A few weeks back, Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly stressed that Darren Sproles is, in fact, a running back, and not a wide receiver. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur reiterated Kelly’s stance when reporters were allowed to meet with assistant coaches on Monday. The funny thing is we probably don’t need these offensive masterminds to explain the difference between a back and a receiver. Sproles is listed as a running back on the roster. That’s good enough for me. However, that doesn’t mean I’m going to fall into the trap of believing the Eagles will have Sproles “run the ball first, catch it second,” as the headline at ProFootballTalk summarized Shurmur’s comments. That’s really not what he or Kelly said at all. All either coach did was reaffirm Sproles plays running back, and therefore will line up in the backfield with some regularity. Nowhere in Les Bowen’s reporting of Shurmur’s words for the Daily News does it say anything about run/pass distribution. Read for yourself.
"I think he's an outstanding running back, that's what he is," Shurmur said yesterday, when asked about Sproles. This was the first time since the 2013 season ended that Eagles coaches other than Kelly have been allowed to talk to reporters. "There's a lot of conversation about the fact we brought him in to play receiver. He's played at a very high level for 10 years. He brings outstanding leadership. He's one of our hardest workers. The first training session he went out there and he finishes as well as you see from any player, not to mention he can help us running the ball and catching it. That's a very strong addition for us." "He's a running back, so we're going to line him up in the backfield," Shurmur said, before conceding, "There is a portion of our offense where we can be in empty, or we can motion him out."
The Eagles can spin the acquisition of Sproles however they like. The simple fact of the matter he hasn’t been used as a conventional running back in years, and any attempt to start doing so now would probably be a bad idea. At best, the distribution should wind up roughly 50/50. In three seasons with the New Orleans Saints, Sproles carried the ball 188 times compared to 232 receptions. He only ever finished with more rushing attempts in a campaign his first year there—one more rushing attempt, to be exact. In his final year with the San Diego Chargers, the team that drafted Sproles in 2005, Sproles also had more catches than carries. That dual-threat is a huge part of what makes Sproles such a dangerous weapon. To think that now all of a sudden, as this 5’6”, 190-pound back gets set to turn 31 in a matter of days, he’s going to start making his living between the tackles is absurd. Even the very premise that somebody other than LeSean McCoy is going to rack up a lot of rushing attempts in Philadelphia sounds illogical. All of which begs the question what is behind this concerted effort by the Eagles to remind the world that Sproles is a runner? Another huge factor that goes into making Sproles so successful is the matchup problems he creates when he’s on the field. Kelly and Shurmur certainly have a vested interest in making defenses believe Sproles is every bit as likely to carry the ball as he is to run a route, because it could go a long way in determining what personnel the opponent puts on the field. Sproles’ ability to take a handoff is what compels a defense to keep an extra linebacker on the field. That’s Sproles mark. So now when he does go into a route, or he does line up in the slot, and the bigger, stronger linebacker is trying to cover the far more agile and shifty receiver running back, the quarterback can exploit that matchup. Quite a bit, as Drew Brees demonstrated in New Orleans the past three seasons. Sproles racked up 232 receptions for 1,981 yards and 16 touchdowns as a member of the Saints. As Bowen alludes to in his story, Kelly and now Shurmur are essentially attempting to walk back the head coach’s comments made back in March about how Sproles will help the Birds offense against man defense. If the defense assumes Sproles is only out there to catch passes, the opponent may opt to put an additional defensive back on the field instead. Teams may do that anyway, which is where the flexibility of Kelly’s offense can really come into play. If the defense goes nickel or dime personnel because Sproles is on the field, the Eagles will likely pound the ball down their throats. So, yes, Sproles is a running back. He’ll certainly carry the ball from time to time, probably effectively. There's even a slight possibility he'll finish '14 with marginally more carries than receptions. However, if the last several years’ worth of historical data serves as any indication—and really, just plain common sense—it all suggests Sproles will have a much greater impact in the passing attack than on the ground.