The morning after the Eagles made LeSean McCoy a second-round pick in the 2009 NFL draft, running backs coach Ted Williams was drawing an imaginary box, roughly three yards wide. He wanted to make the point that the reason the Eagles loved McCoy was because you could put a defender in the box, across from McCoy, and he would make the defender miss most of the time.
"Some of the things he does," says offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, "you just can't teach. He is a natural in many ways."
Like the box drill. We now know what Williams meant. McCoy can make defenders miss with a feint here, a jab step there, a hesitation move and go that leaves would-be tacklers tackling dirt. After 5 games this season, McCoy has amassed 583 yards from the line of scrimmage, third-most among NFL running backs. His 5 touchdowns are second most behind Tennessee's Chris Johnson (6). And McCoy is averaging a healthy 5.4 yards per carry, fifth-best in the NFL (prior to Monday night's game, when Adrian Peterson, averaging 5.6 yards per carry, played the Jets).
More remarkable, McCoy played on Sunday night in San Francisco wearing a flak jacket to protect a fractured rib, an injury so painful that McCoy could barely breathe in and out without excruciating pain a few days earlier. McCoy gained 92 yards on the ground, including a 29-yard touchdown run that was pure instinct and skill: He started right, made two tacklers miss, cut back to his left and sidestepped traffic to get to the hole and then burst past the 49ers secondary for the score.
It is becoming a common sight, the one where McCoy gains something from nothing, when he uses his extraordinary vision and stop-on-a-dime ability to make a defense whiff. In only his second season, and his first as the full-time, go-to running back here, McCoy is inching toward rarified air. His numbers suggest he is, so far early in 2010, in the "elite" category in the league.
His performance would back up that claim.
In three of the Eagles' five games this season, McCoy has posted sensational numbers: He scored 3 touchdowns and 120 rushing yards in the win over Detroit. Against Washington, McCoy caught 12 passes for 110 yards and added another 64 yards on the ground, giving him a career-best 174 yards from scrimmage in the loss. Then on Sunday night, McCoy chipped in with 46 receiving yards to go along with his 92 ground yards to provide 138 total yards to the Eagles' offense.
Even in the other two games, McCoy was a productive player. He combined for 82 yards on 12 touches in the opening game against Green Bay and then had 54 yards on 11 carries in the victory in Jacksonville.
"He means so much to this offense because he can do it all," said quarterback Kevin Kolb. "Move him anywhere and he can be productive. You can't say that about most backs."
McCoy has developed rapidly, as the Eagles hoped he would. They went into last year's back-heavy draft knowing they wanted one, understanding that Brian Westbrook was not the same Pro Bowl back he had been. The ideal scenario was that Westbrook would have a season to tutor McCoy, who dominated for two seasons at the University of Pittsburgh, and then McCoy would be ready for the full-time halfback job.
Injuries to Westbrook accelerated McCoy's growth. He ended up rushing for 637 yards, a franchise rookie record. McCoy also totaled 945 yards from scrimmage, second-most among NFL rookies. It was time.
It is time.
So Sunday night was special for McCoy in the nationally-televised game. He wasn't going to let a little, old fractured rib keep him out of the fun, what with the country watching and with Westbrook on the 49ers sideline wearing No. 20. For McCoy, the game meant a little something extra.
"It was weird because I'm so used to him coaching me up. From a distance, him being out here, texting me and stuff like that and then being in his presence when he was out here in Philadelphia coaching me up and he didn't say anything about football," said McCoy. "He was just saying how happy he was to see me and stuff like that. I almost came to tears seeing him. So far, I've been playing okay and I'd think about all the times he taught me things and I look back and that's what I just want to thank him so much."
McCoy is doing his damage with a healthy, but not overworked, menu of about 20 touches per game -- 14 rushing attempts and 6 receptions. He has that low center of gravity that doesn't allow defenders to get too many straight-up shots on his body. This is not a pretty-boy performance, either: McCoy gains most of his yards between the tackles rather than getting to the edge and going out of bounds.
Among the long line of excellent Eagles running backs since the days of Wilbert Montgomery, a list that includes, but is not limited to, Herschel Walker, Charlie Garner, Ricky Watters, Duce Staley, Correll Buckhalter and Westbrook, McCoy has a little something of all of them in his game. He has surprising power for a 211-pound back. His receiving skills have improved greatly in the last year, as have his blitz-pickup abilities. McCoy has extremely quick feet and shifts his weight perfectly, leaning forward and keeping his eyes open in all directions.
And if there were any questions about McCoy's toughness, he answered them on Sunday night.
"I'm going to tell you, he's a tough nut. There was zero hesitation throughout the week that he was going to play," said head coach Andy Reid. "He was safe to play, which was most important, then it was a matter of him being able to endure it. He wanted the ball, he wanted the ball, he wanted the ball. Tough kid."
And outstanding back, edging his way to the top of the list in the NFL before our very eyes.