Darren Sproles sat on the bench after his first touchdown in 711 days, the majority of the time spent rehabbing from injuries and delaying retirement for the feeling he experienced Monday. Coach Doug Pederson, who spends most of the game at the front of the sideline, retreated to find Sproles.
“I wanted to go over and just sort of say welcome back and congratulate him,” Pederson said.
The Eagles have scored 28 touchdowns this season, but there haven’t been as many as emotionally charged as Sproles’ 14-yard rush. Few players in the Eagles' locker room are more respected than Sproles, the 35-year-old running back and return threat whose name will come up in Hall of Fame debates when his career is finished. Pederson said Sproles “epitomizes the heart and soul of our football team.”
His career was supposed to be finished after last season, but a torn ACL brought him back so he could end his career on his own terms and further etch his name into the league’s record books. But Sproles injured his hamstring after Week 1 -- the injury, according to Sproles, was “more than a simple hamstring” -- and suffered a setback a few weeks ago when he was due to return. The Eagles stood by him throughout the injury, not daring to put him on injured reserve for the hope that he could return to contribute as he did Monday.
“He's such a class act, and a great leader on this football team,” Pederson said. “Obviously, it's unfortunate his situation and the injuries that have set him back. But for him to come out tonight and do the things he was able to do, and then the guys -- I do believe the guys really wanted to get him a touchdown at some point, you know? It just meant a lot to him, but it meant a lot to the guys as well.”
The joy for Sproles was evident on the field. The team had planned a post-touchdown celebration in which Sproles was David slaying Goliath, and there was a line of congratulators when Sproles reached the sideline. Carson Wentz said Sproles gave the Eagles “a spark.” Center Jason Kelce called Sproles “such a good dude, a great teammate, and an unbelievable player.” Tight end Zach Ertz noted how Sproles “could have easily called it quits … but he really stuck to the process and found a way to get healthy.”
“It just felt so good, man, just to get in there,” Sproles said. “To have a knee [injury] last year, then have a hamstring this year, it just felt great.”
Sproles played only nine offensive snaps and six special-teams snaps. He had four carries for 22 yards and three punt returns for 19 yards. So it was not as if he had the headliner performance Monday, and the praise for his touchdown could go as much as to Kelce’s superb downfield blocking as it could to Sproles’ impressive running.
But the significance of Sproles’ contributions cannot be lost, because the Eagles have not had them in a disappointing season. At 6-6 with their postseason hopes possible but challenging, the Eagles need to play their best football of the season in the final month. And having Sproles will help, considering the dynamic he can provide rushing, receiving, and returning.
“Darren is going to be a big part of us and the success as we move forward,” Pederson said, “and we'll keep probably increasing more of his production as we go.”
The challenge for the Eagles, though, will be figuring out how to use Sproles without disrupting the rhythm that they have created in the backfield. The Eagles have discovered a good balance with Josh Adams and Corey Clement, who both have been productive the past two weeks. Adams has emerged as the team’s most effective rusher, and Clement has settled into a change-of-pace role with success as a receiving back, evidenced by his three catches for 47 yards Monday.
Sproles is one of the most accomplished receiving backs in league history, so that’s a role he could fill. He’s also the team’s best blocker in the backfield. But the snaps will come at the expense of Adams or Clement. In Week 1, the Eagles made a concerted effort to get Sproles the ball early in the game, and it sometimes seemed to come at the detriment of the offense. So Pederson must find the right balance.
“I think as you saw last night, you get him a few touches throughout the game,” Pederson said. “I didn't want to put Darren out there right away, necessarily, and give him a ton of reps.”
Pederson said he was pleased that Sproles could take a hit Monday. Sproles said “all the jitters went away” after the first hit. He needed to make sure he kept his emotions in check.
“That’s the problem,” Sproles said. “When you’re too hype, that’s when you mess up and stuff like that.”