The Eagles backfield has taken many shapes over the last few years. We’ve seen the rise and fall of DeMarco Murray, the heartbreaking goodbye to LeSean McCoy and the gradual transition into a committee effort. Fast forward to the present day and the Birds have a backfield loaded with workhorse talent, but an effort by committee is the way that things will stay, for now.
It’s been bumpy. Behind a rushing offense that ranks second in the NFL, amassing 1,967 yards on the season so far and averaging 4.5 yards per carry, is a slew of uncertainty. LeGarrette Blount has gone from carrying the ball 16 times twice this year, to averaging less than 3.4 yards per carry in each of his last three fixtures, while Corey Clement’s red zone dominance has been partnered with some impressive versatility. Every week is different and that’s the way it needs to be for this unit to be successful. But with the playoffs approaching, will the Eagles fixate on the most productive of the trio, Jay Ajayi?
“I don’t know.” Doug Pederson told reporters on Wednesday. “It’s a fine line a little bit. Right now, I don’t want to fix something or do something if it’s not really broken right now.
If a guy does get a hot hand, I try to maybe feature that guy a little bit more in each game. I still think we’ve got a great running back room. We got some talent there. Each one has a different skill set, and we want to make sure we use it all the best we can.”
Ajayi has been incredibly productive since arriving in Philadelphia. Averaging over 6 yards per carry this season, the former Miami Dolphin hasn’t taken long to sink his teeth into opposing defenses. That in itself hasn’t come without questions. A somewhat passive post-game interview, a pair of fumbles and a seeming hunger for more carries have headlined a rollercoaster few weeks for the British native.
But the bottom line is this, Ajayi runs angrily. After every rush, there’s a violent hand-clap. After every big play that doesn’t go all the way to the house, there’s frustration. Ajayi is running like a man possessed, averaging 6.7 yards per carry in his last two games in which he has rushed the ball 32 times. While teams with star running backs like L.A, Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Chicago will feed their dominant threat 17+ times per game religiously, the Eagles have not given a running back more than 16 carries per game this season and that’s where the fun begins.
What we saw from Blount during his opening few games as an Eagles was impressive to begin with, until the drives grew longer and those dominant runs began to become fewer and further between. He began to run out of steam at times, with it being all too easy to swallow him up behind the scrimmage. At the height of his activity, where Blount carried the ball more than 14 times in five consecutive games, he averaged 4.74 yards per carry. Then Jay Ajayi arrived. On roughly four less carries per game, Blount is averaging 3.78 yards per attempt. Blount has seen it all this season. From a bell-cow back, to a. third-down specialist and goal-line ace, the Super Bowl winning running back has filled in wherever asked…and that’s crucial.
By adding in Ajayi, who is averaging 4.4 yards per carry in his last three games, the Eagles can keep an aging Blount fresh. Ajayi is more than just a pair of fresh legs and so is Corey Clement. They both have the ability to take over a game with a monumental play or sequence of runs, hurting defenses in several areas. If Blount struggles to get going, the Jay Train ploughs through the station with his final stop being the end-zone. If Ajayi begins to show signs of wear, in goes Clement to run down the clock, maintain possession and sustain drives. It’s a formula that maintains the health of all three backs going into the postseason, as opposed to seeing one man clock up close to 300 carries per year and burn out by the time sixteen games have passed.
Let’s be honest, Jay Ajayi had every right to be annoyed about getting less carries than he imagined. Coming off of a season with three 200+ yard games, it’s easy to expect to become ‘the guy’ right away. But not in this town. Selflessness is the name of the game and that’s all well and good, but running backs get paid based on production, not how well the team looks.
Jay Ajayi will be entering the final year of his rookie contract next year, likely seeking an extension at the very least. LeGarrette Blount is on a prove-it contract the expires at the end of the year and then you have the injured Darren Sproles who has shown a willingness to return, an injured Donnell Pumphrey and Wendell Smallwood sat on the sidelines.
I don’t think the Eagles coaching staff would ever be malicious enough to do this intentionally, but every running back active on gameday is running for their NFL futures. Every snap matters. Every carry counts. There is so much uncertainty surrounding the position heading into the offseason that no back can afford a poor showing or a sloppy mistake. If they wan’t to earn a new contract, they have to prove-it…and there lies the very culture on which Pederson’s fortress was built.
The Eagles offense works so well because of how many options there are. All of Corey Clement’s touchdowns have come from within the opposing red zone which says all you need to know. If defenses are focused on plugging the holes and preventing the north-south rushing threats, well, the Eagles have an answer for that. Jason Kelce is one of the best pulling-centers in the league and his ability to get to the second level to make blocks for the more elusive backs in the stable is tremendous. If they still struggle to ignite the ground game, both Ajayi and Clement can hurt teams through the air on screens, just as Ajayi proved against the Giants.
The Eagles amassed a ten-game stretch where they rushed for 100 yards or more. That doesn’t happen by chance. They entered the Giants game producing 143 rushing yards per game, second only to the Jaguars. That doesn’t happen by chance. The Eagles have found a way to get maximum production from a position that is becoming rapidly undervalued. Star running backs are no longer a commodity and as opposed to the Eagles opting to pay one back a monster contract, they are instead investing smartly in a team who can be just as dangerous for a fraction of the price. Everybody wins.
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Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports