NO ONE OUTSIDE the Eagles organization has paid closer attention to the evolution of running back LeSean McCoy than Tommy Mealy, the athletic director at Bishop McDevitt High in Harrisburg. In the years that have passed since McCoy played at McDevitt, where he was a phenomenal talent until he shattered an ankle, Mealy had seen McCoy overcome that adversity, become a star at the University of Pittsburgh and come into his own last year with the Eagles as one of the premier players at his position in the NFL.
From what he was able to see on television ("I watch every Eagles game just to watch him"), Mealy said that by the end of the season, "it looked like the pace of the game had slowed down for him . . . that LeSean adjusted to the pro level." Mealy said it looked like McCoy was back in high school again.
"It was like he was running against his high school opponents - the Harrisburg Cougars or the Lower Dauphin Falcons," Mealy said. "He was doing to NFL opponents what he was doing to high school teams when he played for us."
One of the few highlights in what had been an otherwise disappointing 2011 season for the Eagles, "Shady" had a year to remember. He led the NFL and set a club record with 17 rushing and 20 total touchdowns. He also led the league with 102 first downs and 48 rushes of 10-plus yards. Fourth in the NFL in rushing with 1,309 yards, he scored in 13 of 15 games and set a team record by scoring touchdowns in nine consecutive games; the legendary Steve Van Buren held the previous record with eight in 1947. Incredibly, McCoy fumbled just once over the course of the season, during which he had 321 touches (fourth in the league), including 273 rushes (tied for seventh in the league). The Eagles signed him in May to a 5-year contract extension worth $45 million ($20.765 million of which is guaranteed).
Expectations are high for him this year. He knows that.
"Last year went very, very well," McCoy said as he was leaving the practice field last week at the NovaCare Complex. "The pro game is about confidence. The more confidence you have, the more swagger you play with. More is expected by my coaches and teammates, not just on the field but off."
No Eagles running back has played better during his first three seasons, including Van Buren, Wilbert Montgomery and Duce Staley. But it is not just the 3,026 rushing yards he has amassed during that period. He has become a leader in the locker room. At 24, he has become an influential voice among his teammates, especially the other young running backs on the team. McCoy said that just as he once looked up to Brian Westbrook, he has become a player others embrace for leadership.
McCoy wiped the sweat from his forehead. "It goes down the line," he said. "Before Westbrook, it was Staley. Now the time has come for me to be that player."
Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin said McCoy is that player.
"He has stepped into that role and earned the respect of his teammates," Maclin said. "To be a leader, you have to practice what you preach. You can be on special teams and be a leader, as long as you work hard and do what is expected of you. But no one is going to respect you if you are one of those players who goes out there and half-asses it."
Maclin said that McCoy played with increasing confidence last year.
"Obviously, I think he would have traded some of his personal success for team success," Maclin said. "But McCoy was one of our bright spots last year."
The young running backs on the team found McCoy helpful. Rookie Chris Polk said, "You can go to him for advice on what to look for, how to read defenses. He knows this is going to be a long season and it is going to take a collective effort."
Polk added, "He is like another coach. From experience, he knows there are going to be days when a young player feels overwhelmed. But he reminds us to just stay with the playbook."
Dion Lewis has been impressed with McCoy's work ethic.
"He is always working hard," said the second-year pro who followed McCoy at Pittsburgh. "I try to learn whatever I can by watching him. He plays with patience."
Lewis added that McCoy "gives up a lot of feedback. He is always giving pointers. Whenever I have a question, I always go to him. He is someone to look up to."
Rookie Bryce Brown admires the way McCoy plays in such a relaxed manner.
"He is a free spirit," said Brown, who played last year at Kansas State. "He just seems to be having fun out there. I would like to take that from him - play relaxed, have fun. Do what your ability allows you to do."
Brown added that he does not have to ask McCoy questions. "He comes to me if he sees something," Brown said. "He is very, very hands-on in helping the younger backs. And I appreciate that."
McCoy said, "Dion or Chris or Bryce will probably break the records I set last year."
Mealy said that the exceptional season McCoy had and the contract extension that followed it "gave LeSean an increased sense of ownership" insofar as his place on the team is concerned. "It gave him the license to play a bigger role in terms of leadership," said Mealy, who saw McCoy over the summer when the Eagles running back came home for a charity event and for his youth camp. "Obviously, he has been very credible with what he had accomplished until then. But now he is in the position to be a leader with Eagles."
To what extent had the uncertainty of his contract status weigh on him?
McCoy shrugged. "A little," he said. "But the contract situation never escalated into a big controversy. All the time I was positive. I knew we would get something done. It was just a matter of time."
Mealy echoed that.
"LeSean has always been the type who did not want to get into a contract dispute or cause friction with the franchise," he said. "So it was a big victory when they were able to secure that deal."
McCoy said he expects to pick up where he left off last year, even if he concedes that the offseason injury loss of Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters will force an adjustment.
"[Demetress] Bell and King [Dunlap] will be fine," he said. "But Peters will be missed. He was one of the top players in the league, so athletic. He took a lot of pressure off me. I knew where to go when it was third-and-1."
So what does McCoy think a good leader is?
"Somebody who not only talks about it, but does it," he said. "Somebody who is level-headed. And somebody who just by his presence makes the players around him better."