Eagles call-ups may have deserved an earlier look, but offensive coordinator Mike Groh gives them credit for being ready
The offensive coordinator credits players such as Boston Scott and Greg Ward, and their position coaches, for their development into NFL weapons.
The reigning NFC offensive player of the week, the only Eagle to win a weekly league honor this season, spent the first five games of the season on the practice squad. Running back Boston Scott wasn’t given double-figures touches in a game until Dec. 9, against the Giants.
There are two points that stand out about that, both of which came up in Tuesday’s weekly media session with Eagles offensive coordinator Mike Groh:
Scott, a 2018 sixth-round draft pick by the Saints, has worked tirelessly to make himself into an impact player in the NFL, at 5-foot-6, 203 pounds. And the coaching staff, primarily running backs coach Duce Staley, deserves credit for helping Scott develop into the guy whose three-touchdown afternoon Sunday against the Giants helped lift the Eagles into this week’s wild-card round playoff matchup with visiting Seattle.
Why the heck was Scott not on the roster when the season started, and once he finally was promoted, why did it take so long to fully integrate him into an offense that has lacked explosiveness pretty much all season? If you saw Scott dart and spin for a 39-yard gain on a screen pass Sunday, it might have occurred to you that outside of Miles Sanders, no one in the Eagles’ offense is capable of producing such a play. Twenty-three of Scott’s 24 catches came in the season’s final four games.
Groh doesn’t set the roster, but he does have some say over who gets the ball, one assumes. He was asked if he ever thinks about whether Scott or ex-practice squad wide receiver Greg Ward (28 catches for 254 yards in the final six games) should have gotten more opportunities sooner.
“No, I don't,” he said. “They got their opportunities when that time presented itself.”
Presumably that time wasn’t when the Eagles signed one-legged running back Jay Ajayi and gave him six carries, which netted 16 yards, as the Eagles hosted the Seahawks on Nov. 24. Scott returned two kickoffs that day, for 45 yards, but otherwise did not touch the ball. He played three offensive snaps.
Ward did play against Seattle, catching the first six passes of his career, for 40 yards, but he was still on the practice squad the previous week, when Mack Hollins played 13 snaps without catching a pass. Hollins drifted through six catchless games in October and November before the Eagles finally cut him to make way for Ward, whose numbers in the six games he played down the stretch extrapolate to 75 catches for 677 yards over a full season.
The rest of Groh’s answer to the “why wait so long to try these guys” question was devoted to giving credit to the call-ups and backups — Scott, Ward, fellow wide receivers Rob Davis and Deontay Burnett, plus tight end/slot receiver Josh Perkins, who caught a touchdown pass Sunday, and offensive linemen Halapolulivaati Vaitai and Matt Pryor — for being ready when their respective numbers were called. And to their position coaches for having them ready.
“One of the hardest things, I think, about being either a backup player or on the practice squad is staying focused, concentrating, being diligent, not just when you go out to practice and you're running the plays, but paying attention in the meetings,” Groh said.
“It would be really hard to try to catch up in a night's notice when we say, ‘OK, you're going to be called up.’ And they say, ‘Oh, gosh, I wish I'd paid closer attention over the last three months.’ Those guys have been locked in. Credit to [wide receivers] coach [Carson] Walch and [assistant wide receivers coach] Matt Harper and [tight ends coach] Justin Peele and Duce and all the guys that have had to continually get these guys prepared, guys that may or may not have had much of a role beforehand but now were thrust into a starting assignment, or were going to be a big part of what we were doing that week.”
Asked about Scott’s ability to burrow through for TDs near the goal line, Groh said: “The power of the goal line. It’s a wonderful thing. The other day the [offensive] line did a terrific job. They opened up some really big holes. Boston obviously is hungry. He’s finding that goal line, done a really good job of finding the hole, being patient, picking his way through it, but then when there has been a tackler present … he’s taken on that guy and been able to fall into the end zone or finish in the end zone.
“I think it's a combination of things: good design, some good plays, and the guys have blocked [for] him really well, and then, obviously, Boston has finished them off.”
In fairness to Groh and Doug Pederson, it is tempting to go with what you know, with players you have seen work in your system, whose talents have been part of your planning. When wholesale lineup changes occur, the game plan and the play-calling also often change. (In the Eagles’ case, this sure seems to have been a good thing.)
By the second half of Sunday’s Giants game, the Eagles’ offense was missing seven of 11 Week 1 starters. Groh was asked how the injuries have affected him as a play designer and coordinator.
“Well, I guess in terms of being influenced, you're just trying to find a starting point, if you will,” Groh said. “What do we know about this guy, in our evaluations of him, in their time that they've been here? And some of it has been a little bit longer in some cases than others.
“So you try to do a great job of evaluating them, and the opportunities that you have out there at practice to try to figure out, ‘OK, this is this guy’s skill set. I think this is where he could fit in.’ Try to put him in a position where physically he can be successful, and then not try to overload him with too much so that he gets bogged down and can’t play fast.
“Let his skills kind of shine through.”
And maybe, sooner rather than later?