Miles Sanders is a notetaker. The rookie running back’s notebook is covered in black with an Eagles insignia that is partially colored in, the sort of doodling that might suggest boredom. But the contents depict the opposite.
Sanders’ book is full of pages of handwritten notes and play diagrams. The Eagles, of course, provide players with playbooks and game plans both in print and digitally. But there’s just as much to learn about an opponent, and as Sanders watches film and listens to his coaches, he scribbles down pertinent information.
For last week’s game, he titled pages “Buffalo Bills Week #8.” One page, for instance, was devoted entirely to “kickoff return” with notes such as:
Early in the game usually the first or second kickoff they will test you with a high ball.
51 and 92 line up on the kickside.
The ball is going to be all over the place. The ball will get caught in wind. He can drive the ball through the wind.
Sanders isn’t alone among NFL players in his note-taking, but few rookies enter the league with pen and paper at the ready, according to Eagles running back coach Duce Staley.
“I wasn’t that way,” said Staley, who played 10 years in the league. “I felt like I knew everything at the time. But Miles … comes in and he has the same notebook, same pen, and he’s writing everything down. And the good thing about that is that he holds me accountable because I got to make sure I’m telling him the right stuff.”
Sanders clearly has the right stuff to perform in the NFL. But the same could be said of many who weren’t willing to go above and beyond their physical capabilities. Sanders’ explosiveness has been evident in nearly every game he has played – especially as a receiver. But what has impressed coaches and teammates most has been his businesslike approach.
Despite some early struggles in directional running and ball security, the rookie has shown improvement in each of those areas while still contributing in other ways. Some coaches may have benched Sanders after his two fumbles in Week 3, but Doug Pederson and Staley stood behind him because they had seen his diligence behind the scenes.
“There’s a lot of outside noise, but there’s nobody that knows what I got to do to improve more than me,” Sanders said Wednesday. “I watch a lot of film. There’s nothing worse than that feeling coming in on Monday knowing that you made mistakes and that you could have done better.”
Sanders hasn’t fumbled since the Lions game. And even though he had only three carries in the win over the Bills, the running back was decisive in his runs, the last a 65-yard touchdown burst that only seemingly scratched the surface.
The 22-year old, despite the expectations and public impatience, has already accomplished so much. Sanders’ 550 scrimmage yards and 250 return yards are the most for an NFL running back in his first eight games since Adrian Peterson in 2007.
But getting to this point has been quite an NFL education. From getting drafted in the second round in April, to missing spring workouts because of a hamstring injury, to enduring Staley’s tough love, to public praise and criticism – sometimes within only a matter of plays – Sanders has already experienced a lot.
“The hardest thing is living up to expectations, but that’s what brings me back to canceling out everything outside of what’s not in here,” Sanders said. “People don’t know what we do every day, what time we wake up. They don’t understand the time and effort that gets put into this.
“I work my ass off every day. I only expect success. Knowing that I’m having a little bit of success, most importantly, doing whatever I can to help the team, is making me feel good.”
Going to be special
Sanders didn’t feel so good when he first heard the nickname Staley had given him. This offseason, the long-time assistant had decided to label his running backs with monikers based upon a particular characteristic.
Darren Sproles has long been “Switchblade," because of his running style, so he was spared. As was the docile Jordan Howard. But Corey Clement has been “Vandross,” as in Luther, for his deep voice. Boston Scott has been “Purple Rain,” as in Prince, because he likes to dance. And Sanders has been “Tupac,” as in Shakur, because …
“Because of my nose ring,” Sanders said with a grimace. “But Duce’s nickname is Milkdud … because he’s got the bald head.”
Staley declined to confirm or deny the nicknames, especially the one Sanders gave him. But Clement and Scott said that the motivation behind their coach’s nicknames was to not only loosen up the running back meeting room, but also to pull the initially shy Sanders out of his shell.
“He’s pretty to himself, but as he got more comfortable, he talked more, joked around a little bit,” Scott said of Sanders. “But he’s mostly just down to earth, level-headed. A lot of times I’ve seen guys who get drafted high you see some arrogance or cockiness, but there’s none of that with him.”
Sanders first started taking notes for football at Penn State. A self-described hermit, he said he goes home almost every night and studies. But he’s no bookworm in class. He asks as many questions as Staley asks of him.
“Duce is always going to be hard on him,” Clement said. “It’s the role I had as a rookie. He’s just going to keep being hard on you. I was like, ‘Miles, get ready, get ready for the questions.’ ”
Staley might throw questions at Sanders when he’s least expecting them or when he’s without his notes. He’ll show a pre-snap blitz on film, for instance, and make Sanders the center responsible for making the calls and setting up the protection.
Because he wasn’t asked to block much in college, there were questions about Sanders’ ability to be on the field on passing downs. But he has answered the call. Against the New York Jets last month, Sanders picked up a corner blitz because, he said, his pregame study of film showed that tendency whenever safety Jamal Adams lined up outside the numbers.
There was little doubt about Sanders’ athletic prowess. When he finally donned the pads in training camp, Eagles coaches and scouts gave each other knowing glances after his first several touches. They knew they had a stallion.
“I can tell you,” Staley said then, “he’s going to be special.”
There was going to be a learning curve, however, perhaps one steeper than the Eagles had initially anticipated. In the first three games, Sanders averaged 11.3 carries while Jordan Howard averaged 8.3.
But a few things happened. Sanders, on certain runs, was failing to hit holes or run north to south when a few yards would do, while Howard was proving to be a more consistent downhill runner. Howard thus became the lead back, and in the Eagles’ last five games he averaged 15 carries, while Sanders averaged 6.4.
Injuries to Clement and Sproles also meant that Sanders was needed to return kicks and play more on passing downs. But the rookie knew that improvement was needed. He watched film of how Howard ran without pause and often fell forward, and he sought out Sproles’ advice.
“When you’re a rookie, you want to be perfect whenever you run, but you just got to go,” Sproles said. “Wherever your eyes tell you to go, just go. We’d get to the sidelines and look at the pictures, and I’d tell him, ‘You got to move on.’
“Because when you try to be too perfect, sometimes it doesn’t go your way.”
Lightning in a bottle
The fumbles in the Lions game, though, were disconcerting because Sanders had struggled with ball security at Penn State. He sat for a few offensive drives afterward, but the coaches, to their credit, went back to him later in the game.
“We’re not going to bury the guy on the bench,” offensive coordinator Mike Groh said at the time.
But Staley, behind the scenes, was drilling ball security into Sanders’ head.
“He paid for it today, I’ll put it to you that way,” Staley said not long after the Lions game. “But he knows how strict we are in that room, not just me, but Sproles and the other running backs when it comes to ball security. There was a little punishment there today. He’ll probably tell you about it a little later.”
Sanders didn’t want to talk about fumbling at the time. Like most running backs, he felt that harping on the subject could give it additional life. But Staley continued emphasizing his ball security concepts -- the four points of pressure, the “Eagle claw,” keeping the ball high and tight, that "is the most important thing.”
“He understands what we go through because, obviously, he’s been in the same position,” Sanders said of Staley. “He’s very cool with it. But I don’t know if everybody knows what a good teacher he is, too, and that surprised me. He keeps it real.”
Sanders hasn’t had a fumble since, but as Staley reminded, “All it takes is one and everyone is on you.”
The fumbles were forgotten quickly by fans, though, because Sanders had become the Eagles’ top (only?) offensive playmaker. In the last six games, he had seven catches of 25 yards or more, and two rushes of 30 yards or more. Only one other Eagles player had a play of more than 25 yards during that span.
But Sanders had another costly carry when he failed to hit a hole on a key third down in the loss to the Cowboys two weeks ago.
“I think every rookie struggles with that,” Sanders said. “That’s what Duce was telling me. But without a doubt I still think that I have the ability to take it outside if I still need to and beat anybody with speed.”
Sanders didn’t need to turn the corner on his 65-yard tote. The blocking up front, especially Howard’s lead block, was textbook. But Sanders shot through a cannon and beat everyone to the pylon.
“For him, it’s always been this lightning in a bottle. You’ve been waiting for it to get set loose,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said. “You’ve seen the explosion. You’ve seen the big plays in the passing game, the screen game. Everybody felt like if this guy can start getting in a rhythm and start getting on track a little bit more, we were expecting stuff like that.”
But Sanders, after the game, said it was preparation that made the play possible. He details the personnel of his opponent in his notes and the Eagles were able to catch the Bills in their nickel package. It’s likely he was at home last week going over it again in his trusty notebook.
“I don’t leave my house much, especially with these potholes in Philly,” said Sanders, who actually did leave his house Wednesday to ring the bell before the 76ers game at the Wells Fargo Center. “I don’t go nowhere. The potholes – they wide out here.”
He’d rather drive through other holes.