McMullen: Eagles Need to Change Approach in Backfield
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - Christian McCaffrey is often pointed to as the prototypical 2019 NFL running back, a unicorn who runs with power between the tackles despite some size deficiencies and runs routes better than most receivers in the league.
And give the Eagles credit, they badly wanted CMac in the 2017 NFL draft but No. 14 overall wasn't the starting point Howie Roseman could turn into McCaffrey.
From there Philadelphia turned its attention to Dalvin Cook in the second round, arguably the second-best fit for an Andy Reid/Doug Pederson/Matt Nagy-type offense -- at least if you could ever stay healthy -- but Minnesota jumped ahead of the Eagles in the second round to snare the Florida State product.
Roseman has tried and tried again to land Doug Pederson an actual feature back whether it was trying to lure Telvin Coleman in free agency or the trades that brought Jay Ajayi and now Jordan Howard to Philadelphia.
Pederson, however, has stuck with the piecemeal approach while the search for the unicorn marches on with the only current in-house hope being Miles Sanders, the well-rounded Penn State rookie.
The science of reasoning as a whole is generally described as logic. And too often many confuse a result as validation for any thesis.
Take Pederson's running back-by-committee approach with the Eagles. Many point to the Lombardi Trophy in the lobby of the NovaCare Complex and rubber stamp the coach's logic, failing to account for an alternate theory that has never been disproven: the sentiment that Philadelphia won the NFL's ultimate prize despite employing a flawed method in the offensive backfield.
The small sample size of Corey Clement or Ajayi performing in a solid fashion on one winter's night in Minneapolis is called an outlier and not the kind of thing that's going to knife through peer review. In fact, over Pederson's now three-plus years as the Eagles coach, the negative column gets checked far more than the positive one when it comes to the offensive backfield.
The Pederson approach kicked off its fourth season with two new faces -- Sanders and Howard -- and two familiar ones, Darren Sproles and Clement. And there were surprises with Sproles starting and the rookie Sanders getting the majority of the work in the 32-27 win over Washington not trade pickup Howard who had two 1,000-yard seasons in Chicago before heading East.
"Well, some of it was by design, some of the plays that were effective. As you know, when we construct games, we have multiple run schemes and they are designed for different guys," Pederson explained. "The ones that were kind of clicking today were the Darren ones, and so just kept calling his number there. Those other two guys I thought ran well, also. ... Miles is explosive, as you know. Jordan ran extremely hard. So excited for all three of those guys."
Sanders got 36 reps (48 percent) of the offensive snaps followed by Sproles with 23 (31 percent), Howard 17 (23 percent) and Clement 3 (4 percent). The effectiveness wasn't there for Sanders with 25 yards on 11 carries, although he did show the extra gear none of the other backs so on a 19-yard run that nearly popped for a TD.
The numbers were fine for Sproles, who went for 47 on nine carries and added 16 more on three receptions, and the physical Howard, who was the hammer late with 44 yards on six carries, dominating behind the left side on a 19-play fourth-quarter drive that siphoned the clock.
"We had some nice runs. Second half, kind of challenged the guys at halftime and said, ‘Hey, offensive line, control the line of scrimmage,’ and they did," Pederson said. "Made those two long drives there in the second half and really dominated by the offensive line and hats off to those guys. Helped us really get ourselves back into this football game and helped us win."
The up and down nature of everyone in the backfield will continue because it's rare that Philadelphia will allow any back to get in a groove and feed them touches, an irony because Duce Staley, like most RBs, has always espoused that the more you get the football the more you settle in.
For Pederson, though, it's time to you know what or get off the pot.
Just because there isn't an obvious answer to the RB question in Philadelphia, doesn't mean there isn't a better option. The path forward should be choosing between Sanders and Howard as the lead back and having the aging Sproles settle in as the third-down back. The top gun, however, should be getting say three consecutive series with the complement getting one.
That isn't happening, though.
"Sometimes it's the hot hand, but sometimes it's based on game plan and who is in at that particular time," Pederson said Monday.
In other words, the status quo stands and any success moving forward will be despite the flawed committee approach, not because of it.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen