The frustrating part about Miles Sanders on Sunday – never mind all the other frustrating parts of the Eagles’ 27-24 loss to the Detroit Lions – was that everyone could see how dynamic a player he might become, might already be, if he could keep the football from popping out of his hands like bread from a toaster. It’s all there: the speed, the ability to change directions without slowing down, the familiarity with the playbook that allowed him to line up wide several times and catch two passes for a total of 73 yards. It’s all there, but none of it matters if he can’t be trusted to carry the ball.
That’s what mattered most about Sanders on Sunday – not the two big receptions, not his 53 yards on 13 rushing attempts, not what might yet be. No, what mattered were his two fumbles midway through the second quarter. The first, which Eagles guard Isaac Seumalo recovered, was particularly egregious. The ball shot from Sanders’ hands as if he were throwing a bounce pass in a basketball game, and though half a dozen Lions surrounded the ball, one of them accidentally kicked it toward Seumalo, who fell atop it.
The Eagles’ good fortune lasted just two snaps. After gaining 6 yards on a first-down carry, Sanders burped up the ball again on second-and-4 from the Eagles’ 45-yard line. This time, Lions defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson recovered it, ending a promising Eagles drive and leading to the 25-yard Matt Prater field goal that turned out to be the difference in the game.
“All I can say is I’ve got to put it behind me and keep going,” Sanders said. “It’s a long season. I’ll continue to grow and get ready for next week.”
That thinking, that an inexperienced player will continue to improve and grow over time and that he should be given that opportunity and the benefit of the doubt, can be sensible and prudent in many situations. It doesn’t apply here.
The Eagles drafted Sanders in the second round out of Penn State not to groom him, not to hope that he might contribute this season, but to immediately be a key member of their regular backfield rotation. They were concerned enough about his propensity in college for fumbling – he did so 10 times – that they had running backs coach Duce Staley spend hours with him in the offseason, tutoring him on how to grip a football so defenders couldn’t pry it from him so easily. It was a flaw that needed to be fixed, and soon. They considered him so valuable that, as they did with many of their starters, they limited his preseason snaps. They handed him the ball just eight times.
Sorry, that’s not a rookie who gets a grace period. That’s a running back who, through three games, has nine more carries than Jordan Howard and 23 more carries than Darren Sproles, even though Sanders has shown a propensity, when he’s asked to run between the tackles, for gliding laterally instead of hitting an open hole with force and decisiveness. That’s a player with expectations, and in a game in which they didn’t have DeSean Jackson or Alshon Jeffery, in a loss that dropped them to 1-2 and added more import to their Thursday night matchup in Green Bay against the Packers, the Eagles can’t afford to have Sanders give them pause about giving him the football.
“We just told him we have a lot of confidence in him,” coach Doug Pederson said, “still have a lot of trust in him and kept him out there.”
Except there’s what Pederson told Sanders, and there’s what Pederson did. After those two fumbles, Sanders didn’t touch the ball on the Eagles’ final two possessions of the second quarter or the entirety of the third. He did return a kickoff late in the first half, and the Lions’ Miles Killebrew ripped off Sanders’ helmet – and damn near his head – on what should have been an obvious face-mask infraction that the officials somehow failed to call. But it wasn’t until Carson Wentz found him for a 33-yard completion on a seam route early in the fourth quarter that Sanders reminded everyone why he had wowed the Eagles during training camp, why Pederson and his coaching staff had come to count on him so much in the first place.
“I’m not perfect,” Sanders said, “but I’m definitely going to work my [butt] off this whole week and get better.”
He doesn’t have a week. He has three days. Lose in Green Bay, and the Eagles are 1-3, with all three losses to NFC opponents, which is less than ideal when it comes to playoff seeding. They likely won’t have Jackson and Jeffery, and they won’t have a chance against Aaron Rodgers if Sanders and the rest of his young teammates keep making the same mistakes they made Sunday. The Eagles expected more from him. They have to get more from him. “Obviously,” Wentz said, “Miles is an explosive guy if you can get the ball in his hands.” And, obviously, if he can keep it there.