When Eagles general manager Howie Roseman walked into Chip Kelly's office last March and informed him that Darren Sproles could be had for the price of a fifth-round draft pick, Kelly didn't have to think about it, didn't have to sleep on it, didn't have to scour through scouting reports or watch a bunch of film. It was, as they say, a no-brainer.
He knew no one the Eagles could select in the fifth round of the May draft was as good as the 31-year-old Saints running back and return man; certainly, no one would be able to provide the immediate help to the Eagles' offense and special teams that Sproles could.
Roseman left Kelly's office and got on the phone to the Saints and quickly finalized the deal before they had a chance to sober up.
While their decision to trade Sproles might not be why the Saints are sitting at 4-5 today, it certainly is a big reason why the Eagles are 7-2.
Sproles has been invaluable this season as a runner, receiver and punt returner. He was the team's best offseason acquisition. With apologies to Jeremy Maclin, he probably is the team's most valuable player this season.
Sproles scored his fifth and sixth touchdowns of the season in last night's lopsided 45-21 win over the down-and-out Carolina Panthers. Ran for an 8-yard score on the Eagles' second possession to put them up, 10-0, then returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown later in the first quarter.
The touchdown run was Sproles' fourth of the season. The punt return for a touchdown was his second of the year. He had an 82-yard return for a score against San Francisco in Week 4. He entered the game as the NFL's top-ranked punt returner, with a 15.4-yard average. That average now is up to 17.0. Ten of his 23 punt returns have gained 16 or more yards.
"During the week, the coaches were telling me I should get one this week," Sproles said of his punt return. "Because they leave the middle wide open. So we had a middle return called and it hit."
Sproles has only 36 rushing attempts this season, but has made the most of them. He is averaging 6.6 yards per carry. He has four TD runs, 11 rushing first downs and eight double-digit-yard runs.
His first-quarter scoring run against the Panthers might've been one of the easiest of his career. Wide receiver Riley Cooper showed again why he is one of the league's better blocking wideouts, leveling defensive end Mario Addison, which allowed Sproles to waltz in untouched around left end.
"When I came back to the [left] side, everybody was over to the right," Sproles said. "I'm like, 'Man, what happened?' "
He scored again less than 8 minutes later, taking a Brad Nortman punt and bolting straight up the middle of the field. It was the seventh punt and kickoff return for a touchdown of Sproles' career, and put the Eagles up, 17-7. The game never was in doubt after that.
With Mark Sanchez making his first Eagles start at quarterback, the popular thinking was that the team would run the ball early and often against the Panthers.
But Sproles' touchdown run was only one of eight first-half rushing attempts by Eagles running backs, and his only carry of the game. The Eagles finished with only 37 rushing yards on 23 carries. The 37 yards was their second lowest rushing total of the season.
Sanchez, making his first start in nearly 2 years, threw for 332 yards and two touchdowns. Didn't have an interception.
"It all depends on what the defense is going to give us," said tight end Brent Celek, who had five catches for a season-high 116 yards. "They were bringing the safety down in the box. Blitzing guys. They were so close to the line that if you could get a release off the line, you had a good chance of getting open. Mark did a heckuva job of making some good throws.
"Chip's a smart coach. We're not going to beat our heads against the wall and do things that aren't going to work. Do things that work."
LeSean McCoy, who had rushed for 80-plus yards in each of the previous four games, had only seven carries for 14 yards in the first half. He finished with only 19 yards on 12 carries.
McCoy did notch just his second touchdown run of the season on a 1-yard score in the third quarter. It was only the second time this season that the Eagles have had multiple TD runs in the same game. McCoy and Sproles also had TD runs in the Eagles' Week 2 win over Indianapolis.
Last season, with their offensive line staying ridiculously healthy - the five starters missed a total of only 90 snaps the entire season – McCoy ran away with the league rushing title, amassing a franchise-record 1,607 yards and beating out runner-up Matt Forte by 268 yards.
The Eagles finished first in both rushing yards per game (160.4) and yards per carry (5.1).
After spending 14 years listening to Andy Reid preach to us that you win in the NFL by throwing the football, Chip Kelly's more balanced approach to offense was a breath of fresh air to fans. The Eagles ran the ball 47.4 percent of the time last year, which was the sixth highest rushing rate in the league.
But there were problems right from the start this season. Their athletic, young right tackle, Lane Johnson, was forced to sit out the first four games after violating the league's policy for performance-enhancing drugs. Then his backup, Allen Barbre, suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1.
Left guard Evan Mathis, a first-team All-Pro last year, also went down in Week 1 with a knee injury that put him on the shelf for seven games. Center Jason Kelce, perhaps the most valuable member of the offensive line – and the fuel injector for the running game - suffered an abdominal injury in Week 3 and missed four games after needing surgery to repair a sport hernia. He finally returned last week.
Even now, while Kelce and Mathis are back, the Eagles are missing veteran right guard Todd Herremans who is lost for the season with a torn biceps. Matt Tobin, who had filled in for Mathis at left guard, slid over to Herremans' spot last night.
After four games, the Eagles' running game was a mess. They were 26th in yards per game (87.0) and 23rd in yards per carry (3.6). McCoy was 21st in rushing after gaining just 39 yards on 29 carries against Washington and San Francisco in Weeks 3-4. He was averaging only 2.7 yards per carry.
Slowly, but surely, though, the ground game stabilized. After being held to 17 yards on 10 carries in the 26-21 loss to the 49ers, McCoy rushed for 81 yards on 24 carries in the Eagles' 34-28 Week 5 win over St. Louis. Sproles added 51 yards on seven carries.
It was the first of four straight 80-plus-yard rushing performances by McCoy, highlighted by his 149-yard effort in a 27-0 win over the Giants.
Last week, McCoy, Sproles and Chris Polk, finally healthy after being slowed by a hamstring injury since the start of training camp, combined for 184 yards on 34 carries in the Eagles' 31-21 win over Houston.
Going into last night's game, McCoy's rushing average had jumped to 3.9 yards per carry. He had climbed to fourth among the league rushing leaders with 622 yards on 160 carries. As a team, the Eagles were eighth in rushing (124.5 yards per game) and 10th in rushing average (4.3). That was considerably better than where they were four weeks earlier.
Last night, except for the two scoring runs by Sproles and McCoy, the Eagles didn't really need their ground game, as they won for the seventh time in nine games.
"It's been fun," Sproles said. "But we still have a lot of games to go.
"We had an all-around good game today. Offense, defense and special teams. A complete effort."
Eagles-Panthers: By the numbers
* The Eagles have allowed just one first-possession score in their last 20 regular-season games dating back to last season.
* The Eagles have scored 36 points on their first two possessions in the last five games.
* Darren Sproles' 65-yard punt return for a touchdown was the Eagles' fifth special-teams TD of the season (second by Sproles).
* The Eagles have won eight regular-season games in a row at the Linc. Their last regular-season loss there was to the Giants (15-7) on Oct. 27 of last season.
* The Eagles are 14-3 in their last 17 regular-season games under Chip Kelly.
* The Eagles have nine touchdown returns this season, five by their special teams and four by their defense, including Bradley Fletcher's interception return last night. No other team has more than four (Houston, Arizona and New England).
* With nine sacks last night, the Eagles have 32 for the season. The only team in the league with more is Buffalo, which has 34.
* The Eagles have given up just one touchdown reception to a tight end this season.
* Opposing teams had been averaging 4.9 yards per carry in the first quarter against the Eagles this season. But the Panthers were held to 2.4.
Eagles-Panthers: Did you notice?
* Wide receiver Jeff Maehl was inactive for just the second time this season, replaced by Brad Smith. That's mainly because Smith is the team's No. 3 quarterback.
* The route-running screwup on the third-down play on the Eagles' first possession. Tight end Zach Ertz and Darren Sproles nearly collided. The pass fell incomplete.
* The terrific block by wide receiver Riley Cooper on Panthers defensive end Mario Addison on Darren Sproles' 8-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Cooper was in motion and just leveled Addison, allowing Sproles to run in untouched.
* Casey Matthews got beat by Panthers tight end Greg Olsen on a 38-yard post pattern on the Panthers' third possession, which set up Carolina's first touchdown. Olsen finished with six catches for 119 yards, but didn't score. The Eagles have allowed just one touchdown catch to a tight end this season.
* Bill Davis used a lot of funky alignments, including one in which he lined up cornerback Nolan Carroll and inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks at defensive end and had them rush, and dropped outside linebackers Trent Cole and Connor Barwin back into coverage.
* Late in the first quarter, the Eagles lined up in a three-wide-receiver set with Zach Ertz in the backfield as a pass protector.
* Jordan Matthews had four catches for 73 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown reception, on the Eagles' 10-play, 91-yard scoring drive early in the second quarter.
* The Eagles rushed six on Trent Cole's 14-yard sack of Cam Newton early in the second quarter.
* Chip Kelly's decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 at the Carolina 41 midway through the second quarter. The Eagles were up, 24-7.
* While Connor Barwin is no slowpoke, the fact that he was able to run down Cam Newton on a scramble late in the first quarter would seem to indicate that Newton still is bothered by a bad ankle.
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