Philadelphia Eagles News

The Evolution Of The Eagles Running Back

Let's wind the clocks back for moment. All the way back in 1906, the concept of the forward pass became part of the football lexicon, and it changed the game forever. Fast forward 100 years or so, and NFL quarterbacks are now throwing for over 5,000 yards per season. NFL football has increasingly become a passing game. The Eagles of course have adapted to the times and have had their share of top-notch quarterbacks over the years, but there's almost always been a stud running back to go along.

Chip Kelly became the Eagles head coach at a time when quarterback numbers (and their contracts) were as inflated as ever. Despite that fact, the head coach who has always been looking to push the tempo and stay a step ahead of everyone else with his forward thinking has also rewound the clocks and looked to the past. 

Kelly's offenses have always been built around the run game.

"You've got to run the football this league.," Kelly said on Thursday. "That's what I've always believed in."

With the recent additions of DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews to go along with Darren Sproles and Chris Polk, it appears as if the most progressive coach in the NFL is readying his offense to be a ground-based attack once again.

Murray, Mathews, Sproles – the possibilities are endless and seeing exactly how the running backs are deployed surely has Eagles fans thinking big things. But right now, let's take a page out of Coach Kelly's book and look back (before we move forward) at the evolution of the Eagles running back position.

Steve Van Buren (1944-1951)- 5,860 rushing yards

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Back-to-back NFL Championships. Three straight division titles. Four individual rushing titles. Steve Van Buren was that good.

At a time when the NFL was all about the run, Van Buren was one of the best in the game. Standing at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, Van Buren possessed a size and speed combo that was unheard of at the time. In fact, there's reason to believe that if Van Buren was playing in today's NFL, he could easily be among the game's greats.

The Honduras-born halfback is the Alpha when it comes to great Eagles backs. It all starts with Van Buren.

Timmy Brown (1960-1967)- 3,703 yards

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Timmy Brown is often overlooked in the discussion about the best backs in Eagles history, much like he was overlooked in the early stages of his career. Brown's NFL tenure started out with the Green Bay Packers and Vince Lombardi cutting him. He signed with the Eagles, won the NFL title in 1960, but was used primarily as a kick returner during his first two seasons in Philadelphia.

In 1962, Brown was finally given his chance, and he ran with it- literally. The Ball State product was one of the speediest players in the NFL and in 1965, Brown became the first NFL player ever to rush for 850 yards, average 5 yards per carry and catch 50 passes. Brown could do it all.

Wilbert Montgomery (1977-84)- 6,538 yards

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Wilbert Montgomery was a college standout at Abilene Christian, but his 5-10 frame left NFL scouts questioning his ability to play at the professional level. By the time his second season came to a close, those scouts had already been proven wrong.

Montgomery quickly became the Eagles primary weapon on offense, and by the time the Eagles were making their run to the Super Bowl in 1980, Montgomery had established himself as a force to be reckoned with out of the backfield. That season, Montgomery etched his name into Philadelphia sports folklore by rushing for an astounding 194 yards against the Dallas Cowboys in the 1980 NFC Championship game. On the Eagles' play from scrimmage, Montgommery scampered 42 yards to put the Eagles on the board first and electrify the Veterans Stadium crowd. He was traded after the 1984 season, but not before climbing to the top of the Eagles career rushing list, passing the great Van Buren.

Keith Byars (1986-1992)- 2,672  yards

Herschel Walker (1992-1994)- 2,344 rushing yards

Charlie Garner (1994-1998)- 2,261 yards

Ricky Watters (1995-1997) - 3,794 yards

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The NFL's big shift to pass-heavy offenses came during the 1980s, thanks mainly to implementation of the West Coast offense by San Francisco head coach Bill Walsh. But through that time period, the Eagles maintained their strong presence at tailback.

Keith Byars provided power out of the backfield as a fullback/halfback hybrid for seven seasons, Herschel Walker led the charge with over 2,300 yards in three seasons, and the tandem of Ricky Watters and Charlie Garner closed out the decade. Waters, whose personality sometimes clashed with coaches, spent just three seasons in Philadelphia, but during that time he racked up 3,794 rushing yards, good for seventh on the Eagles' all-time list. Garner served as the supplemental back to Watters for most of his time as an Eagle, but still totaled 2,261 yards in five years.

Duce Staley (1997-2003) - 4,807 yards

Brian Westbrook (2002-2009) - 5,995 yards

Correll Buckhalter (2001-2008) - 2,155 yards

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Duce Staley was a third-round pick in 1997 and was used almost exclusively on special teams his rookie season. Once Watters left the Eagles and head coach Andy Reid joined the team, Staley was inserted into the starting lineup. In the 2000 season opener at Dallas, Staley, propelled by pickle juice, rushed for 201 yards as the Eagles flattened the Cowboys 41-14.

Staley remained the Eagles featured back over the next few seasons, but in 2003 the Eagles featured a three-pronged rushing attack that produced outstanding results. The ultra-versatile Brian Westbrook led the team in rushing with 613 yards, but the trio of Westbrook, Staley (463 yards) and Correll Buckhalter (542 yards) collectively accounted for 1,618 yards and 20 touchdowns. 

Westbrook went on to have the most individual success of the group, finishing his career second on the Eagles all-time rushing list (now third) with 6538 yards in eight seasons.

LeSean McCoy (2009-2014) – 6,792 yards

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As the three-headed monster split up over the late 2000s, in stepped a shifty back with a flashy smile and flashier moves. LeSean McCoy is a Pennsylvania kid through and through. He grew up in Harrisburg, played his college ball at Pittsburgh and was drafted by the Eagles in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft.

If the case ever presented itself where it was McCoy versus one defender in the open field, McCoy virtually always won the matchup, while the defender was left grasping for air. McCoy's elusiveness may be unmatched in today's NFL, and as a result, McCoy rushed his way into Eagles history in 2014, becoming the team's all-time leading rusher.  He excelled under the tutelage of head coach Chip Kelly, posting back-to-back seasons of 1,607 (a franchise record) and 1,319 yards.

What's Next? DeMarco Murray, Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles

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As all Eagles fans know, McCoy was traded to Buffalo earlier this week and the Eagles were quick to bring in talent to shore up the backfield. DeMarco Murray, the NFL's 2014 rushing champion, has been signed to a five-year contract and Ryan Mathews has also been brought into the mix. Add that duo to Darren Sproles, the Eagles "Swiss Army Knife", and fans could once again be treated to a three-headed monster, much like the one from 2003.

How will all of the pieces jell together? Here's one possibility, but what we do know is that it will definitely be exciting. From the ahead-of-his-time Van Buren to Wilbert's playoff performance to McCoy's moves and the return of the multi-back attack, it's been an exciting run for Eagles halfbacks. Here's to what comes next.

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