Injured Polk eyes return, jockey for roster spot

Injured Polk eyes return, jockey for roster spot

August 20, 2014, 10:00 am
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On just 11 carries, Chris Polk rushed for 98 yards and three touchdowns for the Eagles last season. (USA Today Images)

Chris Polk hasn’t practiced in more than three weeks. He missed the first two preseason games and won’t play Thursday night in the third. He’s still not fully recovered from his hamstring injury.

But the clock is ticking. He knows it. The coaches know it. It’s time for Polk to get back on the field and salvage the fleeting roster spot he once seemed destined to lock up.

Excuses aren’t accepted from guys like him.

“Yeah, there's nothing guaranteed,” Polk said Tuesday. “I wasn't drafted. I'm not LeSean McCoy, Nick Foles. I'm not guaranteed anything, so I have to go out there and act like it's my last day, and that's why whether I'm practicing or just sitting out there and watching I'm always taking notes and watching everything, because there's always something you can get better at. You can be hurt, whatever. There is always something extra you can do to get better at and put your best foot forward.”

Polk injured his hamstring on the second day of practice. He was running, cut sharply, then felt an ominous pop.

“I didn't know the severity of it,” he said, “but I knew something wasn't right. It instantly locked up, tightened up. And then there was bruising. I just felt like my world ended that day.”

It wasn’t a routine pull. He said he suffered a Grade 2 partial tear, the kind that keep guys -- running backs, especially -- sidelined for long periods of time. Polk hasn’t since been able to practice in any capacity. Last Thursday, hours before kickoff in New England, he jogged around the field in sweats and caught some balls to test his progress. He felt good, but not great.

He’s still not fully recovered and probably won’t be in the next few days, but Polk insisted that he’ll practice next week, whatever it takes. It’s risky, but he knows the NFL motto. Guys don’t make the club from the tub.

“It's definitely a what-have-you-done-for-me-now type of league,” he said. “There's a few young guys playing some really good ball right now. Nothing is guaranteed. The second you think you're safe is when someone else passes you, so I know where I want to be football-wise. I'll just get better and work at it whether I feel 100 percent or not. I'm always going to work, because I have a lot of making up to do.”

The Eagles have several running backs on the roster competing with Polk for one of the spots behind McCoy and Darren Sproles and just traded for another one in Kenjon Barner (see story). But make no mistake, Polk’s roster spot is going to be extremely tough for someone else to steal.

When the Eagles traded away top backup Bryce Brown to Buffalo on draft weekend, it wasn’t to get more carries for Matthew Tucker or because the team had eyes on rookie free agents Henry Josey and David Fluellen.

The Eagles felt fortunate to sign the bruising Polk, a 220-pound pure power runner who out-rushed every University of Washington running back except Napoleon Kaufman, as a rookie free agent in 2012. A bum shoulder had dropped Polk from a potential third-rounder to bypassed altogether.

He didn’t play a single offensive snap in his rookie season. But last year, in Chip Kelly’s introductory offense, Polk touched the ball 15 times. He made the most of his minimal chances, rushing for three touchdowns, including a 38-yarder against the Lions in the snow. He caught a 34-yard wheel route to set up a field goal in the season finale win against Dallas that propelled the Eagles to the division title.

This offseason, he had his shoulder surgically repaired and dropped 12 pounds to be ready for the extra workload. And that’s why the hamstring injury and mounting days on the sideline are gnawing at him.

“Definitely frustrating, especially at this time of the year,” he said. “They got rid of Bryce. I felt like they were really counting on me, especially in camp, and now that we have had a few running backs hurt I see that there are opportunities I've missed to get better.

“So I’m just going to go out there (next week) and make the most of it like I never left, and you know I'm always learning from other peoples’ mistakes -- whether it's what they're doing technique-wise, missing the holes -- studying and everything being that I'm not able to physically participate or anything. I'm still mentally there at practice.”

That’s nice, but not enough in Kelly’s opinion. The straight-forward head coach essentially said Tuesday that Polk is falling behind. Kelly singled out Josey’s effort against the Patriots. Josey played almost the entire second half and turned a flare pass into 27-yard touchdown.

“I mean, you've got to be able to play,” Kelly said. “It's tough for us to say, ‘We know what you can do,’ but you've got to go out on the field and show it. The one thing about Henry is he took advantage of those reps.

“If you watched us on the last drive, we were down to Henry and Damaris [Johnson]. And you hoped you had a bigger back and you get the ball on the goal line, you hope you have a bigger back there. We need to see who is going to go and play, but can't evaluate anybody if they're not going to play in games or practice.”

It’s natural to question someone’s reliability when he misses as much time as Polk has. Polk knows that. He’s battled durability questions since he tumbled in the draft three years ago. It’s also natural to wonder about the same player’s level of commitment. Three weeks is an eternity in training camp.

That’s where Polk would disagree. His dedication has never been more diligent, his ambition never more resolute.

“This whole offseason I was here,” he said. “I didn't go anywhere. I was here every day, six in the morning till two, working out, treatment, rehabbing, just making sure they knew I was in the building watching film. We talk a lot about sports science. Even when I was practicing, you can look at my science numbers. I was off the charts.

“When I'm out there there's no one working harder than me because nobody wants to be out there more than me. That's why it's so hard. It’s so frustrating now, just been sitting out this long. I feel like I’m leaving my boys out to dry. I'm really anxious to get out there.”

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