventually become.
Through a mix of injury battles and lack of direction, Ryan Mathews would find himself rushing for 56 yards against the Vikings one week, before carrying the ball just 4 times against the Cowboys, despite playing in 45% of Offensive snaps the next. 2016 was a year of instability for the Eagles backfield and the injury status of Mathews only contributed to that.
Wendell Smallwood would look explosive one week and be fumbling on his first insertion into the game against Dallas the next. There was no shape, no direction, no clarity. From goal-line backs to workhorse jobs, it felt like each running back was expected to fulfill all roles as if it was their natural mold. But things don’t work that simply in the NFL.
This season simply has to be different for a backfield that struggled in short-yardage situations and lacks long-term security. By continuing to hammer a square shape into a circular hole, it’s only going to create more of the same scrappy instability that haunted the unit last year. This season, it’s all about the hot hand. Doug Pederson explained in more detail on Monday;
“I think you can have a runner that you kind of hang your hat on. Again, I don’t want to just sit here and say that, ‘Darren, you’re obviously a third-down guy,’ or ‘Wendell, you’re a first-, second-, third- down guy,’ because we want to get all these guys involved in the game plan.
I think it’s important to what we do. If LeGarrette has the hot hand, he continues to carry the ball. If it’s Wendell, it’s Wendell.
Again, I can’t sit here and tell you exactly how many touches these guys are going to get. At the same time, when we put game plans together, we’re very mindful of not only the run game, but also the pass game with these guys, too.”
It’s unclear just how much work each back will see, or if the team even regard Blount as their hammering every-down back at this stage. What is clear is that the team have a number of options in place unlike one year ago. There will be no more needing to dip into the practice squad for running back talent, nor will there be a severe lack of production when the injury bug sets in.
The Eagles have at least two backs that fill each role their offenses need to execute efficiently in order to attain stability. It’s now just a case of balancing the scales and utilizing a unique weekly gameplan in order to find the winning formula. If they fail to do so, we have already seen the consequences it can have.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports