Sproles calls perception he's a receiver 'crazy'

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Sproles calls perception he's a receiver 'crazy'

If he had his preference, Darren Sproles would universally be referred to as an “all-purpose player.” He doesn’t mind versatile, multifaceted, multidimensional or any other label that describes the Swiss-army-knife options he brings to the running back position.

But don’t offend the man. Don’t call him a receiver.

“Yeah, that’s crazy,” the Eagles’ veteran offensive weapon said last week after the team’s final minicamp. “Half the time I get my catches out of the backfield.”

Sproles, entering his 10th season, has 378 career receptions for 3,381 yards and 27 career receiving touchdowns. He has more career receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns than either Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin, the Eagles’ two starting receivers.

He has more career catches than DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Hakeem Nicks, Jordy Nelson, Mike Wallace and Stevie Johnson and just three fewer than Santonio Holmes. He has as many career touchdown catches as Nicks and one more than Brent Celek.

But the insinuation that the Eagles sent a fifth-round pick to New Orleans this offseason to get Sproles in order to balance their passing attack makes his new head coach squirm. In May, Chip Kelly bristled at the suggestion that Sproles would be frequently aligned in the slot, despite the halfback’s place in league history among running backs with unusually high reception totals.

Since 2007, Sproles leads all NFL running backs with 375 receptions, 3,371 yards and 27 touchdown catches. Only seven other running backs in NFL history have more than 27 career touchdown catches, one of them being Brian Westbrook.

“Everyone thinks Darren Sproles is a receiver. He's a running back,” Kelly said before the spring camps, “and a really, really talented running back.”

It’s no secret that Sproles is expected to get his share of catches in the Eagles’ offense this year, especially since the bulk of carries will go to LeSean McCoy, the reigning NFL rushing champion. Third-year pro Chris Polk, who averaged just under nine yards per carry and rushed for three touchdowns last year on only 11 carries, should get the four or five carries per game that last year were given to Bryce Brown, who was dealt to Buffalo during the draft.

But despite Kelly’s protestations, the team didn’t acquire Sproles to play third fiddle behind McCoy and Polk in the running game. Kelly, an enthusiast of versatility, now has a dimension of his offense that he lacked last year.

He can put McCoy and Sproles on the field at the same time on passing downs, forcing opponents to either match up a linebacker or defensive back against Sproles, which is either a mismatch for the veteran halfback or creates one for someone else, or prompting the defense to dial down the pass rush and play zone, which is an advantage for quarterback Nick Foles.

New safety Malcolm Jenkins, who played the past five seasons in New Orleans before signing with the Eagles, witnessed firsthand Sproles’ impact on an entire offense. The Saints placed top 10 in total offense in all three years with Sproles on the team, top three in two of them.

“It depends on how creative Coach Kelly gets and I’m pretty sure he’ll have something,” Jenkins said. “Somebody is going to get isolated. Even last year it was to that point where somebody is gonna get isolated and you gotta hope as a defense that your guy can hold up on this particular play, and if you do hold up you gotta hold up all day.

“Eventually, I’m sure Shady (McCoy) and Sproles will win the majority of the matchups they get. It’s a good problem for us to have finding ways to get both of them touches and both of them on the field at the same time.”

Jenkins understands why Kelly and other teammates dismiss the idea that Sproles is merely a receiver with a running back’s jersey number. When Sproles signed with New Orleans before the 2011 season, Jenkins had bought into the same perception.

Jenkins said he originally considered Sproles “a third-down back” until he observed perhaps the most unsung weapon in Sproles’ arsenal, a talent that’s become the hallmark for some of the NFL’s elite running backs.

“Pass protection,” Jenkins said. “He’s small so you think you can go here and you’d think he’d be a liability but he’s really, really good at pass protection. He understands it. He puts himself in position to make plays. And he’s not just [cut blocking] everybody, either. He’s standing in there and taking on blocks and then holding up. That’s the thing you’d expect to be his weakness and it’s not at all.”

Being that he’s just 5-foot-6 and barely over 180 pounds, Sproles sees his fair share of blitzers trying to clear him from their path with a simple bull rush, so his technique is already set from the start.

“Now they gotta try something else,” Sproles added.

It’s all part of the perception he keeps debunking, year after year, while at the same time feeding into the image by stockpiling receptions.

“I think Darren has a little Napoleon complex,” Jenkins said. “He doesn’t like when people call him small and things like that, so those are the things that he takes pride in, the hard-working things, the things that take attitude and want-to to do.”

Which is exactly the kind of player Kelly has built his roster around over the past 18 months in turning over the roster from Andy Reid’s final year in 2012.

“We heard from the coaches that coached him what an intelligent football player he is and [we] learned that from the first day he was in this building and how sharp he is and how dedicated he is,” Kelly said.

“I talked to Norv Turner (who coached Sproles in San Diego) and he remarked to me when I saw him at one of the pro days, he said, ‘You'll have to slow him down because he only knows one speed.’ And that's the same thing you see. Darren practices and trains at one speed. It's awesome. He fits in with the culture that we want in terms of preparation, but it's everything we wanted when we got him here.”

Jim Schwartz on Eagles defense: 'We're in a 3-game slump'

Jim Schwartz on Eagles defense: 'We're in a 3-game slump'

Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was just about five months shy of his 9th birthday when first baseman Lee May was traded from the Houston Astros to the Baltimore Orioles in 1974. 

By the time May arrived in Baltimore, he had already made the only three All-Star appearances in his career. But he had something left in his bat, knocking in at least 80 runs in his first four seasons with the Orioles. 

Growing up in Maryland, Schwartz was a baseball fan and for the next six seasons watched the Big Bopper go through his ups and downs in a No. 14 Orioles uniform. 

But one thing about May really stood out. 

“He was a streaky hitter,” Schwartz said on Tuesday. “He was that guy that when he was hot, it didn’t matter, you could throw him an eye-high fastball and he was hitting hit, change-up, curveball, the ball was probably a beach ball to him and he was just stroking. 

“But he could also go into some wicked slumps. Just some awful slumps. … When it’s not going good, it looks like a seed. You’re not hitting it. He had a famous quote one time. They wanted him to take extra batting practice. He said, ‘who’s going to be pitching?’ They said ‘the pitching coach.’ He said, ‘I’m not having a problem hitting him. I’m having a problem with those other guys.’”

For the sake of this analogy, the Eagles are Lee May. And for the last three games, they haven’t been able to hit anything. 

There was a time this season – although it feels like forever ago – that the Eagles’ defense was the strength of the team. Schwartz’s unit wasn’t just doing its part, it was carrying the Eagles to what looked like a playoff season. 

“For nine weeks, you probably could not mention the best defenses in the NFL without mentioning the Eagles,” Schwartz said. 

“The last three? You probably can’t mention the worst defenses in the NFL without mentioning the Eagles. Hey, facts of life, man, that’s what it is. Same scheme, same players, other than Ron Brooks (who’s on IR). We’re in a slump. We have to own that. We’re in a three-game slump.”

Through the first nine weeks of the season, the Eagles had a 5-4 record, which isn't great, but at least had them in the playoff hut. During those nine games, the Eagles allowed 17.8 points per game on 323 yards per game. 

In the three games since -- all losses -- they've given up 28.3 points per game on 412 yards per game.  

There are plenty of reasons for the demise of the Eagles’ defense. On Tuesday, Schwartz pointed at third-down defense, penalties and the struggling cornerbacks. 

“Facts of life, our corners aren’t playing very well right now,” Schwartz said. “Doesn’t mean I’ve lost confidence in them. That’s the same bunch of corners that have shut down some of the best offenses in the NFL.”

The Eagles haven’t yet been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, but hoping for the playoffs now would be a fool’s dream. With the last quarter of the 2016 left on the schedule, the Eagles’ defense just has to find a way to be respectable down the stretch. 

They have to find a way to break out of this slump. 

“Every single guy that I’ve ever heard about getting themselves out of a slump,” Schwartz said, getting back to his baseball analogy, “it had nothing to do with burning his bats or changing his sweatshirt or changing his whole approach. It was always about going back and watching himself be successful.”

Schwartz said his players will spend this week – much like other weeks – looking back at film of what made them so successful early in the season, although he admitted they can’t completely “shy away” from the bad plays either. 

“I think in this case, it has a lot to do with confidence,” he said. “We need to get back to that. And they need to know that the first nine weeks, they were respected for what they put on tape and the last three, we’ve been in a slump and we need to get back to those first nine.”

Doug Pederson doesn't think 2016 struggles will ruin Carson Wentz in long term

Doug Pederson doesn't think 2016 struggles will ruin Carson Wentz in long term

In his first month in the NFL, Carson Wentz's trophy case was filling up quickly. 

He won two NFL Rookie of the Week awards to go along with being named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week in Week 3 and the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Month for September. 

It's hard to believe all of that happened this year. 

Since September, the Eagles have gone 2-7 and Wentz has looked like a rookie. Sure, the Eagles have some major deficiencies on offense that haven't made his life any easier, but it's no longer possible to simply overlook the regression of the No. 2 overall pick. 

Could this tough stretch negatively affect Wentz long term?  

"I don't think it's going to affect Carson going forward," head coach Doug Pederson said on Monday. "I just don't think it's going to affect him at all, because he's really a pro's pro and he's learning how to handle adversity for the first time, probably, in his career. It's something that we get to the OTAs and we get a full offseason in and we just continue to work on it."

It's fair to say the 2016 season was probably never really about this year and making the playoffs. It's clear the more important thing is to develop Wentz into the franchise quarterback they drafted him to be. But the one thing the team probably didn't want to see was regression. It seems like that's what has happened. 

In the first four games of the season, Wentz had a passer rating over 100 three times and hasn't done it since then. Take a look at the difference in the first quarter of his season compared to the next two. 

First four games: Completion percentage of 67 percent, 7 touchdowns, 1 interception, passer rating of 103.5. 

Next eight: Completion percentage of 61 percent, 5 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, passer rating of 70.1. 

The Eagles will enter their final quarter of the season when they host Washington on Sunday. The best way to avoid any long-term issues stemming from a tough rookie season is to end on a stronger note. 

"Well, you avoid it by trying to win a football game, and you try to win as many as you can now with these last four that we've got," Pederson said. "If you're looking towards next season, you always want to go out with a bang and try to win as many as you can down the stretch."

Way back in training camp, the plan was for 2016 to be a redshirt year for Wentz. He was supposed to sit behind Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel, but Bradford was traded and the Eagles elected to start their prized quarterback from the onset. 

Wentz went from a redshirt season to being on pace to throw 603 passes, which would shatter the Eagles' record for a single season. 

"These are some of the decisions that I made back when the trade was made that if there was going to be some growing pains, these were going to be some of the pains we were going to have to go through," Pederson said. "And just him understanding and him learning and us growing together as an offense, he and I growing as coach and quarterback together, it's all part of the process."

Wentz and Pederson seemingly had a disagreement after Sunday's game, when Pederson attributed Wentz's struggles to mechanical problems, while Wentz denied that was the case. Pederson held firm to his belief that those mechanical issues can be corrected and it's probable Wentz spoke out of frustration on Sunday night. 

If Wentz is frustrated, it would be understandable. It hasn't been an easy couple of months. 

"I see him handling it well," Pederson said. "These are discussions that we will have, myself, [Eagles offensive coordinator] Frank [Reich], Carson [Wentz], as we talk to him, because we've played obviously at this level, and my experience, even in this city playing and knowing what that's all about, we can really help him. It’s our job to help him and make sure that he stays on track and stays focused and he doesn't get derailed by anything that's coming from the outside."