You thought it was strange when the Philadelphia Eagles traded LeSean McCoy, the all-time leading rusher in franchise history and arguably the club’s most dangerous offensive weapon? What about the time the Birds signed free-agent running backs DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews on the same day, with Darren Sproles already on the roster to boot?
It’s Philly’s new three-headed monster, and if you listen to Murray, Mathews and head coach Chip Kelly, there’s enough room for everybody in this loaded—and expensive—backfield.
How do Murray, Mathews and Sproles—all players used to extensive roles—coexist? How do the Eagles afford the trio, especially at a time when an increasing number of NFL teams devalue ball-carriers?
Somehow, having too much talent at one position always seems to raise more questions than it answers.
|Eagles Running Backs in 2014|
|Mathews (6 GMS)||74||330||4.5||3|
Murray is coming from a situation with the Dallas Cowboys in which he racked up the seventh-most carries in NFL history in 2014 and the highest total of any player since 2006. The league’s reigning rushing champion is reportedly set to get paid like a workhorse back by the Eagles, too, signing a five-year, $42 million contract that includes $21 million guaranteed, per Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen of ESPN.
Salary alone would seem to suggest Murray will serve as the primary back in Philadelphia. However, as Kelly explained in his press conference on the team’s website, that doesn’t necessarily mean the fifth-year back is slated for 300-plus attempts again.
“I would hope DeMarco does not have to carry the ball 392 times this year," Kelly said. "If he does, then we’re running it 692 times.”
Kelly’s quote revealed a lot more than his intentions for Murray. Basically, he just told you there are 300 carries to be divvied up between Mathews and Sproles.
If Sproles’ usage last season is any indication, that means roughly 150 of those will go to Mathews. That’s interesting in itself, as prior to 2014, when Mathews only played six games due to injuries, he had never carried the ball fewer than 158 times in his first four NFL seasons with the San Diego Chargers.
Mathews had every opportunity to back out of signing a three-year deal worth $11.5 million with $5 million guaranteed, according to Derrick Gunn for CSNPhilly.com, once he learned Murray was joining the team. The former first-round pick insisted the Eagles were still the right situation for him at his presser.
“Coach Chip likes to run the ball," he said. "He likes to run the ball. He uses his running backs a lot and that’s one big thing I wanted to come here for, to be used like that. It’s going to be fun. I think it’s going to showcase my talents a little bit more. I can’t wait.”
Actually, a reduction in carries could be good for Murray and Mathews. Both players have had durability issues during their NFL careers, with one full 16-game season for each in nine combined seasons.
There were serious concerns that Dallas was running Murray into the ground last year, as he touched the ball nearly 500 total times between 18 regular-season and playoff games. If you buy into the “Curse of 370,” Murray is headed toward either injury or decline in 2015. Perhaps shaving his workload will keep him fresh and avoid the inevitable drop-off that heavily utilized backs often experience.
|Eagles Running Backs in 2014|
|Mathews (6 GMS)||9||69||7.7||0|
Sproles is certainly still in the mix, too. While he often had a huge impact on the outcome of games last season, Sproles only carried the football 57 times. He’s never been a high-volume ball-carrier, and at 5’6” and 31 years of age, now is not the time to start.
Plus, Sproles can be utilized any number of ways, from taking handoffs to catching passes out of the backfield, lining up in two-back sets or even as a receiver out of the slot. Kelly reaffirmed his excitement about having Sproles in the offense.
“Darren is a Swiss army knife," he said. "You can use him in a million different ways and is integral part of what we’re doing here.”
As for all the money being spent on backs, it’s a curious situation, but one Kelly insisted the Eagles were able to handle:
I don’t think we extended ourselves financially to be honest with you. You’ve got to run the football in this league. That’s what we believe in, and that’s what I’ve always believed in. We lost a very talented running back, and in making that decision and losing LeSean, how do you replace someone of that caliber? And that’s what we did.
It’s interesting, because it was believed that McCoy was traded, at least in part, due to an overbearing salary-cap hit in 2014 ($9.7 milllion). But between the additions of Murray ($5 million) and Mathews ($2 million) and having Sproles ($4.1 million) on the roster, Philadelphia is spending roughly the same amount as before.
Clearly, there is no intention to run the football any less. In fact, with newly acquired quarterback Sam Bradford coming off a second consecutive ACL injury and backup/possible opening-day starter Mark Sanchez not being the most reliable of passers, it seems likely the Eagles are going to be handing the ball off more than ever.
It’s a different direction than we’ve seen with most NFL teams over the past decade as the league has become increasingly pass-happy. Kelly is a different kind of coach, though. We’re seeing that manifest itself quite a bit this offseason with outside-the-box approaches such as this.
Salary-cap information provided by spotrac.com.