Aside from leading the NFL in rushing in 2013, Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy also finished No. 1 in attempts and touches. History teaches us there’s often a very fine line between an offense getting the most out of a dangerous weapon and plain overusing a ball-carrier.
That’s where Darren Sproles comes in. Acquired from the New Orleans Saints for a fifth-round pick, much has been made of Sproles’ dynamic skill set and the many ways he will be utilized in head coach Chip Kelly’s offense. One of the simplest ways Sproles can help, though, is by allowing Shady the occasional breather.
McCoy only turns 26 in July, but the Eagles might want to consider scaling back the superstar’s workload just a skosh. A starting running back’s abilities tend to erode faster than at any other position on the gridiron. In fact, ESPN.com recently ran a report by Kevin Seifert showing, on average, the decline in production begins after age 27—practically right around the corner.
Perhaps Sproles can assist McCoy in delaying the inevitable.
Last season, Kelly rarely called the backup’s number. According to metrics site Pro Football Focus (subscription required), McCoy played 80 percent of the Birds’ offensive snaps. In all, he touched the ball 366 times compared to 98 for the rest of the team’s runners.
It wasn’t necessarily obvious to the naked eye, but the heavy usage took its toll on McCoy. Shady admitted to Ross Jones for FoxSports.com that Sproles’ presence could actually make him an even better player late in games or when it’s getting late in the season:
Signing Sproles helps me out as a running back. I can go in a game even more fresh because I’m getting less carries and less attempts. I had 366 touches (in 2013), which is a lot. I think me having less attempts can help me be more productive and more deadly. Being fresh in the fourth quarter, things that you don’t think matter really do make a big difference.
Clearly, Kelly never fully trusted Bryce Brown to spell McCoy. Brown, who was traded to the Buffalo Bills over draft weekend, struggled to master the zone-read running plays that now comprise what is essentially the entirety of Philadelphia’s ground attack. As the year wore on, Brown began splitting time with Chris Polk, who remains on the Eagles roster but is still something of an unknown with only 15 career touches in the NFL.
Meanwhile, Sproles has carved out a living in pro football going on one decade as purely a secondary back. He’s appeared in 122 games, yet started only 19.
Between rushing attempts (53), receptions (71) and kick or punt returns (41), Sproles touched the ball 165 times for the Saints in ’13—almost twice as many as Philly reserves. Judging from that resume, fit certainly shouldn’t be an issue. Sproles comes equipped to handle a multitude of roles.
Of course, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that Sproles caught more passes from the quarterback than were handed to him. Furthermore, Pro Football Focus’ charting numbers indicate that four out of five times Sproles was on the field with New Orleans’ offense last season, it was a passing play.
It was the third season in the last four Sproles recorded more catches than carries. Heck, the guy finished as high as seventh in the NFL in receptions as recently as 2011.
That hasn’t stopped everybody from Kelly and the rest of the Eagles coaching staff to Sproles himself from proclaiming, almost imploring, that he is actually a running back first. True statement, insofar as the backfield is where No. 43 will line up the majority of the time.
Not to mention, a ruse, to an extent.
Remember, Sproles’ very presence on the field puts defenses in a bind. Opponents may choose either to put a linebacker on Sproles and pray that defender can cover him in space, or they can go with an extra defensive back, which makes the unit more susceptible against the run. Spoiler alert: He’ll burn you both ways.
As it turns out, taking advantage of precisely those kinds of mismatches is one of the most basic tenets of play-calling in Kelly’s offense. Sproles’ unique talents should mesh brilliantly.
None of which is meant to downplay Sproles’ contributions as a runner. As linebackers coach Rick Minter noted to Les Bowen of the Philadelphia Daily News, Sproles could wind up something of a secret weapon in the zone read:
As a runner, you start running those plays Chip runs and you start looking back there behind that 300-pound offensive line, you don't even see the guy. Then, all of a sudden, boom, he's squirting out the back door with the ball. And his receiving skills are off the charts. It's very challenging for a linebacking corps to try and defend him.
Just don’t expect the Eagles to all of a sudden look to a 5’6”, 31-year-old ball-carrier to start pounding the rock between the tackles religiously. And as for seeing Sproles and McCoy in the backfield together, I’m honestly not sure how much of that we’ll get, either. As far as the more imaginative things the offense can do with another dynamic skill player at its disposal, we’ll have to wait and see.
Ultimately, my best guess of the situation is McCoy’s work rate will be cut down by between 10 and 15 percent—at most. Let’s face it: Any sane person would keep Shady off the field as little as possible. We’re talking about quite possibly the most gifted ball-carrier in the NFL, a player who was named first-team All-Pro in two of the last three seasons.
That would leave roughly 30 to 35 percent of the snaps to Sproles. This won’t be your father’s thunder and lightning, though. Sproles brings his own separate set of problems from McCoy for defenses to diagnose. He will quite literally give the Eagles offense a whole different look.
Not that it even needed one.