It was around this time two years ago that Miles Sanders became the Eagles’ de facto No. 1 running back. While the then-rookie took the ball and ran the rest of that season — cliche intended — his two years since have gone in fits and starts.
Sanders has had notable stretches and momentary bursts, but run-game neglect, offensive inefficiency, and his own injuries and inconsistencies have inhibited his ascent into the top tier of NFL tailbacks.
But he is also a victim of time and place. Few at his position are workhorses anymore. And even though Sanders is set to benefit from Jordan Howard’s most recent injury, just as he did in 2019, the Eagles are likely to maintain their by-committee approach at running back.
“We think that’s working well,” coach Nick Sirianni said Wednesday. “But if somebody gets hot, no doubt we’ll stick with it.”
The Eagles have revived their season in part because of their success on the ground over the last four games. But in the first three, it was Howard and Boston Scott who profited from Sirianni’s reversal, with Sanders out with an ankle injury.
The cruel irony of the situation wasn’t lost on most. For the first seven weeks, Eagles running backs averaged 13.7 carries and Sanders individually nine. But in Weeks 8-10, they rushed 30.3 times a game.
But when Sanders returned last week, Sirianni not only continued to lean on the run game — Eagles running backs received 32 handoffs — he reinstated him as the lead back both in snaps and carries.
“I’m a team guy,” Sanders said Sunday when asked what it was like watching his backups thrive in his absence. “I was more excited seeing Jordan and Boston get out there and do what they do.”
Sanders rushed 16 times for 94 yards against the Saints — both high-water marks for the season. He could have picked up more, but he fumbled early and ran out of bounds late in the four-minute drill.
Sirianni stuck with Sanders after the turnover — and even after he nearly had another later in the first half. But when he stopped the clock after a 14-yard gain, the coach punished him.
“We pulled him out of the game and just reminded him, again, to stay in bounds. He had two in Carolina,” Sirianni said. “Repeat offenders of things we usually get mad about. He knows. Shoot, if he had that next carry and didn’t have to come out of the game to be reminded to stay inbounds, he would have had a hundred yards.”
Sanders would concur with his coach. But for all his improvement in various areas over the last three seasons — such as hitting the hole — the former second-round draft pick has had more than his share of mental errors.
“Mentally, I just got to stay locked in and just know what I got to do,” Sanders said when asked about his recent habit of running out of bounds late in games.
Fumbles were a problem in college. He had two early lost balls, one resulting in a fumble, as a rookie. And he lost two of four last season. But last Sunday’s turnover was his first this season.
Sanders’ physical skills are undeniable. He seemingly has all the character and work ethic traits the Eagles would want from a franchise-caliber player. But Sanders also plays a position the team and the league have increasingly devalued, and as his backups showed, the Eagles don’t necessarily need to pay for production.
He’s under contract through 2022, but an extension this offseason, when he’s first eligible, would appear improbable. The bigger question is whether the Eagles bring him back for a second contract.
Of more immediate concern, are the New York Giants, who await them on Sunday. The 5-6 Eagles have a chance to stay in the wild-card playoff race with a victory, while also trimming the 7-4 Cowboys’ NFC East lead after they lost to the Raiders on Thursday.
A month ago, the season appeared lost. But Sirianni, to his credit, made several adjustments that accentuated the run game and Jalen Hurts’ ability to be a threat on the ground. He placed the quarterback under center more, he called fewer run-pass option plays and screen passes, and he simply handed the rock to his running backs.
In the first seven games, the Eagles averaged 23.4 rushes for 116.7 yards, and in their last four, they averaged 43.5 rushes for 205 yards. Running back totes, as noted above, have increased, but so have Hurts’ designed carries. In the first seven games, 46% of his rushes were scrambles, but in the last four it’s been only 29%.
Hurts as a plus-one threat has clearly aided the running game. But Howard (5.4 yards per carry) and Scott (4.8) have rumbled north-to-south behind arguably one of the NFL’s best run-blocking offensive lines.
Sanders isn’t as direct a runner, but he has done better to avoid losses when bouncing outside, a characteristic that hindered him as a rookie.
“You’ve seen him progress throughout his career,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said. “I think that’s natural for any running back coming out of college. The holes close that much quicker in the NFL. That opportunity you’re going to get is only going to be there for a brief second.”
While Sanders’ yards-after-contact average (2.52) is lower than that of Howard (3.45) and Scott (2.63) this season, he had better numbers than both in 2019 (3.32 vs. 2.93 and 2.28) and the latter in 2020 (3.38 vs. 3.03).
But those averages may be skewed by Sanders’ big-play skills. There’s nothing wrong with being a long-ball threat, of course. Sanders has five 50-plus-yard runs in his career. But the Eagles have turned their season around with doubles and singles on the ground.
Running successfully has given them a time-of-possession edge, and in turn kept a struggling defense off the field for long spurts. New Orleans entered last week’s matchup No. 1 in run defense, and still the Eagles ran at will.
There could come a time when opponents sell out to stop the run, but Sirianni seems intent on staying with the formula until he is forced to do otherwise. Sanders has only two games with 20 carries in his NFL career, but when given 15 or more, he averages slightly less (4.86) than when given fewer than 15 (4.97).
But the running back rotation has yielded positive results, and Scott may warrant more than his normal amount of touches in North Jersey. He was a Giants-slayer in his four career games against the divisional rival.
Scott had 26 rushes for 222 yards (8.5 avg.) and five touchdowns and 14 catches for 210 yards (15.0 avg.) and a touchdown in the last four meetings, of which the Eagles won three.
Kenny Gainwell will also be in the mix after being inactive last week. The rookie got his NFL career off to a solid start, particularly as a receiver, but a fumble against the Raiders, and Howard’s resurrection, dropped him down the depth chart.
Gainwell’s development may factor into the Eagles’ long-term plans at running back, but he projects as mostly a third-down option. Sanders filled that role early in his career and caught 50 passes for 509 (10.2 avg.) and three touchdowns in his first season.
But he has only 47 catches for 315 yards (6.7 avg.) and no touchdowns since. Drops plagued him last season, not to mention the Eagles’ overall offensive dysfunction, but he is no longer the first receiving option out of the backfield.
Sanders would likely be content as long as he’s still the No. 1 running back. But even if that were to be the case, he’s not yet shown that he’s in the workhorse mold (e.g. Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook), not that the Eagles even want that.
Workhorse running backs are dinosaurs in today’s pass-oriented NFL and still subject to the rigors of a job that gives them short shelf-lives. Sanders hasn’t necessarily been injury-prone, but he has already missed six out of a possible 43 games.
But fewer touches could mean a longer NFL lifespan. Of course, it could hurt in stats and ultimately the wallet. Sanders, for instance, hasn’t scored a touchdown since last season.
“I’m not even trying to think about that. I’ll say, ‘Yeah,’” he said when asked if he had noticed his end zone dry spell. “But as long as we’re doing what we’re trying to do, I don’t care what my stats look like at this point.”