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February 26, 2016

Doug Pederson doesn’t seem impressed with how Chip Kelly handled running backs

Eagles NFL

Much like the Eagles in general, DeMarco Murray had the Season From Hell in 2015. Fresh off signing a five-year, $42 million contract last offseason (and sending Philadelphia into a collective frenzy by doing so), the 28-year-old running back’s production fell off a cliff.

Enter Doug Pederson. It still remains to be seen how a new Eagles coach who didn’t give Murray big money utilizes him. But when asked at the NFL Combine about why he thought the high-priced back struggled in 2015, Pederson sounded like he believes Chip Kelly was trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

“It was a combination of things,” Pederson said. “The first thing I noticed was there were three different (types) of running backs on the roster. And you can’t take three different running backs and try to make them one running back.”

This is a major departure from Kelly’s philosophy that it essentially didn’t matter which running back was in the game. Pederson added that the style of running he will bring to the Eagles will utilize all three backs’ skills. And what are they specifically?

“You got a downhill guy,” Pederson said. “You got a slasher. And you got a great quick guy in Sproles who can create mismatches on defense, whether he’s coming out of the backfield or lining up as a receiver. Three different guys, three different styles.”

According to Football Outsiders, Murray was elite from both a total value (DYAR) and per-play (DVOA) standpoint in 2013 and 2014. After changing NFC East addresses, he was one of the very worst in both categories among backs with a minimum 100 rushing attempts. In this case, the stats backed up what we were watching:

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Given that type of drop-off, we naturally search for answers. The simplest one (and the one fans likely don’t want to hear) is that like the average running back, Murray is at the age when production starts to dip. The man did carry the ball 436 times in 2014, a grueling workload.

Another theory is that the offensive line in front of him was worse. While there is probably some truth to that, Ryan Mathews managed to finish third out of the 44 eligible backs in DVOA running behind those same players.

Finally, there was also the idea that Murray, who almost exclusively ran with Tony Romo under center in Dallas, couldn’t adapt to Sam Bradford or Mark Sanchez handing him the ball out of the shotgun.

Getting Murray back to running downhill might be a tough task. On so many occasions last season, it felt like he was moving east-west with no chance of getting to the second level. On running plays that went to either sideline (an area he excelled in 2014), had Murray at only three yards per carry.

Back when he was hired, Jimmy wrote that Pederson’s Kansas City Chiefs were far more efficient than the Birds on a per-drive basis. They also worked out of the shotgun (63% of the time) much more in line with the league average of 62 percent than the Eagles (92 percent), even after losing star back Jamaal Charles in the season’s fifth game. Maybe Murray will be a better fit formationally in Pederson’s offense.

“Instead of using the same plays with guys, you’re going to be under center,” Pederson said. “You’re going to be in two-back, one-back, empty. Utilize their strengths to help your offense.”

If the Eagles decide to roll with a Murray-Mathews-Sproles rotation in the backfield, Pederson has recent experience spreading the wealth. Despite Charles going down early, the Chiefs managed to finish first in rushing DVOA with a two-headed monster that also featured Knile Davis.

And the way Pederson talks about that trio sounds a lot like how he described the group he inherited.

“Knile Davis was a downhill guy, a power runner,” Pederson said. “Charcandrick [West] was more of a slasher, and you had a little bit of both in Spencer Ware. Spencer and Charcandrick were a little better out of the backfield as receiving running backs than Knile is or was. So you just had to make a conscious effort what you were going to do that
particular week.”

It remains to be seen what Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich, and running backs coach Duce Staley can do with this group. Maybe the answer is to make Murray mostly a short-yardage back and hope Mathews can shoulder a heavier workload.

Whoever is carrying the ball, it seems like each back will take on a more specific role under Pederson. We will see if this philosophy produces better results.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann