Miles Sanders said no one has talked to him about what might change if Jordan Howard is able to play this week, as expected, after losing six games to a shoulder injury.
But Sanders knows, and Eagles coaches know, that the rookie running back from Penn State has become Carson Wentz’s most explosive weapon. With the season on the line, it’s hard to see anyone wanting to diminish Sanders’ role even a little.
Sanders, 22, has more all-purpose yards than any rookie in Eagles history, 1,590 of them, after gaining 79 yards on 20 carries and catching five passes for 77 yards in Sunday’s upset of Dallas.
“I think Miles has grown in so many areas. … Certainly he’s been able to handle everything that we’ve given to him,” offensive coordinator Mike Groh said Tuesday. “He’s approached it like a true veteran throughout the course of the season, and you can see he’s getting the results.
“It’s not an accident. It’s through a lot of hard work. There’s been no shortcuts to where we are. Duce [Staley, the running backs coach] has done a great job in getting him coached up and ready to play, and he’s taken the coaching to not only to practice but into the games and performed.”
Groh wasn’t ready to define what Howard’s role will be, or even to say if Howard will have a role, Sunday at the New York Giants when the Eagles will try to nail down the NFC East title and a home playoff game against the 49ers or Seahawks. If they lose and Dallas beats Washington, the Cowboys win the East, and the Eagles’ season is over.
“Whenever it is that Jordan is deemed ready to be able to come back, we’ll work him back in,” Groh said.
Howard is expected to practice this week, and the Eagles have released Jay Ajyai, the running back who was active but didn’t take the field the last two weeks. It sure seems Howard will be active for the regular-season finale, though Groh said the Eagles will “see how the week goes first, see where he’s at.”
Practice squad survivor Boston Scott also has carved out a role during Howard’s absence. His sudden, low-to-the-ground burst is something the offense would still seem to need as well. Groh acknowledged Scott’s performance and said he envisions “a bunch of guys with different roles that can contribute to the game. … We feel good about all of those guys.”
Howard, who can become a free agent in the offseason, might be limited to short yardage. It seems like a long time ago now that Howard powered the team to victories over Buffalo (Oct. 27) and Chicago (Nov. 3), when observers were proclaiming him the key to the offense down the stretch.
Howard, who has gained 525 yards on 119 carries, to Sanders’ 766 on 170, suffered a stinger during the Chicago game, and the affected nerve wasn’t allowing him a full range of motion several weeks later. Presumably, that problem is resolved, but Howard said a few weeks ago that he hadn’t been able to do much lifting during the healing process. He was not available during the time reporters were allowed in the locker room Tuesday.
Sanders said whatever the coaches decide on parceling out snaps and carries is fine with him. He didn’t declare himself king of the running back room.
“Whatever the plan is, that’s how it’s going to go,” Sanders said.
Asked what Howard has been doing, Sanders said: “He’s in every meeting, still taking notes like he’s playing each week. … We want him back, I want him back. … We’re a better team with him. I’m looking forward to him coming back if he does.”
Sanders has answered a lot of questions recently about the NFL rookie “wall.” You don’t play four preseason games and 16 regular-season games in college. This is where it might be a good thing that the team has brought Sanders along slowly, keeping him below double digits in carries four times, and below 15 carries in any game until the last four weeks, in which he has run 71 times for 329 yards (4.63 yards per carry) and two touchdowns, while catching 20 passes for 173 yards and two more TDs.
“It’s 15 [games] already? It’s what, Week 17? Sheesh. It’s long,” Sanders said. “I just feel like I’m getting better each week. Getting more comfortable out there, feel like myself. I still don’t think I’m playing my best ball yet. I think I’m still trying to grow and get better as it keeps going.”
Early in the season, Sanders looked hesitant, and he often tried to break inside runs outside if the hole wasn’t gaping. He said his improvement has involved “just getting my eyes in the right place, reading what I’m supposed to read and hitting the holes when I see ‘em. Hitting ‘em at full speed, 100 mph, and just being hard to tackle.”
This situation – needing to win an NFL game to get into the postseason – is a new one for him, someone observed. Sanders said it is, and it isn’t.
“I’ve been in big games all my life,” Sanders said. “It’s a little different in the NFL. The NFL, there’s a lot more at stake. It’s the same for me, you know? I’m just going to go out there and be me and do what I can to help the team win.”