Eagles seem committed to sticking with run game
Maybe the Eagles are just conning us again with this committed-to-the-run talk. Maybe we'll get to Week 1 and knee-brace-wearing Donovan McNabb will drop back in the pocket and heave the ball 50 times against the Packers, and Andy Reid will open his postgame news conference by saying, "Gotcha.''
But thus far, the Eagles' offseason actions have given every indication they are serious about making the running game a full partner in their offense.
In March, Reid confirmed that offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who handled the play-calling in the Eagles' final 10 games last season when the run became a much bigger part of their arsenal, would continue to do so this season.
Then, 2 weeks ago, the Eagles invested two of their eight draft picks on something Eagles fans long have clamored for: big, bruising power backs - 6-1, 233-pound Tony Hunt of Penn State in the third round and 5-9, 245-pound bowling ball Nate Ilaoa of Hawaii in the seventh round.
"These two guys, they're both a little bit different [than what we already have],'' Mornhinweg said during a break at the Eagles' 3-day minicamp, which concludes today. "They're both bigger type backs, physical backs. Both have excellent feet. And both are extremely good in the pass game as well.''
Mornhinweg insisted that size wasn't a factor in the Eagles' decision to select Hunt.
"It's my opinion that we took the best runner on the board at that time,'' he said.
While that might be true, it's a safe bet that failed fourth-quarter drive in the playoff loss to the Saints, when the Eagles were unable to punch the ball in from the 4-yard line, crossed Reid's mind before he took Hunt.
"I think we do have a commitment to the running game here and have done a pretty decent job,'' Mornhinweg said. "We were fifth in yards per carry and 11th in rushing yards per game last year.''
The Eagles' 416 rushing attempts were the sixth fewest in the league last season, and their 544 pass attempts were the eighth most. But they became a much more balanced offense after Reid passed the play-calling baton to Mornhinweg.
In their first eight games, with Reid calling the plays and McNabb taking the snaps, 61.3 percent of the offensive plays were pass plays, which wasn't nearly as high as the 64.4 percent in '05 or the 60.8 percent in '04, but still higher than all but a handful of teams.
In the 10 games after Mornhinweg took over the play-calling, the Eagles' percentage of pass plays dropped to 54.8. In their two playoff games against the Giants and Saints, they averaged just five more pass attempts (30.5) than rush attempts (25.5).
Running back Brian Westbrook, who notched a career-high 240 rushing attempts and 321 touches last season, saw his workload increase under Mornhinweg. In the Eagles' first eight games, he averaged 13.9 carries and 19.7 touches per game. In the next nine, not including the final regular-season game against Atlanta in which he played only one series, his carries per game increased to 19.4 and his touches to 24.2.
"I would love to continue to run the ball like we did during the last part of the season,'' Westbrook said. "I think the coaches were able to see the things that we were able to accomplish if we give the run the opportunity. When Donovan comes back, I expect for us to continue to do that.''
Reid always has relied on McNabb to carry the offense. But Westbrook sincerely hopes the coach will give him a bigger share of that responsibility this season.
"[Donovan] is a guy that has so many tools, he's almost a Superman on the field,'' the running back said. "You put a lot of responsibility and pressure on him to make plays all across the field. I think this year, especially with him coming off an injury, we have to find a way of getting the ball into the other players' hands a little bit earlier, a little bit quicker, to try and take some pressure off Donovan, so he doesn't feel as much pressure to carry this team as he has in the past.''
It's too soon to even guess how much of a factor Hunt will be in the offense. In a perfect world, he, Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter become a three-headed running back monster, much like the one the Eagles had in '03 when Westbrook, Buckhalter and Duce Staley combined for 2,465 rushing and receiving yards and 27 touchdowns.
But Hunt must first learn the Eagles' complicated West Coast offense.
"We ask the running backs here to do an awful lot,'' Mornhinweg said. "We ask them to run the football, block, protect. We ask them to run routes like a receiver would. Both from the backfield and in the slot and out wide. We expect them to catch the football like a receiver would.
"We ask them to do everything you ask a skill player to do. And we do move them around quite a bit. The verbiage, the alignments, the assignments, [running back] is one of the tougher positions real early.
"But once they get the terminology down and [get] a little bit of an understanding of everything, it clicks and all of a sudden they're off and running.'' *