We haven't seen running back Jordan Howard since the closing minutes of the November 3 win over Chicago, a game in which Howard did what he does – he churned out 82 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. It was the ninth game of the season and the second in a back-to-back sequence during which the Eagles truly had the 1-2 punch of Howard and Miles Sanders rolling in the backfield.
In the windswept victory a week earlier in Buffalo, Howard punished a stout Bills defense with 96 yards and a score on 23 carries while Sanders, the big-play machine still learning the nuances of the NFL, had 74 yards on three carries, the home run a 65-yard touchdown sprint to aid the Eagles' offense.
That's the way it was going to work, then, as the Eagles settled into the rotation: Howard was the power back and Sanders was the explosive threat in both the running and passing games. Moving forward, an Eagles offense that had yet to define its personality as it battled through myriad injuries had something it could rely upon, a bread-and-butter running game.
Then it all changed.
In his final carry of that Chicago game, Howard ran right for 4 yards and was tackled by safety Eddie Jackson. Howard hasn't played since. A shoulder injury suffered on that play – or perhaps earlier in the game – was more serious than anyone anticipated at the time, and it ended up sidelining Howard until now. The Eagles will welcome Howard back to an offense that can use every weapon available. With tight end Zach Ertz banged up after injuries his back and ribs in Sunday's win over Dallas and at least a huge question mark for Sunday's game at the Giants, the Eagles need all the help they can get.
And, there is no doubt about it, Howard helps. Even if the Eagles continue to feed Sanders, and that's the plan, as Pederson said on Thursday and reiterated on Friday, Howard presents another option. "A piece to the puzzle," Pederson called Howard on Wednesday.
In his absence, Sanders has become the go-to running back and he has been terrific carrying the football between the tackles, getting to the edges, winning in space, and showing electric skills at the second level of defenses. Sanders is a special talent and his rapid development has been a revelation for the offense. His 1,276 yards from scrimmage (a franchise rookie record) and six touchdowns have helped save an offense ravaged by injuries.
With Howard back, the Eagles have another, well, piece to the puzzle. They have a power back in Howard who presents a different look for a New York defense that is very strong inside against the run. Howard gains yards when he carries the football. He averaged 4.4 yards per tote in the nine games before the injury, picked up 28 first downs on the ground (still tied for first with Sanders in that category, in only nine games), and is a reason the Eagles have scored 25 touchdowns in 29 goal-to-go situations this season.
Think back to the Dallas game on Sunday, one the Eagles won, of course, but one they also know could have been easier had they been more effective offensively. The Eagles faced a third-and-1 play in the first quarter at their 38-yard line and handed off to Sanders for a run up the middle, holding a 10-0 lead and a chance to really put the Cowboys in a hole. Dallas won at the line of scrimmage and Sanders was dropped for a 3-yard loss. Maybe having Howard available would have presented another option for Pederson. The Eagles failed on only three third-and-1 situations in the nine games Howard played before the injury; on Sunday they were just 1-for-3 on third-and-1 plays.
Howard is 5-for-7 converting short-yardage runs this season – defined as third- and fourth-down plays with 1 or 2 yards needed. His availability gives the Eagles more options and it gives the Giants' defense – and this is the only opponent that matters here – something more to think about. By the way, Sanders is 16-of-21 in those situations and Scott is 5-of-7.
Make no mistake, the Eagles have more than managed without Howard. Sanders has blossomed. Scott, given an opportunity, has been the perfect change-of-pace back as well as a great option in the passing game. The Eagles have made full use of their personnel through the maze of injuries this season and they rank second in the league in third-down conversion rate (46.7 percent), just behind Baltimore. On fourth downs, however, the Eagles rank near the bottom of the league, having converted just 7-of-22 fourth-down plays.
Having Howard back provides a proven and powerful option.
How much the Eagles use him is to be determined. He's been working in practice on a limited basis for the last few weeks, so he's in conditioning shape, and now it's a matter of getting him into football shape. Howard is a stout pass blocker and he'll catch the football out of the backfield, something he's worked very hard on to round out his game. The Eagles can use two-back sets with Howard and Sanders and they can move Scott around the formation to create some favorable matchups in the passing game, just as they can do with Sanders.
This is all about one game, one win, for the Eagles. Sunday means everything, so having Howard back is a plus, even if it's only one carry, one play. Anything and everything at this point helps, especially a rock-solid 224-pound running back who knows how to move the chains, find the end zone, and do all the little things right for an offense that is playing with little margin for error.