Hardly anything went the way the Eagles planned last year. Most of the unforeseen developments were of the unwelcomed variety. Most. Not all.
When the Eagles took Bryce Brown in the final round of the 2012 NFL draft, they knew the running back had talent. He was a prized recruit coming out of high school, but his college career was hardly spectacular. He spent his freshman year at Tennessee, transferred to Kansas State, sat out a season to comply with NCAA rules, injured his ankle early in 2011 and then left the Wildcats program. The Eagles suspected he had ability despite all that, but no one knew if Brown would make the team out of training camp.
He did. Then Brown played well. He surprised a lot of people. Except maybe himself.
“I never surprise myself,” Brown said at the NovaCare Complex earlier this week. “I always work hard. That’s one thing I always do. Anything that happens after that, that’s not a surprise.”
That’s hard to believe. Even the most self-confident professional athletes (which is probably somewhat redundant) would be hard pressed to dream up the kind of immediate impact Brown had once he began playing. In his first start, Brown set a single-game rookie rushing record by totaling 178 yards and two touchdowns. In his next start, Brown followed that up by rushing for 169 yards and two more touchdowns.
Brown’s 347 rushing yards in his first two games was the second-best performance ever by an Eagles running back in consecutive outings. Only Hall of Famer Steve Van Buren – who amassed 379 yards over two games in 1949 – was better.
Brown rushed for 564 yards last year, and he averaged a robust 4.9 yards per carry. He did a lot of things well as a rookie -- but, as a rookie, he also made some serious mistakes. Not taking care of the ball was chief among his miscues.
Brown fumbled the ball four times last season, three of which were recovered by the other team. Three of his fumbles came in crucial situations against the Panthers at home and the Cowboys on the road in consecutive weeks. The Eagles lost both games.
Not surprisingly, Brown said running backs coach Duce Staley is “really harping on” him to secure the ball this season. But while Michael Vick –- who has also had turnover issues -- recently told 97.5 The Fanatic that Chip Kelly showed him a new way to hold the football, Brown said he’s still using the same grip. Instead, Brown is working with a weighted ball to change his habits.
“I think they’re eight pounds,” Brown said. “We do a lot of work with that. Run a whole lot. A lot. Cutting. Things like that.
“When you go back and watch film, a lot of cuts I make, the ball kind of got extended. With the weighted balls, it teaches me to keep the ball in tight.”
If he can hold onto the ball, Brown –- who is one of several running backs currently on the roster, including former Cowboys first-round pick Felix Jones -- figures to be an integral part of the Eagles’ new offensive system. After the team hired Pat Shurmur, the offensive coordinator hinted at getting Brown heavily involved.
Shurmur –- who said, “it’s important that you use more than one running back” over the course of a long season –- believes “there’s a place on the roster for two good running backs.”
“Bryce established himself as a good player last year,” Shurmur said at the time. “He can score touchdowns, and that’s a big deal, a guy who can get in the end zone. We looked at him a lot when I was with Cleveland, and I really liked him.”
That’s high praise considering the Browns had an excellent rookie running back last season. In his first year with Cleveland, Trent Richardson ran for 950 yards. He also scored 11 touchdowns (fifth-most among running backs).
“I love it,” Brown said when asked about his role in the offense envisioned by Kelly and Shurmur. “It allows me –- and not just me, but a lot of guys with skill -– to get into space. We have a lot of guys like that here. It really allows us to make plays. With an offense like this, it really puts us in a position to be successful.”