The Eagles played their last three games without lead running back Jordan Howard. Each game was decided by one score. The Eagles lost all three games.
There have been other issues: unavailable offensive linemen, a skittish quarterback, short and slow defensive backs. But this really is no mystery, because a dependable, productive running back compensates for all sorts of other shortcomings. It’s how the game was designed.
In a town that worships its running backs — Wilbert Montgomery, Brian Westbrook, and Duce Staley, fine runners all, are much better now, in legend — it’s strange that so few appreciate the absence of a current player who does so much.
Howard suffered a “stinger” in Game Nine, just before the Eagles’ bye week. He suffered nerve damage in his shoulder that weakened it, and has still not been cleared for contact. The Eagles, at 5-7 and somehow still alive in the NFC East, will play the Giants on Monday night without him again.
And without him, the 2-10 visitors have a real chance, even if they are starting Eli Manning again.
As it turns out, Howard — afterthought addition of the offseason — has been more of a loss than the big-name, big-money arrivals.
The Birds absorbed the loss of the Inaction Jacksons — speed receiver DeSean Jackson, for whom they traded then extended for three years and nearly $28 million, and defensive tackle Malik Jackson, a three-year, $30 million free agent — each of whom played only one complete game before injuries effectively ended their seasons. The Eagles lost the next two games and seemed adrift. Then aerial addicts Doug Pederson and his offensive coordinator, Mike Groh, finally acknowledged the value of Jordan Howard.
The Eagles went 4-2 in Games Four through Nine. They averaged 24.6 points and 141.2 rushing yards. In Games 10, 11 and 12 they averaged 16.7 points and 93 rushing yards. They couldn’t protect a two-touchdown lead against the two-win Miami Dolphins last week. Yes, the defense sputtered, but power running backs exist in today’s NFL to preserve second-half leads; to turn first-and-10 into second-and-five, and to turn third-and-1 into first-and-10 as the clock goes tick-tick-tick.
Jordan Howard is in Philadelphia to protect such leads.
In Games Four through Nine, Howard gained 426 rushing yards on 94 carries, an average of 71 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry. He scored six touchdowns in those six games — five rushing touchdowns, along with a TD catch. He was carrying the ball, if not carrying the offense.
He’d become one of the offseason bargains of the year.
The Bears traded him for a conditional sixth-round pick in 2020, and by the bye week he’d become one of the steals of the season: A 25-year-old, four-year veteran playing on a contender in a contract year. He’d fully regained the form that netted him 2,435 yards rushing yards and 16 total TDs in his first two seasons. His production dipped last year, but that now appears to be an aberration.
Amazingly, it sounds as if the Eagles don’t appreciate Howard’s absence, either.
They signed reconstructed veteran Jay Ajayi. They’ve given the ball to 5-11, 211-pound rookie Miles Sanders more, but reluctantly.
Howard is 6-feet, 224 pounds, and got 252 runs as a rookie. Why? One inch and 13 pounds is a big difference in size at that position. Sanders averaged 11 touches in the first nine games. He’s averaged almost 17 touches in the last three games. He has scored once.
“Jordan brings a different style, I guess,” Pederson said last week. "He’s more of an in-between-the-tackles guy."
Certainly, they are not the same species of runner. Sanders is a supporting actor, like Robert Duvall.
At his best, Howard is Robert De Niro. A leading man. A raging bull.
Pederson wishes that Ajayi, at 6-feet, 223 pounds, can replicate some of what Howard brought. Alas, if wishes were horses; Ajayi spent more than a year rehabbing a knee injury before the Eagles signed him off the street three weeks ago. He has eight runs for 25 yards the past two games. Jay Ajayi is not Jordan Howard. Not any more.
Could this situation have been averted? Perhaps. The Eagles showed little interest when the Bills released 31-year-old LeSean McCoy, the Eagles’ all-time leading rusher, who joined the Chiefs and reunited with Andy Reid. In effect, the Eagles chose Corey Clement, a young runner with an injury history, and Darren Sproles, a really old runner with a much worse injury history. Clement touched the ball four times and lost a fumble before a shoulder injury landed him on injured reserve, where he spent much of last season. Sproles, 36, got 23 touches for 90 yards and no touchdowns in six games before he landed on IR for a third consecutive season.
We suggested that McCoy (full disclosure: not my favorite person) would be a better option than either Sproles or Clement, but, frankly, it didn’t seem like an egregious front-office error at the time.
Shady has 84 carries, a 4.9 yards-per-carry average and four rushing touchdowns, along with 177 receiving yards and one TD. Maybe quarterback Carson Wentz wouldn’t be pressing so much if he had a proven, pedigreed running back next to him. Someone like Jordan Howard.
Wentz posted a 95.3 passer rating with nine touchdowns and two interceptions in Games Four through Nine. His rating dropped to 81.6 with five TDs and three picks in the last three games.