Eagles Split-Back Case Study: No Need to Platoon Running Backs

Leo PizziniAnalyst IJuly 5, 2009

PHILADELPHIA - MAY 1: Running back Brian Westbrook #36 (R) stands on the sideline with second round draft pick running back LeSean McCoy #29 of the Philadelphia Eagles during minicamp at the NovaCare Complex on May 1, 2009 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

Brian Westbrook is one of the most dangerous players that could ever be on a football field.  LeSean McCoy figures to be a second coming of the same basic skill set. 

How can the Eagles utilize both players? 

NFL teams have recently migrated to a very logical two-back system to preserve the health and minimize injury to their star backs.  Every team is working with a "two-headed monster" of some sort, but does the contemporary model work out?

An injury doesn't care about anything.  It doesn't require more than one play.  It doesn't require player fatigue.  Injuries have no prerequisites.

All of the practice repetitions combine with playing time and age to wear a player down.  Reps are reps.  Some guys are tougher than others and play with more pain while others are unfortunate in taking the hit that ends their career.

If I'm playing, I don't want to be taken out because of injury worries.  Coaches can't tell when a player is about to do something great or suffer an injury. 

In fact, I want to play out an entire drive.  The most exploitable opportunities are recognized after working through a series of plays, sometimes after recurring failures.

While Westbrook may be wearing down, a career-ending injury could happen on any play.  That doesn't mean play him less.  He can still play right now, maybe not tomorrow and maybe not with a football play as a career-ending cause.

You can only bake a cake when the oven is hot and Westbrook's element will only produce heat for a few more years.

I don't suggest pounding Westbrook with 30 carries per game and running him until his wheels fall off as that would be irresponsible.  I have an alternate suggestion for a two-back system that the Eagles have used with great success in the past.

Split-backs are the answer.

With the stable of receiver-quality running backs on the Eagles roster, a base split-back formation would enable the Birds endless motion-based formation shifts that would completely keep defenses off balance.

In 2008, one of the Eagles' best plays was a fake hand-off to the left or right and a pitch to the other back in the other direction from a split-back formation.  Against a team like the Cardinals, whose linebackers attack almost exclusively downhill, that type of misdirection will destroy the defensive scheme.

Split-backs with LeSean McCoy and Brian Westbrook would increase the sale of ibuprofen to opposing defenses and coordinators. 

How do you cover both of those guys in the flats with speedy game breaking receivers like DeSean Jackson, Kevin Curtis, Jeremy Maclin, and even Hank Baskett or Reggie Brown who can get down the field with a quickness?

Leonard Weaver is another split-back option who could lead block on a sweep, break a pass play from the flats, motion to tight end (his high school position), or do any of a myriad of creative things for the offense.

The Eagles in a split-back formation offer rushing opportunities with misdirection, power sweeps, quick-pitches outside, draws inside, additional pass blocking, better check down options, and dynamic motion formation shifts. 

All of this while keeping the backs on the field and in the rhythm of the game without irresponsibly compromising their running back's health.  The star backs can stay on the field as a decoy, ball carrier, receiver, or blocker.

I was somewhat stunned to see the success of the split-back formation with Buckhalter and Westbrook under-utilized in Andy Reid's 2008 offensive play calling.  In almost every instance, the misdirection plays opened up great running opportunities for the backs.

LeSean McCoy and Brian Westbrook in the backfield as a base formation with the occasional rotation of Leonard Weaver or Lorenzo Booker will be a nearly unstoppable dynamic that Andy Reid should embrace more often in 2009.

More Analysis from Leo Pizzini at: http://eagles.sportsscribes.net/

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