Duce Staley sorts out baffling Eagles running back rotation

Duce Staley sorts out baffling Eagles running back rotation

Once upon a time, the Eagles had a three-headed monster running attack, and Duce Staley, a three-time 1,000-yard rusher earlier in his career, wasn’t too thrilled about it.

But it worked. And he didn’t complain. And the Eagles won a lot of games.

So Staley, the Eagles’ longtime running backs coach, understands as well as anybody what Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard — as well as Darren Sproles and Corey Clement — are experiencing these days.

There will be times they don’t get the ball. There will be times they don’t play.

They won’t like it.

They will deal with it. Just like he did.

It doesn’t come easy,” Staley said Monday. “But those are some of those OTA conversations, those are some of those conversations when they’re free agents or traded or whatever. We try to have them in the beginning, try to give them an idea of who we are and what we do [and] they’ve been good.

Thursday night’s win in Green Bay was a blueprint of what Staley, Mike Groh and Doug Pederson want in a running game.

Howard and Sanders split the carries in unpredictable fashion, the Eagles ran for 176 yards overall and they left Wisconsin with a win in a stadium where very few visiting teams win.

The Eagles are only the fifth team in the last 10 years (covering 88 games) to beat the Packers at Lambeau while rushing for at least 175 yards.

So what determines who plays when?

It’s predicated on the play but also when you get that feeling,” Staley said. “So as a play-caller, Doug will get a feeling of the guy that’s doing well, and we all see it. So we may keep that guy in the game — I think you saw that vs. Green Bay. You saw Jordan start to get on a roll. It’s all about the hot hand. Then there’s certain plays that we might want another guy — certain plays are tagged to certain guys.

Sanders was The Man at Penn State last year, averaging 17 carries per game — fifth most in the Big Ten.

Howard was The Man with the Bears the last three years, averaging 17 carries per game — third most in the NFL.

Sproles has more than 8,000 career yards from scrimmage.

Clement was a Super Bowl hero.

They all understand that they’re in an offense that’s produced three 100-yard rushers in 57 games under Pederson — none in the last 37 games.

Heck, only four times in those 57 games has an Eagles running back gotten 20 carries.

In Pederson’s first three seasons, the leading carries per game belong to Ryan Mathews (11.9), Jay Ajayi (11.2), LeGarrette Blount (10.6) and Josh Adams (8.1).

This year has gone right along those lines, with Sanders (11.3) and Howard (10.0) both averaging right around 10 carries per game.

Jordan understands our rotation here, every back does,” Staley said. “We have a three-headed monster and it’s been like that for a while around here, and it will continue to be. Each and every week the game plan itself changes, so you saw from Washington and what we were doing from that game plan moving forward and you saw what we did last week with Green Bay. So each and every week we’re going to change those guys, we’re going to rotate those guys and we’re going to try to put the best guy in for that play call.

Sproles had nine carries in the opener, just three since. Howard’s carries have increased each week, and his 15 on Thursday were the most by an Eagle back in the last 10 games. Sanders has been in the 10-13 range each week.

What's the plan for the Jets Sunday? Good luck trying to figure it out.

You never know,” said Staley, who’s been on the Eagles’ coaching staff under Andy Reid, Chip Kelly and Pederson. “Next week it may be a lot of Jordan, a lot of Miles, the week after that it may just be Jordan, sprinkled in with a little Miles. You never know. But all of them know it’s a rotation that’s constantly going.

Staley knows the backs aren’t crazy about sharing the load, just like he wasn’t a decade and a half ago when he shared the load with Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter.

I understand,” he said. “They want the ball and I want them to want the ball so when they get out there they give their best, because they never know when they’re going back out there. You want guys like that. You want guys who are driven. You want guys who go out there and leave everything they have for the team, but you also want guys who understand the situation.

It’s all about avoiding tendencies, remaining unpredictable and giving defenses as many different looks as possible.

It’s tough to figure out what’s next game to game, series to series, play to play.

But that’s the whole idea.

Keep defenses guessing. And then right when they think they have it figured out, hit 'em with the other guy.

It's not going to get any of these guys to the Pro Bowl, but it's a heck of a formula to win some football games.

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Doug Pederson's ominous track record hiring coaches

Doug Pederson's ominous track record hiring coaches

The Eagles this year will have their fifth wide receivers coach in five years under Doug Pederson and their third defensive line coach in three years.

They’ll have their third offensive coordinator in four years and a new secondary coach as well. And there could be more changes on the way.

It’s a lot of turnover for a team that’s reached the playoffs each of the last three seasons and won a Super Bowl just two years ago.

And it tells you two things:

1) Doug Pederson won’t hesitate to jettison coaches he feels aren’t getting the job done,
2) And Doug's track record of hiring coaches is bad.

Let’s go back a few years. When Doug replaced Chip Kelly four years ago today, he kept seven of Kelly’s assistant coaches and brought in 11 assistants of his own. A year later he brought in Mike Groh.

Out of those seven original Chip assistants? Six are still here, all but Cory Undlin, just hired as Lions defensive coordinator.

Of the 11 guys he brought in? Only four are still here — all defensive coaches: Jim Schwartz, Dino Vasso, Ken Flajole, Tim Hauck.

All seven assistant coaches he’s fired — Eugene Chung, Carson Walch, Greg Lewis, Gunter Brewer, Chris Wilson, Phillip Daniels and Groh - are his own hires.

Of the 10 coaches from 2016 who are still here, six – more than half – are Chip Kelly holdovers.

So the pattern keeps repeating itself. He keeps Chip's guys and fires his own guys.

And with four coaching openings at the moment, that doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.

Some of the most highly respected coaches on Pederson's staff - Jeff Stoutland, Duce Staley, Dave Fipp, Press Taylor - are guys he didn’t even bring in. Duce, of course, pre-dates Chip and coached under Andy Reid.

Both his original coordinators, Frank Reich and Schwartz, were very good hires. Beyond that? His track record is kind of ominous.

Coaching is just a fancy word for teaching. And we keep seeing the Eagles’ draft picks - Sidney Jones, J.J. Arega-Whiteside, Derek Barnett, Rasul Douglas, Donnel Pumphrey, Mack Hollins – failing to develop the way they should.

If you can’t develop young players, you have no shot.

So many of the players at the heart of the Eagles’ recent success – Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Malcolm Jenkins, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, Zach Ertz, Nigel Bradham and Lane Johnson – will all be in their early 30s by opening day this fall and with most NFL players in that 30-to-33 range, you know you're going to get a gradual (or sometimes abrupt) decline.

So the challenge facing the Eagles isn’t just drafting talented players, it’s coaching them and developing them so they can become that next generation of Malcolms and Fletchers and Jasons. That next generation of guys who can lead this franchise to more deep playoff runs and maybe another championship.

That’s why it’s imperative that Pederson figures this coaching thing out.

We all remember what happened when Reid struggled to replace that brilliant initial staff he put together 20 years ago this month. As those guys left for head coaching jobs or coordinator positions – John Harbaugh, Ron Rivera, Leslie Frazier, Brad Childress, Pat Shurmur, Steve Spagnuolo – he replaced them with long-forgotten, over-matched assistants.

There are a lot of reasons the Eagles were essentially a .500 team in Reid’s last eight years here (66-61-1), but a huge one was the inability of that second wave of coaches to develop the young players who had replaced the nucleus that made the 2000 through 2004 team such a powerhouse.

Pederson was there for that decline as part of Reid’s staff, so nobody understands better than him just how critical it is to find people who can teach promising young players how to become pros, how to take their game to the next level.

The challenge now is finding an offensive coordinator with fresh ideas and a vision for the future, a wide receivers coach who’ll stay more than a year, a secondary coach who can salvage Sidney Jones’ career and a defensive line coach who can make Barnett more than just an average pass rusher.

It’s easy to fire coaches. It’s a lot harder to find bright, motivated, capable replacements who can mold young players into big-time pros.

Pederson needs to prove he can do that.

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Eagles Stay or Go: Breaking down the three specialists

Eagles Stay or Go: Breaking down the three specialists

Reuben Frank, Dave Zangaro and Andrew Kulp bring back Stay or Go with the 2020 version, trying to figure out the future of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Today, we’ll look at their specialists: 

Jake Elliott

Roob: Elliott’s not going anywhere, but his late-season misses are a bit troubling. Elliott made his first 17 field goal attempts – only two longer than 43 yards – then missed four of his last nine (from 47, 49, 53 and 55 yards). They weren’t easy kicks, but league-wide in 2019 kickers were 54 percent from 53 to 55 yards. Elliott was 43 percent beyond 43 yards (3-for-7). The rest of the league was 66 percent beyond 43 yards. Elliott has been clutch, but his inconsistency is a tad concerning.

Verdict: Stays

Dave: In the regular season, Elliott was 22 of 26 and actually improved his career field goal percentage. And then in the playoffs, he made all all three of his field goal attempts in the loss to Seattle and is now 11-for-11 in his career in the playoffs. And the Eagles signed him to an extension during the season, so he's not going anywhere. 

Verdict: Stays 

Kulp: Elliott probably doesn't get enough appreciation from the fan base, but he isn't exactly elite, either. He's made a lot of huge, clutch kicks in three seasons, more than making up for the occasional game that's hinged on his misses. It's moot anyway, unless the 25-year-old suddenly becomes completely unreliable, because he just signed an extension. 

Verdict: Stays

Rick Lovato 

Roob: The dude can flat-out SNAP. Lovato made the Pro Bowl as a long snapper, joining Mike Bartrum and John Dorenbos as the Eagles’ third consecutive Pro Bowl long snapper. Hey, the Steelers have always had tremendous linebackers, the 49ers have a history of Hall of Fame quarterbacks, the Rams always have big-time receivers. The Eagles have great long snappers.

Verdict: Stays

Dave: Good season for the long snapper. First, he signed a four-year extension and then he was named to the Pro Bowl. In the first year players voted on long-snappers, Lovato got the nod, which must mean he’s pretty good. I’ll defer to those guys. 

Verdict: Stays

Kulp: What can you really say about Lovato? No, I'm asking. The best compliment you can probably pay a long snapper is admitting you don't really notice his work -- it implies things are running smoothly. Anyway, he too signed an extension, and at 27, he could be around for awhile. 

Verdict: Stays

Cameron Johnston 

Roob: Johnston had another big year, averaging 46.4 yards per punt with a net of 42.3, which is 2nd-best in franchise history (behind Johnston in 2018) and very good for an outdoor punter in the Northeast, where weather conditions are often challenging. Johnston is the Eagles’ career record holder in punting average (47.2) and net average (42.5). His net average would be 12th-highest in NFL history if he had more attempts.

Verdict: Stays

Dave: He’s the only guy of the three specialists who didn’t get a contract extension. That might be coming. For now, he’s an exclusive rights free agents, which basically means as long as the Eagles want him back, he’ll be back. As far as his play, this season Johnson was ninth in the NFL in average (46.4), eighth in net average (42.3) and 13th in punts inside the 20 (28). He’s pretty good. 

Verdict: Stays 

Kulp: Eagles fans may realize it, but Johnston is quietly one of the better punters in the league, even if it hasn't produced any trips to the Pro Bowl just yet. Not sure what the hold up is on getting a new deal done. He's an exclusive rights free agent, so he's not going anywhere or anything. Still, the team should just lock him up for the long haul already.

Verdict: Stays

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