He’s indispensable but not invincible. How well the Eagles do this season, whether they repeat as NFC East champions and go deep into the postseason, has quite a bit to do with LeSean McCoy. More specifically, it has quite a bit to do with McCoy’s health.
A year ago, McCoy led the NFL in rushing. He carried the ball 314 times for 1,607 yards. That works out to a robust 5.1 yards per carry. He also caught 52 passes on 65 targets for another 539 yards. He reached the end zone a total of 11 times. It was a huge season with huge stats, but McCoy’s best and biggest number was 16. Actually, 17. That’s how many games McCoy played, counting the regular season and the playoffs. McCoy was reliable because he was healthy.
If McCoy is available for 16 (or more) games this year, the Eagles should be in good shape. He’s unquestionably one of the best weapons in the NFL, and it’s no coincidence that in 2012 -- the only time he missed more than one game in a single season in his career -- the Eagles mustered just four victories.
So far this preseason, McCoy had a minor toe injury and he hurt his thumb in the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers last week. No big deal on either front. Nothing was broken, and McCoy said he’ll be ready for the start of the regular season. But in the event that McCoy misses time when the games start to count, if someone else is pressed into carrying the ball, the Eagles have indicated that Darren Sproles will be the next guy in line.
That runs counter to the popular narrative that emerged when the Eagles acquired the shifty running back from the Saints for a fifth-round pick during the offseason. In his eight-year career, Sproles has been mostly known as a receiving threat out of the backfield. During five years in San Diego and three more in New Orleans, Sproles never carried the ball more than 93 times in a single season. His highest rushing total was 603 yards with the Saints in 2011.
In fairness, he was mostly a backup with the Chargers, and he was employed primarily as a pass catcher with the Saints. Since 2009, Sproles has had at least 45 receptions each year. His receiving numbers spiked with New Orleans, where he hauled in 188 passes over the last three years.
While the Eagles expect him to be a good receiver in the offense, Chip Kelly insisted that Sproles is a running back first and capable of carrying the ball when needed. Pat Shurmur echoed that sentiment this week before practice at the NovaCare Complex
“We’ve said it all along. Darren can play running back on first, second and third down,” the offensive coordinator said. “We always try to use our players in a way where we maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses, no matter what the situation.”
The situations, at least early in the preseason, were limited. Sproles carried the ball three times for 11 yards against the Chicago Bears. He didn’t carry the ball at all against the New England Patriots. But last week, when McCoy left the game with that thumb injury, circumstances dictated that someone else step in. Sproles and Matthew Tucker filled the void.
On the first series without McCoy, Sproles had four carries on a 13-play drive. One of those rushes for Sproles was a one-yard dive up the middle that resulted in a touchdown.
“I thought he performed in a way that was typical of what we’d expect of him. He runs the ball well,” Shurmur said. “He catches the ball well. He does everything we ask. He’s a very smart, instinctive player. I think we know what we’ve got in Darren.”
If there’s a concern about Sproles carrying the ball, it’s what kind of impact the increased workload might have on his body. He’s been a pretty durable player in his career, missing a total of just six games in eight years. But, again, he’s never been asked to be a primary ball carrier over that time. Could Sproles, who is listed at 5-6, 190 pounds, withstand the physical punishment required to carry the ball even 15 times per game?
“I don’t worry about that,” Sproles said. “I let other people worry about that.”