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Running Game: New Goals For 2014

One of the prime questions in the months following Chip Kelly's hire as head coach was trying to correctly guess the offense the Eagles would employ. Would they lean one way or the other in Year 1 of this offense? Would they be able to take what Kelly did at Oregon and apply it to the NFL?

The results, needless to say, were impressive. The Eagles led the league in rushing and in explosive (plus 20 yards) plays. They were, as Kelly said several times during the 2013 season, "an equal-opportunity offense."

The formula worked, and now the coaching staff is back at the drawing board tweaking the X's and O's. We're likely to see some different formations and situational play calls in the season ahead, but the gist of the offense is this: The Eagles are going to play with pace, they're going to spread the field out, and they're going to go in the direction that favors the offense.

If a team loads the box, it's likely that quarterback Nick Foles will have a passing option. If the Eagles have numbers up front, the running game could be the call. There are plenty of other variables that work into the mix, but the premise is pretty simple: Take what the defense gives you.

That's one "known" about this offense that has added to and subtracted from the roster in the skill-position areas in the offseason. The Eagles released wide receivers Jason Avant and DeSean Jackson and added running back/receiver/"move" player Darren Sproles. It's fair to wonder how those roster changes will impact the offense. One reminder: Chip Kelly recognizes the importance of balance on offense, depth all around, and the need to be improved from 2013.

What hasn't changed is that the Eagles have running back LeSean McCoy, whom Kelly last week at the NFL's Annual Meeting said is "arguably the best running back in the NFL.' McCoy is square in the middle of his prime, and his 2013 performance couldn't be more spectacular. He gained 1,607 yards on the ground and totaled 2,146 total yards from scrimmage, leading the NFL in both categories. He was tough when he needed to be and explosive when the opportunity presented itself.

And McCoy is going to be the central figure in this offense, along with quarterback Nick Foles. The goal is to give both of them as much opportunity as possible to be great. We'll see how the roster looks after the draft and how the Eagles come together through the summer months and preseason schedule.

McCoy isn't going to be asked to carry the load by himself, but he's got a sizable chunk on his shoulders. That's just fine with McCoy, who has impressed everyone around the league with his rise.

"It's really exciting to watch him because you know something exciting and spectacular can come," said Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, "arguably" the other best running back in the league. "And he's got this deception about him because you look at him, he doesn't look like he's able to do the stuff that he does. That comes from hard work and willpower ... He's very impressive and
exciting to watch. I would buy a ticket to see him play."

To stay at the highest level, and to take his performance to an even higher plane, McCoy knows he has to pushing himself to new limits in the offseason. There is no resting on laurels in the NFL. Running backs know that a slight hesitation in a run or a mini-step back in development can mean the difference between a 15-yard gain and a 4-yard loss.

There hasn't been a lot of down time for McCoy in the offseason. He has goals in mind for 2014.

"I know I can get better in my all-around game," said McCoy at the 2014 Pro Bowl. "It's everything. Get stronger, faster. Work on breaking tackles. Don't lose yards on plays. Find the end zone more.

"I'm never going to say that I'm done developing as a player. That doesn't work in the NFL."

The running game is the foundation of the Eagles offense and it served them well in Kelly's first season at the helm. It will require more than McCoy to make it go, though. The Eagles need the offensive line to continue to improve and build chemistry. The Eagles must get the football down the field vertically in the passing game to keep defenses from crowding the box at the line of scrimmage. Players like tight end Zach Ertz figure to play a more important role in the offense, and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin's recovery from a knee injury that cost him last season is crucial.

There is also the requirement of more depth at running back. Sproles is an important piece in many respects. His presence in the open field is going to cause defenses headaches as it did the Eagles' defensive coaching staff in the playoff game in January when the Eagles, at times, doubled Sproles in the passing game to keep him away from the football. Bryce Brown enters his third season with a full understanding of the offense and should blossom when given the chance. Chris Polk is a bigger, physical back who produced when he had the chance last season. And Matthew Tucker was enough of a prospect to gain promotion to the active roster for more than half the season in his rookie year of 2013.

The running game is where this offense starts, let's understand that. McCoy is the jewel, but the pieces around him must be in place and functioning at a high level for it all to work. In Year 2 of the offense, what does the running game -- with McCoy in the starring role -- do to go to an even higher level?

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