This is the cover story for the December 22 issue ofGameday Magazine,which can be found at the Lincoln Financial Field Pro Shop as well as Philadelphia-area ACME supermarkets this weekend. It was originally posted December 5, but this is the updated version that appears in the magazine.
This is the time in an NFL season, and running back Miles Sanders knows it all too well because his position coach, Duce Staley, is in his ear about it all the time, when rookies start feeling the lag of a long season. They call it "The Rookie Wall," and while Staley thinks he hit it when Seattle visited Lincoln Financial Field in late November, Sanders dismisses the idea.
"I feel good. I've learned to take care of my body and it's paying off," says Sanders, who is having an extraordinary season for an Eagles rookie running back.
"I make sure to do whatever I need to do to stay fresh and ready for whatever the coaches want me to do."
The coaches have asked him to do a lot, and Sanders has responded. Consider just how good he's been ...
• Sanders is the first NFL running back to record at least 900 scrimmage yards and 300 return yards in his first 13 career games since future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson in 2007.
• Through 14 games, Sanders already owns the franchise rookie records for rushing yards (687, previously held by LeSean McCoy) and yards from scrimmage (1,120, previously held by DeSean Jackson).
• Sanders leads all NFL rookies in all-purpose yards, with 1,434, which is the third most in Eagles rookie history.
• When he gained 47 yards from scrimmage against New England a couple of weeks back, Sanders became the third player in team history to post at least 1,000 all-purpose yards in their first 10 career games, joining DeSean Jackson in 2008 (1,085) and Ted Dean in 1960 (1,066).
• And as Sanders thinks (although Staley is no doubt loudly making sure he doesn't get too comfortable thinking this way) he's getting stronger, Sanders' outing in Washington last week was his best of the season. Sanders rushed for a career-high 122 yards, including a 56-yard gain on a third-and-10, and a touchdown. He also added 50 receiving yards and another touchdown for a career-best 172 yards from scrimmage.
"Every day it's a learning experience. It's a business. It's my job," says Sanders, the team's second selection in the 2019 NFL Draft, No. 53 overall. "You kind of have to live every moment preparing yourself to recover from that day's work. So, you get in the cold tub a lot to get the swelling out of your body and you get massages or whatever it takes to get your body back and keep your energy level high."
With Jordan Howard sidelined for more than a month following the team's early-November bye week, Sanders carried most of the running game on his shoulders. His snap counts increased with Howard out – Sanders played a season-high 64, 64, and 62 snaps against New England, Seattle, and Miami, respectively – but the rookie has shown no signs of slowing down.
He's been solid in every phase of the game – a good and improving blocker in the passing game, an explosive element in the passing game, and a tough, one-cut back who can go to the house in the ground attack.
"He's really been outstanding," head coach Doug Pederson says. "We've asked him to do a lot. He's handled a lot of responsibilities and he has put the work in and he's responded. He's been extremely productive for us. Miles is a talented player. That's why we drafted him. His skill set fits into what we do in this offense. He is an explosive guy when he has the football in his hands and we're always looking for ways to get him more involved."
The ultimate respect for Sanders happened when the Patriots schemed to take him out of the passing game, using a linebacker or defensive end to chip Sanders and keep him in as a blocker. When Sanders did get out into his route, he had a safety draped all over him. Defenses have become well aware of the danger Sanders presents as a receiver, so they've worked to take him out of the Eagles' offense.
Pederson and offensive coordinator Mike Groh have countered with some moves to get the ball to Sanders in space creatively, and it's worked.
"It's a lot harder in the NFL. Everybody is a great player. Coaches are smart and they find ways to try to take you out of the game," Sanders says. "I love that challenge. My career is just starting in the NFL, so every time I line up, I feel like I'm seeing something new and I have to adjust. I think I've done pretty well so far."
Pretty well? Sanders is off and running, literally, and the best is yet to come as he turns in the greatest season for a rookie running back in Eagles history. LeSean McCoy gained 627 yards in 2009. Correll Buckhalter (2001) and Keith Byars (1986) each had 586 yards. Brian Westbrook, a member of the Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Fame, gained only 193 yards on 46 rushing attempts in his rookie season of 2002. Heck, Steve Van Buren, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and an NFL 100 All-Time Team selection, had only 444 yards in 1944.
The point is, there is a lot to learn at the NFL level.
"It's much more than taking a handoff and finding a hole," said assistant head coach and running backs coach Duce Staley, one of the franchise greats at the running back position who, by the way, gained 29 yards on seven carries as a rookie in 1997 as he set the table for 1,000-yard seasons the following two years.
"There is the physical part of things, which we all knew Miles had when we drafted him. We knew he had special talents. But to get on the field and have success, you need to do everything – block in the passing game, get your timing down, be a factor as a receiver, know the entire offense, every formation. Miles put in the work from day one. He was hungry. Every day, he's hungry to be a better player."
The Eagles are playing for the division lead today against the Dallas Cowboys and they've got a rookie running back in the thick of the action, a rarity in this franchise's history. Sanders has shown glimpses, then, of what's to come. As good as he's been in his first NFL season, Sanders has so much more upside, and that's why everyone is excited about his position in the offense.
"Duce always says the goal is to get a little bit better every day," Sanders says. "That's what I'm trying to do."
One big play after another, Miles Sanders is doing just that.