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Do Eagles Need A Workhorse At RB?

This goes back to, whoa, forever, in football terms. Herschel Walker ran for 1,070 yards to start what has been a fairly continuous streak of success for Eagles running backs. From Walker it was Ricky Watters and then Duce Staley and then Brian Westbrook and then LeSean McCoy.

The Eagles didn't necessarily overload their running backs, but they had the guy, even if there were some variables mixed in -- Charlie Garner with Watters, Correll Buckhalter mixing in with Staley and Westbrook -- and then last year it appeared the Eagles were going to continue having the "workhorse" running back when they dealt McCoy to Buffalo and signed DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews in free agency. Murray would get the majority of the carries, the thinking went, and Mathews would mix in and Darren Sproles would change the pace and it would all work in a funky, sorta, uber-talented kind of way.

And then it didn't work.

So here we are.

Murray has been traded to Tennessee, taking with him the 193 carries and 702 yards of production from the 2015 season. Mathews is here for a second season, looking to better his 539 rushing yards and six touchdowns scored on 109 carries. But there is no expectation that Mathews is going to be asked to carry the ball 250 times, something he's done just once in his career (in 2013 when Matthews gained 1,255 yards on 285 carries in a Pro Bowl season with San Diego). Mathews is an extremely talented player, a hard runner and he is going to fit in perfectly in the Doug Pederson offense, but he's also battled injuries throughout his six-season NFL career and has played in 16 games in a single season just one time (2013).

So are we looking at a running-back-by-committee approach for the Eagles in the offensive backfield for 2016? Could be. And if it turns out that way, it will be something unusual for a team that has had the go-to running back for such a long time.

"You just get ready for whatever comes your way," Mathews said. "If my number gets called, I'm ready. We have a lot of talented running backs here and we all have confidence that we can do the job. We're a long ways away from the season. Every guy in our room knows he has to be ready."

It's unlikely in this day and age in the NFL that the Eagles -- or many teams -- do what the Eagles did with Watters, for example, in his three-year stint in Philadelphia from 1995-97 when he had 337 carries (1995), 353 carries (1996) and 285 carries (1997). McCoy, the all-time leading rusher in franchise history, had 314 rushing attempts in 2013 when he led the NFL with 1,607 ground yards. Heck, Wilbert Montgomery, for all of his injury woes, had seasons of 338 carries (1979), 286 carries (1981) and 259 carries (1978).

From Pederson's perspective, he's coming off a season when he was the offensive coordinator in Kansas City and the Chiefs lost Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles five games and 71 carries into the season. Charles gained 364 yards and scored five touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards per carry, before suffering a knee injury in a Week 5 loss against Chicago. It was a major blow for the Chiefs' offense.

What happened? After a loss the following week at Minnesota, Kansas City reeled off 11 consecutive victories before losing in the second round of the AFC playoffs using reserve running backs Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware to make up for the absence of Charles.

"It all starts up front and we know the job there," right tackle Lane Johnson. "I like what we're doing. I like the scheme. We're going to be physical. We have to create the running room for our backs, and it doesn't matter who is back there if we're doing what we're supposed to do. We have the backs to get the job done."

Mathews is the leading candidate to get the most carries, but there is certainly nothing etched in granite. Sproles is a super-quick change-of-pace back who, truth be told, is likely to be featured more in space in the passing game in this scheme than in the ground-and-pound portion of the running game. Players like Kenjon Barner and fifth-round draft pick Wendell Smallwood are going to be given plenty of reps in the spring and in the summer and through the preseason to prove that they are trustworthy and talented enough to move the offense. Rookie free agents Byron Marshall and Cedric O'Neal want to open eyes.

It isn't as clear cut as it has been in the past when we knew that McCoy would be the main running back, but sometimes the blueprint isn't as easy to put together.

Barner, in particular, has a chance to establish himself after a couple of seasons with limited success. He had just six rushing attempts as a rookie in Carolina in 2013 and then gained 124 yards on 28 carries last season after a superb preseason. He's in great shape and he's eager to show he deserves all the responsibility the coaches want to give him.

"I feel really good about the way I've prepared for the season and what I've learned in the NFL and how to get myself ready to perform at the highest level," Barner said. "I'm out there to prove myself every day. I want to help in any way that I can. I'm excited to have that opportunity."

Smallwood has impressed the Eagles since the draft with his burst and his quick feet, and he's a powerful north-south runner who brings it. He has to show he can be a positive in pass protection and when he's called on to catch the football, too.

It's a work in progress in the backfield. That's a fair statement. The Eagles don't yet have all the answers quite yet, but every day is a step in the right direction. Pederson wants to be a "bully" in the running game and the offensive line has been fortified, but just who is going to do the running and how the carries are going to be divided is something that may be decided on a week-by-week basis. Maybe it doesn't matter, then, who is running the football, just that the Eagles are running it effectively.

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