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Paul Domowitch: Eagles want to keep McCoy's young legs young

THERE ARE no long goodbyes for NFL running backs. The final curtain on their careers usually comes down as swiftly as a guillotine.

LeSean McCoy finished fourth in the league in rushing and fifth in yards from scrimmage in 2011. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
LeSean McCoy finished fourth in the league in rushing and fifth in yards from scrimmage in 2011. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)Read more

THERE ARE no long goodbyes for NFL running backs. The final curtain on their careers usually comes down as swiftly as a guillotine.

Nobody knows that better than Duce Staley. In 2003, he was part of the Eagles' prolific, three-headed running back monster along with Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter, which combined for 2,465 yards from scrimmage and 27 touchdowns.

But Duce wanted more money and he wanted more carries and signed with the Steelers, who gave him both. He lugged the ball 151 times in his first seven games with the Steelers in '04, then injured his hamstring and then his knee and ended up carrying the ball just 79 more times in his career.

Staley, now an Eagles assistant coach, understands where Andy Reid is coming from when he talks about wanting to lighten LeSean McCoy's workload a bit this season. But he also understands why McCoy, who is coming off a season in which he rushed for 1,309 yards and led the league in rushing touchdowns (17), probably is going to resist.

"I completely understand why coach Reid wants to do it," Staley said. "You want to keep him fresh going into the postseason. You want him fresh going into the latter part of the season. You want to extend his career.

"But LeSean is going to be just like me, just like [Brian] Westbrook, just like Ricky [Watters] and Charlie [Garner]. 'Lighten the load' are words you just don't want to hear. That's the competitive edge inside a player, and that's what you want."

McCoy is feeling fairly invincible right now. He's 23 going on 24 with a shiny new $43 million contract and young, resilient legs that have bounced back well from a 321-touch season.

But young legs become old legs in a hurry in the NFL. It's no coincidence that of the 15 running backs who rushed for 1,000 yards last season, just one - the Broncos' Willis McGahee - was older than 29 (30). Ten of the 15 were 27 or younger.

Staley notched his last 1,000-yard season at 27. Westbrook and Garner were 28. Watters was the oldest, doing it at 31.

"I don't think we overused [McCoy] last year, I don't think that," said running backs coach Ted Williams, who has tutored Watters, Garner, Staley, Westbrook and now McCoy. "But as far as his future is concerned, I think the trend in this league is to share the workload. And I think, in most cases, it's been successful.

"I think if LeSean trains well and does enough things in terms of maintenance as far as getting enough rest and protecting his body from things that naturally encumber you, he'll have a better chance [of extending his career]."

Before the Eagles can afford to lighten McCoy's load, they need to find somebody, or more than one somebody, who can pick up the part of the load he's not carrying. They signed Ronnie Brown with that in mind last year, but discovered too late that Brown had nothing left. Through the first 15 games last year, McCoy had 273 of the 324 rushing attempts by Eagles running backs. He was on the field for 894 of the Eagles' 1,036 offensive snaps, the most by any running back in the league.

The Eagles are hopeful that some combination of second-year man Dion Lewis, seventh-round pick Bryce Brown and undrafted free agent Chris Polk will be able to give McCoy occasional breathers this season.

"You need a good stable of running backs," Staley said. "With me and Buck and Westbrook, we had the three-headed monster. Three guys who were willing to work with one another, be professional.''

The Eagles will not have a three-headed monster this season. In '03, Westbrook, Buckhalter and Staley combined for 1,618 rushing yards, but no one had more than 613 (Westbrook). None of them had more than 126 carries (Buckhalter).

Reid isn't looking for a running back-by-committee. McCoy is the bell cow. He's a first-team All-Pro who finished fourth in the league in rushing and fifth in yards from scrimmage.

Forty-eight of his 273 rushing attempts gained 10 yards or more. He converted 29 of 36 situations of 2 yards or less into first downs or touchdowns in the last 10 games. Reid knows he needs McCoy on the field as much as possible. But he also doesn't want to run him into the ground, particularly considering the financial investment the Eagles have recently made in him.

"I see a guy who can be great,'' Staley said. "He's got some things he still needs to shine up, got some things he still needs to work on. But I see a player who definitely can be one of the great ones that played in the NFL.''

Staley said the areas in which McCoy still has room for improvement include his pass-blocking and his route-running.

"He'll be the first to tell you [he needs to improve his] pass-blocking," Staley said. "When you talk about a complete back in this West Coast offense, pass-blocking is very important. That's one of the things he still needs to work on.

"He also can do better with his route-running. That's one of the things that Westbrook and myself could do - come out of the backfield, be able to beat that defender one-on-one at the drop of a dime. We knew that when we had one-on-one coverage, we were going to be able to beat that defender.

"LeSean has to understand how to read defenses better. He has to understand that, when it's man-to-man coverage, you've got to get that eye of the tiger and be able to take full advantage of that.

"When you look at a back like McCoy, he's real young. Real young in every sense of the word. From age to learning defenses to just learning football. He's still got so much room for improvement. But I'm really excited about him because he enjoys coming to work. Game day, practice, OTAs, no matter what it is, he enjoys being out there."