The beatification of LeSean McCoy over the last five years is one of those peculiarly Philadelphia phenomenons, the sort of thing that exemplifies just how personally this city takes sports.
At the time of his departure from the Eagles in 2015, he was an incandescent yet maddening talent, the type of player and personality whose welcome could easily have worn thin if he’d had another season or two to try.
He had averaged 1,100 yards and 50 catches per season in his six years with the organization, but he’d never won a playoff game, and his off-the-field track record featured several of the sort of incidents that tend to stick in this city’s craw.
He was popular, sure, but his treatment by the press and the fans in recent years would suggest that his current status is much closer to “beloved” than it was by the end of his tenure. And while there was certainly a contingent of folks who forecast doom after the Eagles traded him to Buffalo for linebacker Kiko Alonso, much larger was the crowd that saw the subsequent signing of DeMarco Murray as a move that left the team as close to the Super Bowl as it had been before, if not closer.
What changed? It wasn’t McCoy, whose tenure with the Bills looked more or less like his time with the Eagles. It wasn’t even his absence. The year after he left, the Eagles used Alonso as a chip in their move up the board to draft Carson Wentz, and two years after that, they won the Super Bowl.
I suspect, instead, that the ongoing love affair with McCoy is mostly a product of the city’s deep antipathy toward the man who traded him away.
By the end of the 2015 season, when the Bills visited Lincoln Financial Field with the Eagles in turmoil, McCoy had become the perfect symbol for a fan base and press corps that had begun to regard the Chip Kelly Era as a three-year con perpetuated by a man who thought himself bigger than the game.
McCoy was a testament to that hubris -- a living, breathing, touchdown-scoring validation of the notion that the problem with the Eagles was the head coach alone.
While the intervening years have only bolstered the argument that Kelly was little more than a wildly successful Nike marketing campaign, I’m not sure that the prevailing sentiment about McCoy is equally valid.
I’m as much a sucker for a story as anybody, so I’m not going to sit here and say that the Eagles would be making a mistake by reuniting with McCoy. (The Inquirer’s Marcus Hayes reported Wednesday that there is mutual interest.) Rather, I’m going to suggest that, from a variety of perspectives, there is a better option out there.
By the start of the 2020 season -- assuming it does indeed begin -- nearly three years will have passed since Devonta Freeman last looked like one of the NFL’s best running backs. Between 2015 and 2017, the former Florida State star averaged 1,000 yards per season and 4.4 yards per carry and helped lead the Falcons to a Super Bowl that they had no business losing.
He made two Pro Bowls during that stretch and looked very much like a guy who would still be in his prime at the age of 28.
Since then, things have gone as they often do at football’s most punishing position. A knee injury against the Eagles in the 2018 season-opener eventually landed him on injured reserve. He started 14 games in 2019, but his production was abysmal: 656 yards rushing and a 3.6 yards-per-carry average.
That probably does not sound like a convincing case in his favor, but I’m starting there precisely because it is the strongest one against him. That’s important, because an identical case can be made against McCoy, who missed six games over the last two seasons, including a 2018 campaign with the Bills in which he averaged just 3.2 yards per carry.
While McCoy at least showed some flashes of his old dynamism during his underwhelming stint in Kansas City, he also happens to be four years older than Freeman, and is coming off a season in which he failed to distinguish himself in a backfield committee that included three other runners.
With McCoy, there might be more of a reason to believe that the player you’ve seen over the course of his career is the one you will get. But that player has a lot of similarities to the player the Eagles already have in Miles Sanders, and I can’t help but think that they would be better served with a steadier, more north-to-south runner.
Despite his size (5-foot-8, 206 pounds), Freeman is a physical runner who has thrived on the inside zone. Between 2015 and 2017, he was one of the most efficient short-yardage runners in the NFL, with only one running back eclipsing the number of first downs he gained on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1. In those three seasons, Freeman was successful on 37 of 54 such attempts.
Compare that with some of the game’s biggest names: Melvin Gordon (36 of 63), Todd Gurley (28 of 64), Ezekiel Elliott (28 of 46), LeGarrette Blount (24 of 55). McCoy was successful on 29 of 54 such carries.
Freeman is a more accomplished receiver than McCoy. Despite his struggles on the ground in 2019, he still finished the year with 59 catches for 410 yards and four touchdowns. In fact, he has averaged 54 catches per season throughout his career, seven more than McCoy.