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September 06, 2017

How will Eagles use five running backs? No one seems to know

If you have five running backs, then you don’t have a running back. At least I think that’s how the saying goes.

Many were surprised by the Eagles’ decision to keep five running backs on their 53-man roster – even though at least one will be inactive on Sunday when they open the season against Washington – but given the uncertainty at the position, it actually makes a good deal of sense.

It was a move made out of necessity, but it was the right one nonetheless.

That’s because of the five backs they kept – LeGarrette Blount, Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood, Donnel Pumphrey, and Corey Clement – only Blount has ever carried the ball more than 100 times in a season. And two haven't played a regular-season NFL game yet.

At 30-years old, Blount, who led the NFL in rushing touchdowns last season (18) and won the Super Bowl with the Patriots, is coming off a career-high in rushing attempts (299). So is Sproles, albeit under much different circumstances. The 5-foot-6 special team’s ace turned 34 this summer and was excused from camp after a career-high 94 rushing attempts – and 70 additional touches as a receiver or returner. He was never a three-down back, so there’s absolutely no chance of him taking on that role in Year 12. Then there’s Smallwood, a second-year player who has shown flashes but can’t seem to stay healthy.

That leaves a pair of rookies, Pumphrey, a fourth-round pick who has drawn comparisons to Sproles because of his size but failed to live up to the hype during the preseason, and Clement, a local undrafted free agent who played well in the preseason but probably wouldn’t have made the team had they seen more out of Pumphrey.

The purpose of showing you what the Eagles have at running back is this: it’s the best way to show you what they don’t have. They don’t have a lead running back. 

That’s how head coach Doug Pederson is viewing it, anyway.

“It goes back to the game plan, quite honestly,” he said Monday when asked if Blount, the most obvious candidate, will be the team’s lead back. “We understand that LeGarrette might be a little different runner even than Sproles or Wendell. 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. It's going to be a great effort by all three guys each and every week. [We] want to get all of them, obviously, involved in the game plan.”

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.

So, backfield by committee? 

It’s worked for them in the past, and current running backs coach Duce Staley was part of one the best iterations in team history alongside Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter. But as we’ve seen firsthand in the years since trading LeSean McCoy, without the proper combination of backs – and somewhere who truly knows how to get the best from each – it can disrupt the offense’s rhythm.

“I think you can have a runner that you kind of hang your hat on,” Pederson said. “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."

Whether or not he has a number in mind and is just unwilling to show his hand remains to be seen. But offensive coordinator Frank Reich doesn't seem to mind making up the game plan on the fly. 

In fact, he's looking forward to it.

“I think it's exciting to think about how to deploy this running back group,” Reich said Tuesday. “The ‘by-committee’ thing, and as coach has alluded to the ‘hot hand’ thing, that's all for the flow of the game. But again, when you're putting together that plan and you're looking through – and we literally, at every skill position, go through every play and say, ‘Who do we want in on this play? Who is utilized best on this play?’

“Sometimes the answer is, ‘Well, hey, we can have LeGarrette and Wendell, they would both be suitable for this play.’ Sometimes there's more than one guy and we keep that in mind. Sometimes we might play it with one and the next time we might run it with the other guy. If one guy hits it hard and good the first time, we might just let him roll with it the second time. And there are [other] things where, obviously, we're using Darren [Sproles] and mixing things up like that.”

While that looks like the correct approach on the surface, there's a glass-half-empty view just screaming to break free from all that subtext. If all of their backs looked dominant in the preseason and this was a way to ensure each got a fair chance, maybe. But it was quite the opposite, as the ground game struggled mightily without Sproles and, for the most part, Smallwood. 

Essentially, they're playing the waiting game because they don't know who is going to be their best ball carrier at any given moment. More worrisome is that this remains the case with just a few days of practice left before heading to Washington. 

It doesn’t seem like they have a plan. At least not yet.

The one thing they do know, according to Pederson, is that they won’t have five dressed on Sunday.

“I think number one, obviously, we're not going to take five into a game,” he said. "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 and begin to game plan a little bit, [we] 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.”

And it doesn’t seem like that wait-and-see approach to the running game will change for the Eagles as the season progresses. 

“It's game-plan specific,” Pederson added. “We go into each game, and of course injury plays a part in that as we get going, but by game plan and how we want to utilize our running backs.”

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