LeSean McCoy Has Become the NFL's Best Back: Can He Carry the Eagles in January?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistDecember 14, 2013

Dec 8, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy (25) scores a touchdown as Detroit Lions cornerback Bill Bentley (28) tries to make a tackle during the fourth quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey G. Pittenger-USA TODAY Sports
Jeffrey G. Pittenger-USA TODAY S

Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy has become the best player in the NFL at his position. Maybe it's maturation, maybe it's Chip Kelly's influence. Maybe both factors have contributed. But McCoy, who is somehow still only 25 years old, is enjoying the best season of his career.

The fifth-year, former second-round pick has had some great campaigns, too, so that's saying a lot.

McCoy leads the league with 1,305 rushing yards and 1,744 yards from scrimmage, and he's the only back in the league with an average of 5.0 yards or higher on at least 200 carries.

But what's most impressive about McCoy is that he seems to be getting better as the 2013 season wears on. Here's a breakdown:

LeSean McCoy, 2013
Yards/game (rank)Yards/attempt (rank)
Games 1-986.3 (3rd)4.6 (3rd)
Games 10-13132.0 (1st)5.7 (3rd)
Min. 13 carries per game (Pro Football Reference)

He's coming off the game of his career—a 217-yard, two-touchdown performance in more than six inches of snow Sunday in a home victory over the Detroit Lions

He owned that game like no other back has owned a game this season, putting the Eagles on his back in a crucial December game and leading them back from a 14-0 deficit in conditions that were as adverse as they get.

For McCoy, 148 of those yards came in the fourth quarter of a close game, likely clinching the performance's place as the best rushing effort in Eagles history. 

Here he is making fools of a pair of attempted tacklers on a 40-yard touchdown run to pull Philly within two:

NFL Game Pass

And two drives later, after scoring from 57 yards out to give the Eagles the lead, this is McCoy embarrassing Louis Delmas at the beginning of a 26-yard gain:

NFL Game Pass

Later on the very same run, Glover Quin was the victim:

NFL Game Pass

Those clutch runs are nothing new for McCoy, who is averaging 6.0 yards per carry in the fourth quarter this season. And in the fourth quarter of games in which the Eagles are up or down by seven points or fewer, Mr. Clutch is now averaging 8.4 yards per attempt. 

Just as he's become better as this season has progressed, he's been getting better with each passing quarter. On attempt 1-10, he's averaging 4.5 yards per carry. On attempt 11-20, 5.0. And beyond his 20th carry, McCoy is averaging 7.4 yards per rush. 

LeSean McCoy by the quarter, 2013

Obviously Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles are studs, too, but neither has been as effective on a per-touch basis as McCoy. And McCoy has risen higher in big moments.

Select top backs in close fourth-quarter scenarios, 2013
LeSean McCoy8.4
Jamaal Charles5.5
Adrian Peterson4.1

From CSN Philly's Reuben Frank:

There has never been a more explosive fourth-quarter tailback in the history of the game. With his 40- and 57-yard touchdown runs Sunday, McCoy extended his own NFL record of fourth-quarter TD runs of 40 yards or more to seven. Nobody else in NFL history has ever had more than four. McCoy is 25. Think about that.

And among backs with at least 40 catches, McCoy is the only one in football who is averaging more than 10 yards per reception. 

Running back yards-per-catch leaders, 2013
LeSean McCoy11.0
Reggie Bush10.0
Shane Vereen9.3
Min. 40 receptions (Pro Football Reference)

Now he's the centerpiece; now he's the man. Quarterback Nick Foles has been great, which is why he was the NFC Offensive Player of the Month in November, but this is still a running team. Only Seattle and San Francisco throw the ball less often as a percentage of their total plays than Philly does, according to TeamRankings.com, but those two teams have mobile quarterbacks. 

Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick have each run on 20 percent of their dropbacks. Foles has run on only 13 percent of his. So it's probably safe to assume that nobody hands it off as often as Philadelphia. 

Which leads to an important question: When is the last time a running back carried his team to the Super Bowl? 

Ray Rice and Frank Gore were big factors last year, but neither the Ravens nor the 49ers would have gone that far if not for Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick, as well as top-notch defenses. The Giants, Packers, Saints, Steelers, Colts and Patriots were all pass-first teams with superstar quarterbacks. 

Not once this century has a Super Bowl winner possessed a Pro Bowl running back. 

The closest Super Bowl finalist comparison that can be made to this Philly team might be the 2005 Seattle Seahawks. Matt Hasselbeck was good for that team, but Shaun Alexander was the leader of the pack. He was their best player, and arguably the best offensive player in the league. 

Still, history isn't on the Eagles' side. 

During the final three weeks, the Eagles will face three bad defenses, two of whichChicago and Dallas—rank in the bottom three in terms of yards per carry allowed. McCoy has to take advantage. And if he and Foles and the rest of this energized core can get the Eagles into the playoffs for the first time in three years, the pressure will fall on McCoy to buck that trend of stud running backs rarely if ever leading their teams to championships. 

Against opponents like San Francisco, Seattle, Arizona and Carolina, it'll be a tall task.

But Kelly's offense is unique and McCoy is as hot as you can be. Maybe he can be an exception to that rule. They talk about teams needing to peak at the right time, but maybe McCoy himself is peaking at the perfect moment.

With a rookie head coach, an inexperienced quarterback and a vulnerable defense, we're about to find out if that'll be enough.


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