Duce Staley

Why Duce Staley keeps having visions of Ricky Watters and Charlie Garner

Why Duce Staley keeps having visions of Ricky Watters and Charlie Garner

Duce Staley has seen first-hand all the great Eagles running back tandems of the modern era.

If he didn't coach them, he was part of them.

Duce was an Eagles rookie in 1997, when Ricky Watters netted over 1,500 yards from scrimmage and Charlie Garner added close to 800.

In 2001, Staley had over 1,200 net yards and Correll Buckhalter over 700. By 2003, Brian Westbrook had joined Staley and Buck for the vaunted three-headed monster that carried the Eagles to the NFC Championship Game.

Even Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles each had over 750 net yards under Staley's watch in 2016. And in 2017, he coached Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount to big years during the Super Bowl run.

“You know how we do it around here,” Staley said Thursday. “We’ve been doing it as far as running back by rotation for a long time.”

And that’s the case again this year with Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders.

Staley spent seven years with the Eagles as a player, and he’s now in his ninth year as coach, having served under Andy Reid, Chip Kelly and Doug Pederson.

And after all those terrific tandems, Howard and Sanders could wind up being one of the best.

Both are young, both are talented, both work well together, and they have the benefit of an offensive line that’s playing at a high level.

Nine games in, Sanders has 641 scrimmrage yards and Howard has 594. This is the first time two Eagles running backs have had 500 yards from scrimmage and at least a 4.0 rushing average after nine games since 1973 (Norm Bulaich, Tom Sullivan.

The Eagles have never had two running backs with 1,000 scrimmage yards in the same seaason. Sanders and Howard are on pace to get there

When Duce watches them, who does he see?

“I think, honestly, they remind me Charlie Garner and Rickey Watters, thunder and lighting,” he said. “That’s what it reminds me of every time I see them out on the field.”

Howard has 525 rushing yards,  a 4.4 average and seven touchdowns. Sanders has over 300 yards both rushing and receiving.

In Staley’s scenario, Howard is Watters, a tough, physical inside runner, and Sanders is Garner, a faster, more elusive back.

“You look at Jordan, he’s always falling forward, he’s always falling forward,” Staley said. “What we take pride in is if nothing’s there, getting back to the line of scrimmage. That’s very important. It’s hard to call plays for 2nd and 13, but if it’s 2nd-and-10 it’s a little easier.”

As for Sanders, he just gets better and better each week. Since Week 3, he’s 12th among all NFL running backs in scrimmage yards.

“He’s slowly but surely coming along,” Staley said. “Some of my teachings, some of T.J,’s teachings (T.J. Paginetti, assistant running backs coach). We take pride in ball security, we take pride in protecting the quarterback, and he’s already a natural runner, so slowly but surely he’s coming along.”

The Eagles are among seven teams with two running backs on pace for 1,000 scrimmage yards.

If you want to put the football in the hands of a couple tough, physical, versatile rotational running backs, it’s hard to imagine a better young tandem than Jordan and Sanders.

And if  you're going to pick the perfect guy to coach a couple tough, physical, versatile rotational backs, it’s hard to imagine a better guy than Duce.

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Jordan Howard giving Eagles what they've lacked for years

Jordan Howard giving Eagles what they've lacked for years

Jordan Howard doesn’t say much. Doesn’t make dazzling plays. Isn’t going to show up on a lot of highlight shows. He just quietly goes about his business and does his job with no frills.

Play after play.

Now here we are halfway through the season and you take stock and realize ... "Whoa, this guy is a stud."

Howard had his best game in an Eagles uniform Sunday with 96 bruising yards on a season-high 23 carries in the Eagles' win in Buffalo.

Asked after the game if he was tired, he said, “Not as tired as they are."

Howard is a throwback. A simple old-fashioned up-the-middle guy who isn’t out there trying to fool anybody or make dazzling cutbacks. He just runs people over and moves the pile.

And he’s been doing that very consistently.

Early in the season, rookie Miles Sanders was getting the bulk of the carries, but since the Packers game, the four-year veteran has been a beast.

First 3 games: 25 carries, 99 yards, 1 TD, 4.0 average
Last 5 games: 75 carries, 344 yards, 5 TDs, 4.6 average

The last Eagles running back with 400 yards and 5 TDs in the first half of a season was LeSean McCoy in 2011.

The Eagles acquired Howard from the Bears this offseason for a conditional 6th-round pick that will almost certainly wind up a 5th-round pick.

His contract is up after this year, and his future is up in the air, but that’s an issue for down the line.

Right now, Howard is giving the Eagles consistent production on an team that doesn’t have a lot of people giving them consistent production.

“I definitely feel like I’m getting back in my groove, like I was in my first two years,” Howard said. “Last year, I didn’t have the success I wanted, but I had to put that out of my mind and be a good all-around player.”

Howard’s numbers dipped last year from 4.6 yards per carry and 1,218 rushing yards his first two seasons to 3.7 and 935 last year.

The Bears unloaded him and drafted David Montgomery in the third round out of Iowa State.  

On Sunday, Howard faces his former team when the Eagles and Bears meet at 1 p.m. at the Linc.

The Bears will see a rejuvenated Jordan Howard, who said the meeting with his former team is “significant” but only because it’s the next game on the schedule.

What’s more significant is that he’s revived his career after a disappointing 2018.

“I just feel like I’m getting into a better grove, breaking more tackles than I did last year, just being better without the ball, blocking,” Howard said. 

We all saw his blocking ability on Sanders' 65-yard TD run Sunday.

The only thing missing in Howard’s game is big plays. He and Aaron Jones of the Packers are the only running backs among the top 25 rushers in the NFL without a run longer than 20 yards.

It’s really actually incredible that Howard is averaging 4.4 yards per carry without a long run.

His first two years, Howard had five runs of at least 50 yards, tied for most in the NFL with Mark Ingram (and one more than Jay Ajayi).

He doesn’t have any since.

“Definitely feel like I’m still looking to breaking big runs,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I had a lot of yards my first year, I broke a few big runs, so I’m still trying to get to that and just trying to stay consistent week in and week out.”

The consistency part is there.

Howard has rushed for 87, 62, 49, 50 and 96 yards the last five weeks and has been at 4.2 or higher in four of those five games.

Think about the Eagles’ running game since Chip Kelly exiled McCoy to Buffalo.

They’ve gone from DeMarco Murray in 2015 to Ryan Mathews in 2016 to the magic tandem of LeGarrette Blount and Ajayi in the 2017 Super Bowl season to Josh Adams and Wendell Smallwood last year.

Of that group, only Smallwood is even on a roster right now.

As Sanders continues improving, the Eagles’ latest two-headed monster will become even more effective.

Sanders has been a big-play machine. He’s fifth in the NFL in offensive plays of at least 25 yards — behind only Stefon Diggs, Cooper Kupp, Courtland Sutton and D.J. Chark.

But while Sanders is an explosive highlight reel, Howard quietly gets the job done in a very different way. One thundering run after another.

Still think Miles Sanders is a bust?

Still think Miles Sanders is a bust?

With one unforgettable play, Miles Sanders went from frustrated rookie to legit NFL running back.

But it didn’t just happen. While Sanders was struggling along with one of the lowest rushing averages in the NFL, he never stopped working to become the player we all expected him to be.

“Week after week he gets better and better and smoother and smoother,” Brandon Brooks said. “I’m extremely excited for him. The biggest thing as a rookie is the game is so much faster, and there’s so much more to think about and finally for him it’s starting to slow down. He busts his ass through the week, whether it’s blitz pickups or hanging out with Duce or being with Sproles, so he knows what’s going on. But I think it’s starting to slow down for him. He’s looking better and better each week.”

Sanders still has to do this consistently, but his 65-yard touchdown run against the Bills Sunday behind a massive Jordan Howard block not only turned a tight four-point game into a 10-point Eagles lead, it really demonstrated what this 22-year-old rookie is capable of.

We’ve already seen what he can do in the passing game. He’s a beast.

He left the game early Sunday with a shoulder injury that he said isn’t serious, but not before he caught three passes for 44 yards and ran three times for 74 yards.

“Happy for him,” Brooks said. “He busts his ass. I was telling Duce, the one thing I saw, it wasn’t even on that run, it was on a kick return, you saw it, he was just really smooth in and out of his cuts, making guys miss, it was like, ‘OK, there it its, it’s coming along.’”

Sanders entered the weekend averaging 3.5 yards per carry, which was seventh-worst of 42 backs in the NFL with at least 50 carries.

His carries had gone down and Howard’s had gone up. But Pederson never completely forgot Sanders. And it was interesting that on a key TD drive in the first half, down near the goal line after the Brandon Graham strip sack, Pederson dialed up Sanders, who gained nine yards on two carries to set up a touchdown.

Sanders’ 65-yard TD was the longest by an Eagle since a 65-yarder by Bryce Brown against the Bears in 2013 and matched the longest since a 66-yarder by LeSean McCoy against the Giants in 2009.

Where Sanders has struggled this year is reading the hole and getting to the second level.

But once he does? Watch out.

In the open field, he looks strong, fast and powerful.

“Obviously it means a lot,” he said. “Rookie season. First rushing touchdown, long one, took it the house. But I have to give credit to the key block that Jordan had and the offensive line. They played a hell of a game the whole game. That play doesn’t happen unless those guys do their jobs.”

Halfway through the season, Sanders is on pace for 1,136 scrimmage yards, a 4.5 rushing average and 38 catches. Only 19 rookie RBs have had 1,100 scrimmage yards, a 4.5 average and at least 35 catches.

Sanders is only the 10th NFL player with 250 yards both rushing and receiving in his first eight career games since 1986. The others are Ricky Watters, Marshall Faulk, Terrell Davis, Edgerrin James, Jahvid Best, Saquon Barkley, Karreem Hunt and Alvin Kamara.

Sanders is the first running back with six catches of at least 25 yards since Tiki Barber in 2004.

He's second among rookies in yards from scrimmage behind only Oakland’s Josh Jacobs, who has 50 more touches. He’s seventh among all rookies — backs and receivers — in receiving yards.

“He’s just learning and learning,” Howard said. “It’s a tough league to adjust to, but I feel like he’s just getting better and better, keep making big plays week in and week out. I feel like he’s getting a lot more comfortable each week … I try to wear the defense down and when he gets in the game he has that game-breaking speed, and it worked out today.”

He’s still learning. Still getting better. Still finding his way.

But it sure looks like the Eagles have found themselves a young stud running back for the first time in a decade.

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