SANTA CLARA, Calif. - His back turned to the rest of the visitors' locker room here at Levi's Stadium, LeSean McCoy spat the word "embarrassing" into his stall before facing the reporters who'd sidled up to him.
Those giddy days during the offseason, when McCoy was the NFL's reigning rushing king and bantered back and forth through the media with the Vikings' Adrian Peterson about which of them was the league's best running back, were long gone. The Eagles had lost to the San Francisco 49ers, 26-21, and one more time McCoy had run and bounced and danced and gotten nowhere. One more time, the man who was once the most feared player on the Eagles' offense had been one of their least effective.
"Just the way we played," McCoy said. "We didn't score an offensive touchdown all game. We know what type of team we are, and we didn't get it done."
That's an interesting question. Do we really know what kind of team the Eagles are? Do we? They lost Sunday for the first time this season, and it wasn't just that McCoy had managed a piddling 17 yards on 10 carries. It's that the very identity of coach Chip Kelly's offense doesn't exist without him. Kelly may be a master of adjusting to and answering whatever strategy an opposing defense is using to stop the Eagles, but his system is predicated on running the ball - first, foremost, always. And the Eagles can't do it right now.
McCoy can't do it. He led the NFL last season in yards with 1,607 and carries with 314, so yes, it was natural to think that teams would gear up to stop him this season. But no one envisioned them being this good at it: 70 carries, 192 yards, a 2.7 yard-per-attempt average, nothing longer than 21 yards, virtual irrelevance.
"It sucks," McCoy said.
Where do the Eagles start? How do they fix this? It's a big problem with multiple layers. Sure, it would help if Nick Foles connected on a couple of deep, downfield passes; that would force defenses to play more honestly. But it would help if Foles had more time to throw, and the condition of the Eagles' offensive line - which for two weeks has been held together by masking tape, knitting thread, and Jason Peters - hasn't allowed it.
"We got whupped up front," Kelly said.
The line was so overmatched Sunday that, with two chances to win the game from the 49ers' 11/2-yard line, Kelly didn't bother handing the ball to McCoy. The 49ers had settled back into zone coverage on second and goal from the 6, and Kelly tricked them by running McCoy to the left for 5 yards. But he didn't dare do it again on third down or fourth down, so certain was he that, in their goal-line alignment, the 49ers would stuff either McCoy or Darren Sproles.
On third down, he had Foles set up in the shotgun and throw a corner route to tight end Brent Celek, and here is where another layer of the problem presented itself. On the play, McCoy lined up next to Foles, and his assignment was to pick up 49ers safety Antoine Bethea, who had come charging through on a blitz. McCoy said later he "tried to ride the guy up field," and Kelly used another euphemism - that "we had a little bit of leakage." The truth was far simpler: McCoy had to neutralize Bethea, had to stand him up or cut him down with a block, and he didn't do it. Bethea got to Foles and caused him to rush the throw, and the ball sailed high and wide of Celek.
All McCoy had to do was make a fundamentally sound play - a play he's made hundreds of times before - and maybe the Eagles win a game that they had no right or reason to win. Bear in mind: A week ago against Washington, he took a hit to the head that jarred him enough to force him out of the game, and it's possible that he's still feeling the aftershocks of that collision. When asked after Sunday's game if he was 100 percent healthy, he said, "It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if I'm healthy or not. We've got to win games. I'm fine."
It was anything but a clear-cut answer, and if McCoy isn't at full strength, then there's nothing wrong with giving Sproles or Chris Polk more opportunities in the offense, just for the sake of a spark. Kelly keeps chalking this all up to the instability of the offensive line, and perhaps McCoy's play will improve next week against the St. Louis Rams, when tackle Lane Johnson returns from his suspension. Perhaps.
Just understand: All those great expectations for the Eagles this season, all the hope and happiness that accompanied their improbable 3-0 start, were based on the belief that LeSean McCoy would be the best running back in the NFL, or close to it. As he stood there in front of his locker and shook his head over the embarrassment of what happened Sunday, he looked a long way from the player he'd been, and the Eagles from the team we thought they could be.
Running on Empty
The Eagles' running game continued to struggle mightily on Sunday against the 49ers, who had their way on the ground. Here is a comparison of the two teams' rushing attacks in San Francisco's 26-21 win:
Player Att. Yards Avg. Long TD
LeSean McCoy 10 17 1.7 5 0
Darren Sproles 1 4 4.0 4 0
Nick Foles 1 1 1.0 1 0
Totals 12 22 1.8 5 0
Frank Gore 24 119 5.0 28 0
Colin Kaepernick 7 58 8.3 23 0
Carlos Hyde 10 26 2.6 6 0
Bruce Ellington 1 15 15.0 15 0
Totals 42 218 5.2 28 0