LeSean McCoy Says HE Is the NFL's Best Running Back. Whatcha Gonna Do About It?

The ageless Bills star (and Eagles castaway) is on a mission to make tailbacks great again. Fantasy owners: You've been warned.
photo of Tyler Dunne Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterAugust 10, 2017

This is what a player in football heaven looks like. He doesn't run—he glides. He doesn't dance in the hole—he disappears. He doesn't catch the ball over his shoulder—he cradles it.

And when this practice at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, New York, concludes, LeSean McCoy bounds over to the crowd. In a span of five minutes, he relives the gruesome high school ankle injury that nearly ended his career before it began, greets Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor's father with a hug and a laugh and then signs a string of autographs as kids chant his name.  

It's all a far cry from the football hell he likely envisioned two years ago. When the Bills traded for McCoy and called the veteran, he didn't answer. He was devastated. The Philadelphia Eagle had never played for a team outside Pennsylvania.

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Those chants from the kids pick up—Shay-dee! Shay-dee!—and it becomes clear why he's at peace now.

He's the best. He knows he's the best. He's not afraid to declare himself the best running back, even if everyone else would rather debate Le'Veon Bell vs. David Johnson vs. Ezekiel Elliott. 

"Isn't that crazy?" he says. "That's crazy, yo. I don't like that."

Because to him, there is no debate.

"I think I'm the best back in the league."

He plans on proving it, too.

If he does—if McCoy asserts himself as the best at 29 years old— he can change the perception of his position. He can make running backs great again. He can, once and for all, end the longest playoff drought in professional sports. Fans would probably spill out onto the I-90 in celebration if the Bills made the playoffs for the first time since 1999.

In Shady's world, none of this is unrealistic. He leaves no wiggle room. 

He believes he's at his peak and will stay there for another three seasons. When he gets to 33, to 34, he'll find a way to thrive in the league then, too. 

"There's nothing that I can't do," McCoy says. "I can catch the ball. I run routes. I'm a mismatch for defenses. I run the ball inside and run the ball outside. One man can't tackle me. I find a way to get it done."

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He points first to the numbers. No back has had more yards than McCoy since he entered the league in 2009. He also knows that only two backs in NFL history with at least 12,000 rushing yards aren't in the Hall of Fame: Edgerrin James (who's been nominated) and Frank Gore (who's still active). McCoy is only 3,046 away. After a career-high 5.4 yards per carry in 2016, hitting 12K is a near-guarantee.

Yet McCoy's 1,267-yard, 13-touchdown season was an Instagram pic with no likes compared to GIFs of Zeke "eating" after first downs and leaping into a Salvation Army kettle after a touchdown, Bell going full Steph Curry on the NFL and Johnson eclipsing 2,000 total yards.

"Obviously, I'm not doing something that's enough," McCoy says. "But it is frustrating because I put a lot into the game. When I'm all done, I want to have a ring. I want to have a yellow jacket."

Wear a yellow jacket, like Terrell Davis, like LaDainian Tomlinson. Two more greats were enshrined last weekend.

So here's the issue: This isn't 1997, when Davis, nearly blinded by migraines, single-handedly shredded the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl. It's not even 2007, when LT had his seventh straight 300-carry season. Teams very, very, very rarely build their rosters around the running back in 2017. They'd rather listen to music on Spotify than buy a CD, would fly drones instead of feeding a Tamagotchi.

Most teams have taken a cue from the New England Patriots, and why not? The Patriots dynasty began with Antowain Smith, JR Redmond and (a discarded) Corey Dillon and, a decade later, raged on with (a recycled) LeGarrette Blount, Shane Vereen, James White and Dion Lewis.

It's a QB's game. Priorities, league-wide, changed.

Only six running backs earn an average of at least $6.5 million per season, per Spotrac, making running back the least valued offensive position. Just don't tell Shady. His current five-year, $40 million pact made him the richest RB in the league before Devonta Freeman signed a five-year, $41.25 million extension.

Which is why he can't follow Bell's logic in holding out. McCoy loved what the Steelers offered Bell this offseason: $12 million per year, NFL Network reported, over five years.

"I would've taken it," McCoy says. "I know he talked about changing the market for running backs. That would've changed the market for running backs. Think about it. It's common sense."

McCoy knows his worth.

He also knows his No. 1 enemy right now is Father Time.

When told multiple pro scouts believe that once his speed goes, he'll go, McCoy doesn't get defensive—he agrees. Shady thinks three moves ahead, just like Bill Belichick. He's been doing everything in his power to defy convention, to keep his legs young. The 377K who follow McCoy on Instagram saw bits and pieces of how all offseason. But what everyone may not know is when he found this new gear: February 2016. Right after that brawl at a Philly nightclub that sent two off-duty cops to the hospital.

The investigation into the alleged assault never led to an official charge, but the video alone was a debilitating blow to his reputation. This was someone who had already infamously advertised a Females Only party (he later assured it was no "weird orgy thing"), warned that Chip Kelly "can't shake shit" before his Eagles reunion and then stormed off the field to chuck his helmet into the locker room after losing.

Those closest to Shady saw him morph into a workout fiend after the bar incident.

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"He hunkered down and focused on being a better pro," says Bills guard Richie Incognito. "That's when you saw him working out and training and really taking that stuff seriously. He kept taking his game to a new level. It stuck with him."

Bills tight end Charles Clay saw it in McCoy's constantly asking everywhere up and down the sideline how he could be better—repeating that the world must know how "unselfish" he is.

McCoy tried new diets, ran more hills and centered all training on pure explosion. He knows his game is based on "20-, 30-yard bursts" so that's how he tailored all drills and waged his war versus the evil forces that are undefeated against running backs. Creaky joints. Stiff hips. A lost fifth gear. A younger, fresher alternative. Throw in the fact that McCoy has what he describes as a "top-three" offensive line and still possesses that sixth sense for avoiding big shots, and maybe he'll do what Shaun Alexander, Marshall Faulk and Edgerrin James could not and remain dominant at 29. 

At a position that dings, disposes and damages players for life, McCoy is in incredible shape. He couldn't believe how ravaged other running backs were when a group of players had maintenance done on their bodies at the same facility this past offseason.

"So many injuries," McCoy says. "Back issues, shoulder issues, neck, hips, this, that. … It's a marathon, not a race. I'd rather play a long career. I'm at nine. I want to reach 12-13."

Clay will take McCoy over any other back in the league because it doesn't matter where you put him. Behind a fullback or not. Shotgun. Out wide. In the slot. He'll block and genuinely care about blocking. He'll invent alleys that don't exist. And Clay can still remember when a Colts linebacker blitzed with a free shot in the 2015 season opener and McCoy, somehow, wasted him.

"There's literally nothing he can't do," Clay says. "Every single game we play, he does something. He'll make plays where everything is blocked absolutely wrong. There's free guys all over the place. And the next thing you know he's ripping off 25 yards. Stuff like that, you can't coach.

"Even in practice, he makes cuts and it's just like, 'How do your feet not hurt after doing that?' That’s God-given, man. I've told him this before. I think he is the best running back in the league. I'll stand behind that. … That dude is unbelievable. I can ramble about that dude forever."

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Just don't argue with him in the locker room. He's known for shouting his point louder and louder until you're worn out and walk away. Clay and McCoy debate boxers. Incognito and McCoy have deep philosophical conversations. While Incognito jokes that his takes are rooted in "reason and truth," Shady's, he says, are rooted in "pixie dust and unicorns."

McCoy refuses to back down from an opinion he believes in.

And he runs like he debates.

"He's a scrappy battler," Incognito says. "He's a tough kid. Once Shady digs in on something, it's better just to leave it alone."

So go ahead and tell him he's the fourth- or fifth- or 10th-best. There's just that one tiny detail even McCoy will not ignore: In eight pro seasons, he's won zero playoff games. His Eagles teams never did. His Bills teams have gone 8-8 and 7-9. How valuable is McCoy if he's not even winning when it matters?

"That's embarrassing," he says. "That's something I really want to do."

With that, McCoy heads into a fieldhouse on campus, past basketball courts, to a team barber. "You're going to run for 2,000 this year!" yells the man, who later identifies himself as Travis the Barber. McCoy bites his tongue and looks around, worried that broadcasting a specific number will go viral. He tells Travis he only wants to win.

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The barber doubles down.

"Listen," he says. "You're going to win and 2,000! Rushing, rushing, rushing! Two thousand rushing and 800 yards receiving. And 15 touchdowns, baby. I see it. There ain't no pressure. No pressure. Playoffs!"

McCoy nods.

"That's what I want," he says. "Playoffs."

McCoy has declared himself the No. 1 back. Now it's time to back it up.

And win.

And maybe, along the way, save the soul of his position.

Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @TyDunne.

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