Green Birds competing to be McCoy's backup
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- LeSean McCoy is the old guy. He’s 23.
Dion Lewis is second on the team in seniority. He’s 22.
The rookies are Bryce Brown and Chris Polk. They’re 21.
Meet the Eagles’ running back corps. Average age: 21.8.
“I might be the most unique coach in the NFL, coaching nobody over the age of 23,” said Ted Williams, starting his franchise-record 18th season coaching with the Eagles and 16th coaching the running backs. “But just because you’re young doesn’t mean you can’t be good. Just because you’re young doesn’t mean you can’t be mentally akin to what we’re doing.”
Things could change. Things could always change. The Eagles could still bring in a veteran running back, like they’ve always had, from Eric Bieniemy to Stanley Pritchett to Lamar Gordon to Chris Warren to Dorsey Levens to Ronnie Brown.
As of now? Full-speed ahead with four tailbacks born since 1988.
“I think all of them can play in the NFL and possibly play at a high level in the NFL,” Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. “There will be great competition there, so that’s a good thing. They’re all highly talented.”
It’s easy to say, hey, McCoy is going to get all the carries, so who cares who the backup is? But Andy Reid has said he’d like to reduce McCoy’s workload from 273 carries, seventh-most in the NFL last year, and 321 touches, fifth-most.
And the kids – Lewis, Polk and Brown – are going to get the first crack at the job.
“It’s a great opportunity,” said Polk, an undrafted rookie from Washington. “There's a lot of competition at running back being that we're all so young. The oldest one I believe is 23. That's real nice, to just have a nice little stable of young horses. So we’re just going to continue to make each other better and that's going to help our team and bring the best out of all of us.”
McCoy, coming off a brilliant all-pro season in which he ran for over 1,300 yards and led the NFL in 17 touchdowns, will obviously be the focal point of the Eagles’ ground attack this year.
Behind him? Three running backs with a combined 23 career carries.
But there’s a reason the Eagles aren’t bringing a veteran running back to camp. They just like their young backs. And Williams said the two rookies have picked things up as fast – if not faster – than all the rookie backs he’s had since becoming Eagles running backs coach 16 years ago.
That includes guys like Duce Staley, Correll Buckhalter, Brian Westbrook and McCoy. Pretty amazing list.
“I’m really impressed with both of them, because they work hard and they appear to be intelligent enough to master this offense, which is really the biggest problem you get with kids coming into this offense,” Williams said. “It’s a mouthful. You put a plate in front of them and it’s a whole meal. They’ve got to know how to take which bites to digest it.
“But they’ve shown me that they can handle it. The best thing about them is that they have extraordinary skills, both of them. Chris is faster than I thought he was. Bigger than he looked on tape. Didn’t know how athletic he was. They both have rare talent and ... I think those guys are going to be good players. They’ve got skill, they’ve got talent and they’ve got instincts. And they’re bigger than anybody I’ve coached.”
Lewis, who averaged 4.4 yards per carry as a rookie, stands just 5-8, 195, but Polk is 5-11, 220, and Brown 6-0, 220 pounds.
The Eagles’ playbook is notoriously challenging for rookies and young players, but Polk and Brown seem to have a good grasp of it already.
If they didn’t, there would be a veteran tailback at Lehigh by now.
“We’re giving them adjustments and things to look for and so far, they understand, and that’s really amazing for the little of amount of time they’ve been here and the amounts of reps they’ve gotten,” Williams said. “This might be right now the farthest along any group of kids I’ve ever coached.”
It’s surprising in particular with Brown, since he’s played very little football lately. Specifically, four carries since the middle of the 2009 season.
How’s he done it? Brown just shakes his head and smiles.
“Really, since I haven’t ... played much in college, and this is definitely a different system than I’ve been in and even used to, I just say focus,” he said. “I’m really really telling myself to concentrate, pay attention to detail, take notes, just really staying in the book, staying aware and being alert.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity here, so you gotta really, really do whatever it takes to give you an upper hand or an advantage.”
Polk and Brown both like to hear that their position coach has been praising their mental aptitude and physical skill, but both are smart enough to realize they haven’t accomplished anything yet.
Lewis still has the inside track on the No. 2 running back position, and Brown and Polk both know that they can’t let up if they’re going to have a chance to make the final roster.
"One day, I feel good, like, ‘OK, I got the install down,’” Polk said. “Then after practice. we get the install again and we're like, ‘Aw man, right back to square one.’ They're always throwing a lot of stuff at us. I feel like I'm kind of OK with it. I've still got a long way to go.”
Same goes for Brown, who acknowledges that he’s picked things up fairly fast but adds, “I also know there’s a whole lot left.
“I’m still picking at some of the first things that we installed and just really trying to understand it. The more you can understand it, the better. The more you understand, the more you know, and you can let your natural ability show and play freely.”E-mail Reuben Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org