From the outside looking in, it might seem that Duce Staley has plenty of reason to be bitter about his job situation with the Eagles.
Staley has been the team’s running backs coach since 2013. He is one of the most respected coaches at that position in the NFL.
Yet, when Doug Pederson was looking for a new offensive coordinator 2 ½ years ago after Frank Reich left to become the Indianapolis Colts’ head coach following the Eagles’ Super Bowl championship, he promoted wide receivers coach Mike Groh over Staley and made offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland the run-game coordinator.
As a consolation prize, Staley was given the added title of assistant head coach. But in the NFL, which currently has just three Black head coaches and only two Black offensive coordinators, that title is largely decorative, frequently given to minority assistants to make it look like the league is more serious about its minority hiring practices than it actually is.
That changed a little bit over the weekend when Pederson tested positive for COVID-19. While Pederson self-quarantines at his South Jersey home, Staley will run things in his absence at the NovaCare Complex, though Pederson still will be in constant touch with his players and coaches via Zoom.
In a video conference with reporters Monday morning, the 52-year-old Pederson said he has no COVID symptoms and is feeling great. “I’m doing everything I can virtually,’' he said. “I just finished up a bunch of group meetings with players.
“Duce, being the assistant head coach, just assumes my role as far as day to day activities in the building. He and I talk every morning. I give him my thoughts and he carries that message forward.‘'
Staley was essentially bypassed again earlier this year after Pederson fired Groh following the Eagles playoff loss to Seattle. This time, Pederson decided not to hire another coordinator, instead bringing in Rich Scangarello, who was the offensive coordinator in Denver last year and was the San Francisco 49ers’ quarterbacks coach the year before that, as a senior offensive assistant and making quarterbacks coach Press Taylor the team’s passing-game coordinator.
The Athletic reported in January that Staley had inquired about the running backs coaching job at his alma mater, the University of South Carolina. Neither the school nor Staley ever confirmed or denied the report.
But in a video call with reporters on Friday, Staley insisted that he’s as happy as a clam coaching the Eagles’ running backs.
“I’m not disappointed at all’' about not getting the offensive coordinator job, he said. “I don’t feel overlooked. I said about two years ago [after Groh replaced Reich] how it’s a little different here with the Eagles.
“We’re not about titles. We’re about getting the job done, and that’s what we’ve been doing here for a while. We all have a chance to game plan. That’s what’s unique about our staff. We all have input. We’re all able to go into a room and game plan together.‘'
Staley, a 1,000-yard rusher with the Eagles in 1998, 1999 and 2002, was hired by Andy Reid as a special teams quality control coach in 2011.
When Chip Kelly replaced Reid in 2013, he retained Staley and put him in charge of the team’s running backs. The Eagles finished first in rushing in ’13 and LeSean McCoy won the league rushing title with 1,607 yards. The next year, McCoy finished third in rushing with 1,319 yards before Kelly traded him to Buffalo.
Staley was interviewed for the Eagles’ head coaching job in 2016 by owner Jeffrey Lurie after Kelly was fired. But the job ultimately went to Pederson, who retained Staley as the running backs coach.
Staley is well respected in the running backs room. His role in the Eagles’ 2017 Super Bowl run, when he did a phenomenal job of managing two difficult personalities, LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi, and keeping them productive and happy, cannot be overstated. The Eagles finished third in the league in rushing that year.
Some people close to Staley have said that he’s relatively content with his current role and isn’t all that interested in becoming a coordinator right now.
“We all want to advance,’' Staley said last week. “You [media] guys want to advance. That’s life. But right now, I’m super happy in my role. Proud of my role. Being assistant head coach, running backs coach. I’m proud of that.
“Doug gives me things. Puts things on my plate. I’m thankful to him for having those opportunities. I’m excited for where I am and what I’m doing now.‘'
Staley is looking forward to helping the Eagles’ talented second-year running back, Miles Sanders, take another big step in his development this season after rushing for 818 yards and putting up 1,327 yards from scrimmage as a rookie.
In the Eagles’ first 11 games last season, Sanders averaged just 11.7 touches per game. But in their last six games, including the playoff loss to Seattle, he averaged 20.3.
Staley, who is responsible for the team’s running-back rotation, said there will be no touch limits on the 5-11, 211-pound Sanders this season.
“I’m excited about him handling the full load,’' he said. “I don’t see him as a guy whose touches you have to monitor. I don’t see it that way. I think you put him in and you let him go.
“I don’t think you have to be careful with him. He’s one of those guys that is hard to get a hit on. This is a violent league. Injuries can happen at any time. But if you’ve got a guy that can make people miss and is kind of special like Miles, the [risk] percentage goes down.‘'
The Eagles finished 11th in rushing, 19th in rush average and 12th in scoring last season. Scangarello, a Kyle Shanahan disciple, was brought in partly to help marry the Eagles’ run game to the play-action [passing] game.
The 49ers finished second in the league in rushing last year, averaging 144.1 yards per game. They also finished second in rushing attempts (498) and eighth in rush average (4.6).
“When you’re talking about marrying the run and play-action games, you’re talking about making the play-action look like the run,’' Staley said. “That has a lot to do with the quarterback ‘marrying’ himself to the running back. From steps, eyes, protection and so on.