Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Running Back

Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Running Back

We continue our training camp preview by examining the Eagles’ running backs, who figure to get far more work under Chip Kelly than they ever did under Andy Reid.

[ Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp:
Quarterback | Wide Receiver | Tight EndOffensive Line
Defensive Line | Linebackers | Cornerback | Safety ]

Can Bryce Brown quit fumbling?

It could take some time. Brown fumbled four times in 128 touches last season, and it easily would have been more if one or two botched handoffs weren’t charged to the quarterback.

Many observers were quick to trace this case of the dropsies to the 22-year-old’s practically non-existent college career. Prior to his rookie season in the NFL, Brown hardly even looked at a football the previous two years at Kansas State (three total carries), so best case scenario the seventh rounder just has to get used to contact again.

This seems like an extremely simplistic way of looking at the situation. It’s plausible with more experience and proper tutelage Brown can clean up his game, perhaps relatively quickly. However, some ball carriers in the past who struggled with holding on to the pigskin – Pro Bowlers even – took years to overcome these issues. The best example Birds fans would probably be most with is former New York Giants back Tiki Barber, who at one point put the rock on the carpet eight or more times for four consecutive seasons. It was a serious problem. You know, for the Giants.

The hope is Bryce will be able to figure it out this season, because with his rare combination of size and speed, he might be the best pure runner on the Eagles’ roster. Yes, better than Shady – Brown’s 4.9 yards per carry were seventh in the NFL, behind the same beat O-line by the way. Regardless, if this curse continues to follow him around, Chip Kelly will have no choice but to strip Brown… of his touches.

Will LeSean McCoy regain his All-Pro form from 2011?

Maybe. Shady certainly has a bunch going for him heading into 2013. He’s healthy. The Eagles’ offensive line returns three starters from injuries. Most of all, Chip Kelly’s system promises to usher in a renewed dedication to running the football in Philadelphia. At the very least McCoy should be able to improve upon last year’s numbers – specifically his pedestrian 4.2 yards per carry and two rushing touchdowns.

This doesn't appear to be all about McCoy though. He’s a fantastic back to be sure, but not quite a freak of nature in the manner of an Adrian Peterson or Barry Sanders in his prime – backs who can do it all by themselves if need be. McCoy’s success could be dependent to an extent on the recovery of Jason Peters, who paved the way for that incredible ’13 season.

How important is Peters? According to Pro Football Focus, the Eagles averaged almost a full yard more than any other team in the league on carries off of the left tackle’s outside shoulder in ’11. That is a rather significant margin.

Even if Peters is fully recovered from a twice-ruptured Achilles tendon, there are issues. Howard Mudd is out as the offensive line coach, replaced by Jeff Stoutland from the University of Alabama, which means all five linemen are thrusted into something a little new. The right side in particular is completely rebuilt with Todd Herremans moving back to guard, and fourth-overall pick Lane Johnson taking over at tackle.

And some of Shady’s 2011 numbers are plain not easy to replicate, either, namely the 5.2 yards per carry and 20 touchdowns overall. The Eagles are fortunate to have found a high-end back like McCoy, who will only be 25 this season and undoubtedly has many stellar years ahead, but All-Pro campaigns aren’t necessarily going to become the norm.

What is Felix Jones doing here?

Maybe nothing. There may only be roughly a coin-flip's chance the Dallas Cowboys’ ’08 first-round pick makes Philly’s 53-man roster. At this stage of his career, Jones’ name is bigger than anything he’s managed to accomplish in the NFL.

That doesn’t mean he's useless. With as much as some experts are speculating the Eagles will run the ball under Chip Kelly, Jones could be an excellent change-of-pace back for a handful of carries every week. If Bryce Brown can’t hold on to the ball, Jones could be the primary spell for Shady McCoy. And in addition to carrying the ball, Jones can return kicks, quite possibly his most valuable asset at all.

While Jones may fit the description of a draft bust to a tee – having never eclipsed so much as 800 yards in a season throughout his career – there should be some fuel left in the tank. He’s only 26 years old after all, and has touched the ball more than 200 times just once in five seasons. Injuries have been an issue, but have only caused him to miss four games since 2010.

If healthy – albeit a huge if – Jones is an effective runner/receiver/returner, one who on his best days has home-run capability. That kind of talent is worth a look at least, and don’t be surprised if Felix is a Bird in ’13.

Could Chris Polk Make the Team?

He’s got a shot. The University of Washington product made the team as an undrafted free agent last summer, grinding out seven games before finally succumbing to a toe injury. Now Polk is healthy, has a season under his belt as a professional special teamer, and remains an untapped resource as a potential workhorse back.

Polk – 5-11, 222 – rushed for over 4,000 yards over his final three collegiate seasons. The 23 year old could be a real bruiser if given the opportunity, and having coached in the Pac-12, Chip Kelly undoubtedly is aware of this.

The fact of the matter is Polk probably won’t be seeing huge numbers of carries, but he is the likely third back if Felix Jones doesn’t make the cut. Even if Jones sticks, there is a chance Chip keeps four backs should Polk’s special teams contributions warrant a roster spot. He might have some ability as a runner, but his versatility is what will ultimately win him a job.

Who is the fullback?

There is none! The great tradition of Cecil Martin, Jon Ritchie, Leonard Weaver, and the other (mostly unremarkable) fullbacks of the Andy Reid era goes on an indefinite hiatus under Chip Kelly. The last remaining remnant of that time period is Emil Igwenagu, who mostly works out at tight end and has essentially no chance of making the roster.

So who is the lead blocker if the Eagles were to use a heavy package, say on 3rd down and goal to go from the one-yard line? Well in that particular instance, perhaps nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga. But in virtually any other circumstance that might call for a fullback, it would be tight end/H-back James Casey.

Casey blocked for 17 of the Houston Texans’ 19 rushing touchdowns in 2012 according to Pro Football Focus, so maybe Sopoaga won’t be getting the call at the goal line after all. PFF notes Casey had a negative grade as a run blocker overall, but it shouldn’t matter as this figures to represent an extremely limited portion of the offense moving forward. The changes to the offense in the backfield alone are already sweeping to say the least.

Andrew Kulp is a freelance writer covering Philadelphia sports for The700Level.com. E-mail him at andrewkulp@comcast.net or follow him on Twitter.

Flyers answer Ron Hextall's plea with comeback OT win over Islanders

Flyers answer Ron Hextall's plea with comeback OT win over Islanders

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK — Shayne Gostisbehere’s fist pump was so vicious and mighty, the celebration was probably felt back in Philadelphia.

This was an exultation the entire Flyers felt, too.

When it started to look like the bye week wasn’t the break they needed, the Flyers reached down deep and got one Sunday night at the Barclays Center in the form a 3-2 overtime victory over the Islanders (see Instant Replay).

“It allows you to take a breath,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “That’s one thing for sure.”

A sigh of relief for a team beaten and bruised — losers of three straight by a combined score of 15-4, not to mention 3-9-3 in its past 15 games. The Flyers had lost the day prior on home ice to the Devils, 4-1, with a performance not exactly inspiring confidence following five days off.

On Sunday, they trailed 2-0 in the second period.

“We've got to get better at dealing with adversity when something goes wrong,” general manager Ron Hextall said bluntly before the game. “We need to get back on the horse and get back going. Big deal, a team scored a goal. We need to react better to it.”

Finally, the Flyers reacted the way their GM had been hoping.

They flipped the deficit into a victory when Gostisbehere skated behind the net and put the puck on Claude Giroux’s stick for the game-winner with 1:40 left in the extra session. Gostisbehere whipped his arm through the air and embraced Giroux, along with Jakub Voracek, who started the play by stripping Islanders captain John Tavares.

“On a lot of different levels, it’s an important win,” Hakstol said. “It’s huge. And more importantly for us, a great effort. Thought we deserved the two points. Sometimes maybe that’s what it takes to get over the hump — a tremendous effort for 60-plus minutes. I thought we got that out of everyone tonight.”

For Giroux, it was his first goal since Dec. 21.

For Steve Mason, his first win since Dec. 21.

And for the Flyers, their first road victory since Dec. 14, as they went 0-6-3 in the previous nine games away from home.

Yeah, “it was needed,” as Wayne Simmonds said of the win.

“We’ve been fighting it lately and I thought that was a good game from start to finish,” he said. “I thought everyone played well. I think we made bounces go our way tonight instead of hoping and waiting.”

Simmonds scored what might have been the biggest goal of the game. The Flyers, down 1-0 in the second period, came up empty for 33 seconds of a 5-on-3 power play and the proceeding 5-on-4 advantage. The Islanders then padded the lead to 2-0 moments later, putting the Flyers’ backs against the wall.

But Simmonds kept his team from uncoiling with a goal at 14:10 of the period, giving the Flyers life at second intermission. If not for that score, who knows how the Flyers come out in the third period, trailing by multiple goals yet again.

"I think we were plying well,” Giroux said. “We had a lot of chances and [the puck] wasn't going in. Everybody on the bench was frustrated. When Wayne got that first goal, I think [there was] a little relief on the bench. I haven't see a team celebrate so much just for a first goal. It was kind of a relief and we had a little boost out of that.”

Ivan Provorov scored the equalizer 1:47 into the final period when he maintained possession from the blue line to the circle, adeptly skating around two Islanders to put the puck on net. Provorov’s pass to Travis Konecny hit off the skate of New York’s Adam Pelech and into the net.

“I came off the bench and I saw [Brayden Schenn] was going into the zone, so I took a few hard strides, got the puck from him and I saw it was kind of an odd-man situation,” Provorov said. “I held on to the puck a little bit, saw T.K. going backdoor, passed it there and it went off their D skate.”

Just as important as the timely goals was the Flyers’ discipline. Against the Devils, the Flyers compiled 19 penalty minutes, forcing them on seven penalty kills. This time, the Flyers sharpened up, not allowing the Islanders a power play until midway through the third period. In total, they had just four penalty minutes and killed off both power plays faced.

That gave them a chance.

“We just kept saying it the whole time, ‘Keep going, keep going, guys,’” Simmonds said. “We just need one [goal] and from one comes two, and Mase held the fort.”

Mason made 17 of his 36 saves in the third period and overtime combined.

Now, the Flyers at least go into another important back-to-back — starting Wednesday at the Rangers before welcoming the Maple Leafs Thursday — with some confidence instead of a lost weekend.

“I thought the focus was purely on going out and playing well,” Hakstol said. “And you know, that’s harder to do than you might know — when you start to feel some of the pressure without a win in a little bit. I really liked that side of it. Even in that situation, all the guys played well. Hopefully that puts our entire team in the right direction.’’

Best of NHL: Crosby scores league-leading 28th goal in win vs. Bruins

Best of NHL: Crosby scores league-leading 28th goal in win vs. Bruins

PITTSBURGH -- Conor Sheary scored two goals, Sidney Crosby added his league-leading 28th and the Pittsburgh Penguins won their fourth straight game, 5-1 over the Boston Bruins 5-1 on Sunday.

Pittsburgh led 2-1 through two periods before breaking out in the third with three goals in a span of 2 minutes, 57 seconds.

Sheary scored his 17th and has nine goals in nine games. Bryan Rust added his 12th and Patric Hornqvist his 11th for the Penguins, who won a season-high seventh straight at home. Pittsburgh the NHL's best home team, is 13-0-1 in its last 14 home games.

Evgeni Malkin had two assists for a season-best seven-game point streak. Crosby added two assists for a three-point game. Matt Murray made 44 saves to win his fourth straight game.

David Krejci scored his 11th for the Bruins, who have lost four straight and five of their last six (see full recap).

Rangers shut out Red Wings in 1-0 OT win
DETROIT -- J.T. Miller scored at 1:56 of overtime to lift the New York Rangers to a 1-0 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday.

Henrik Lundqvist made 21 saves for his second shutout of the season and 61st of his career. The Rangers managed only 19 shots in a game that featured few memorable chances by either team.

The winner came when Mats Zuccarello and Miller swooped in alone on Detroit goalie Jared Coreau. Zuccarello made a simple pass to Miller, who lifted the puck over Coreau for his 16th goal of the season.

Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall played for the first time since Jan. 4, returning from a lower-body injury. The Red Wings put forward Drew Miller on waivers (see full recap).

Atikinson lifts Jackets over Senators in wild OT win
OTTAWA, Ontario -- Cam Atkinson's second goal of the game at 1:09 of overtime lifted the Columbus Blue Jackets a 7-6 win over the Ottawa Senators on Sunday night.

Atkinson had a breakaway after a shot by Senators captain Erik Karlsson missed the Columbus net and went around the boards out to Atkinson, who was at center-ice.

The Blue Jackets trailed 5-3 after two periods before Lukas Sedlak and Matt Calvert scored 31 seconds apart to tie it less than 2 1/2 minutes into the third. Atklnson then gave Columbus a 6-5 lead with 9:10 remaining, before Kyle Turries tied it for Ottawa on the power play less than 2 minutes later.

Nick Foligno, Scott Harrington and Zach Werenski also scored for the Blue Jackets, and Joonas Korpisalo finished with 28 saves.

Zach Smith and Mike Hoffman each had two goals and Mark Stone also scored for the Senators. Mike Condon had 22 saves (see full recap).