When the Eagles won the Super Bowl with Nick Foles at quarterback to close out the 2017 season, the backup’s air war with Tom Brady and the “Philly Special” got most of the final attention, but it was actually the team’s balanced offense that made the difference in the push to a championship.

Conversely, with the same guy taking over in 2018 after another Carson Wentz injury, the lack of a running game opponents had to respect made another deep run in the postseason almost impossible.

A healthy Wentz can cover up an offense’s inadequacies. Teams can’t load up the box against him, clogging the short passing routes and making life tough for the running backs. Even without receivers who can stretch the field, Wentz can buy time until someone is open, and then deliver the ball when they do. With good receivers, Wentz has the arm to find them anywhere on the field.

Defenses have to account for the ability of an elite quarterback and deploy their personnel farther from the line of scrimmage. This is always the case with Wentz and, local legend status aside, it was not the case with Foles. He needed help, and the best kind was the help of running backs who could bang out yardage even in a crowded environment.

The difference between the Eagles running game in 2017 and 2018 is stark, particularly in the postseason. It is the difference between having workhorses like LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi, and having a pieced-together backfield in which Josh Adams, who didn’t even make the team this season, led the team in rushing yards during the regular season.

A healthy Jay Ajayi was a big boost to the Eagles offense.
Yong Kim / File Photograph
A healthy Jay Ajayi was a big boost to the Eagles offense.

The front office took that in and bolstered the running back situation for 2019 by trading a conditional sixth-round draft pick for Jordan Howard of Chicago and using a second-round pick to take Penn State’s Miles Sanders.

Those two, combined with the return of Darren Sproles, and some depth provided by Corey Clement , look good enough on paper.

    If it holds together as planned, the running threat should benefit Wentz, even though he doesn’t need it as much, or his replacement in the event of yet another injury. And the latter might be exactly what the front office was thinking. The results with a backup in 2017 and 2018 speak loudly, as does the seemingly annual need to use one.

    With Blount and Ajayi, for most of the 2017 season, the Eagles averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Breaking that down, the average was 4.56 with Wentz stretching the defenses and 4.0 under Nick Foles at the end of the regular season and in the postseason. In their three playoff games, the Eagles averaged 123 yards per game on the ground, including 164 yards in the Super Bowl, with Blount and Ajayi accounting for 147 of those.

    The team didn’t bring back Blount, and lost Sproles and Ajayi to injury early in the 2018 season. As a result, the team averaged 3.9 yards per carry during the regular season, tied for second-worst in the league and well below the NFL average of 4.4 yards per carry. Wentz lifted things slightly, but in the five regular-season starts and two postseason starts for Foles, the team was a dreadful 3.36 yards per carry.

    In the playoffs against Chicago and New Orleans, the Eagles averaged 57 yards on the ground. After taking a 14-0 lead over the Saints on the first two offensive drives of the divisional round, gaining 38 yards on eight carries in the process, the team gained just 11 yards on eight carries in their final eight drives. The beleaguered Foles struggled to an 18-for-31 performance with two interceptions and a quarterback rating of 61.4. The Eagles were shut out for the final 49-plus minutes of the game. Not very Special at all.

    The question is whether the Eagles have done enough for this season to make a postseason like that of 2017, even with an understudy at quarterback, more likely than one that resembles 2018.

    The answer will become apparent during the season, but one’s speculation depends on how you feel about backs discarded by the team that drafted them and what you expect from rookies. Both Howard and Sanders appeared to have strong training camps, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much.

    Howard’s production declined in each of his second and third seasons with the Bears, falling from a rookie high of 1,313 yards and a 5.2-yard average, to 935 yards and a 3.7-yard average in 2018. Faced with offering Howard a second contract, Chicago chose to sign Mike Davis, a veteran of San Francisco and Seattle whose yards-per-attempt average has gone up in each of the last three years.

    Will Jordan Howard (left) provide the boost the Birds need in the backfield?
    YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
    Will Jordan Howard (left) provide the boost the Birds need in the backfield?

    The Eagles had other options. A number of running backs changed teams in the offseason, including Davis, Mark Ingram, Frank Gore, C.J. Anderson, Latavius Murray, Isaiah Crowell, and Tevin Coleman, all of whom had a higher per-carry average than Howard.

    As for Sanders, he is expected to be a versatile runner with good receiving skills as well, but he’s not an around-the-edge threat, and there is going to be a steep learning curve when it comes to helping out in pass protection. He represents a potential upgrade, but how much and how quickly isn’t known.

    The improvements will be fine with Carson Wentz at quarterback. He makes a running game better just by taking the snap and forcing the defense to respect what might happen next.

    What the front office needed to plan for, however, was this year’s Nick Foles being forced into the role. How well the job was actually done could be as telling as the difference between 2017 and 2018.

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