It was fair to wonder during Correll Buckhalter's latter years with the Eagles how much more productive he could be given more opportunity.
The answer is a lot, and that opportunity has been provided this season by the Denver Broncos.
With 109 carries, Buckhalter has rushed for 582 yards in his first season in Denver and earned the praise of rookie head coach Josh McDaniels. Buckhalter, 31, needs just 5 yards Sunday against the Eagles to surpass his career-best rushing mark, which he established his rookie season, and his 5.3-yard rushing average is the best of his career.
"He's a very unselfish player, a great teammate and an explosive runner," McDaniels said during a conference call with Philadelphia reporters yesterday. "He really fits in nicely with what we ask of him, and he'll do whatever we ask of him, which is a great thing to have in a veteran player."
Buckhalter, after eight seasons - and what seemed like as many knee surgeries - with the Eagles, signed a four-year, $10 million deal with the Broncos after he became a free agent in late February. His departure to the Broncos became a blip on the free-agent screen a few days later when seven-time Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins signed a five-year deal, but it could be argued that Buckhalter's contributions in the Mile High City have been just as meaningful.
"He has been such a great role model and complement and teacher to [rookie] Knowshon [Moreno] and a lot of our younger players," McDaniels said. "He practices as well or better than everybody else. He always goes hard and always has a great smile on his face. He looks forward to coming to work every day, and he wants to win."
After his rookie season, it seemed possible that Buckhalter would be the Eagles' star running back for years to come. In 2001, he set the team's rookie rushing record with 586 yards, and some people still believe that if he had not suffered an ankle injury in the second quarter of the Eagles' first NFC championship game of the Reid era that the outcome against the St. Louis Rams would have been different.
Instead, the ankle injury was a prelude to more serious knee injuries in Buckhalter's future that cost him three entire seasons and allowed Brian Westbrook to surpass him as the Eagles' featured back.
"Earlier in my career I used to think about that, but now I'm just grateful to have this chance," Buckhalter said.
As fate would have it, Buckhalter probably would have had a more significant role with the Eagles this season because Westbrook has missed eight games and suffered two concussions. Buckhalter said he spoke with Westbrook and offensive linemen Todd Herremans and Jamaal Jackson on Tuesday.
"Brian and I have both been through a lot with injuries in our careers, and we've always had each other's backs," Buckhalter said. "I just tried to give him some positive feedback. Injuries are part of the game and something we all have to deal with."
Without Westbrook, rookie LeSean McCoy has become the primary running back for the Eagles this season, carrying the ball 148 times for 606 yards, breaking Buckhalter's rookie rushing mark.
"I am mad about that, but I still have the single-game rushing record," Buckhalter said. "He didn't get that one."
Buckhalter's 134-yard performance in his fourth NFL game against Arizona does still stand as a team rookie record, and he can tell McCoy about it Sunday during his return visit.
"There are a lot of people back there that I'm looking forward to seeing," Buckhalter said.