FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - We'll find out in a game whether the Eagles favored Darren Sproles and Kenjon Barner over DeMarco Murray because, as Chip Kelly claimed on Sunday, the Patriots have a "big group of linebackers."
But for one game, at least, Murray was demoted and it's difficult not to view the decision in the prism of the Eagles coach sending a clear message. Not only did Kelly cut severely into Murray's playing time, but he also benched the underperforming Miles Austin for rookie Jonathan Krause.
The Eagles toppled the mighty Patriots, 35-28, more so because of special teams and their defense. Less of Murray and Austin played only a minor role in the victory. But when the $40 million running back receives fewer carries than a journeyman who had zero rushes through the first nine games, and the end result was a victory, there had to be some kind of cause and effect.
"Every week is an evaluation. Every week is you get an opportunity to show us what you can do," Kelly said. "We brought Jonathan Krause in there for a reason. We thought he was a really good player. We brought him up for a reason, too. It wasn't just, 'Let's reward a guy.' "
But Krause, who was called up from the practice squad before the Lions game, wasn't the story. He had one catch for 4 yards - probably one more than Austin had he played. It was that Sproles and Barner injected some life into a ground game - just as Ryan Mathews had done previously - that has been woefully inconsistent with Murray as the primary ballcarrier.
Kelly said he started the 5-foot-6, 190-pound Sproles and featured the 5-9, 195-pound Barner early because they are smaller and shiftier than the 6-foot, 217-pound Murray. Sproles and Barner said they did not know going into the game that they would be used more.
"It's as big a group of linebackers as you're going to face," Kelly said. "And then we just kind of - as the game expressed itself - [went] with the hot hand. And we used all three. DeMarco had a big run on the inside zone on that 13-play drive."
Murray's 19-yard fourth- quarter tote advanced the Eagles into the red zone. They scored a touchdown three plays later. But that carry was an anomaly. Murray's seven other rushes netted just 5 yards.
"You always want an opportunity to play and obviously run the ball," Murray said, "but we got the victory, so that's all that matters."
Sproles (15 carries for 66 yards) and Barner (nine carries for 39 yards) netted a combined 105 yards on the ground. If only running backs coach Duce Staley had gone with the hot hand when Mathews, who missed a third straight game with a concussion, was clearly outperforming Murray.
Sproles, who expressed his frustration last month, has been underused all season. Perhaps it is just coincidence, but the two times he has returned punts for touchdowns this season have come in games when he's had more than 10 carries.
"It's on us as a staff - we need to continue to get Darren involved in what we're doing because he tilts the field a little bit," Kelly said.
Sproles' 19 touches on offense - he also had four catches for 34 yards - were the most he's had in eight years. He now has four punt return scores in two seasons with the Eagles. He had three in his first eight NFL seasons. His 89-yarder against the New York Jets in Week 3 and his 83-yarder Sunday are the two longest punt returns of his career.
"He gave me a line drive with a lot of space," Sproles said of Patriots punter Ryan Allen. "It gave me time to catch and look where my blockers were."
Blocking for Sproles and Barner - and Mathews, for that matter - is different from blocking for Murray. He moves in slow motion in comparison. Maybe it was 497 touches last season. Maybe it's the $18 million guaranteed in his contract. Or maybe he just isn't a schematic fit.
"They're quicker. They make a cut and get it," tackle Jason Peters said of Sproles and Barner. "You ain't really got to stay on your block as long. Murray - he's a pound running back, so he'll stretch it out longer and try to hit up there late."
The Eagles once had a running back that slashed through lanes. They'll see him Sunday, when they host LeSean McCoy and the Bills. Will Murray watch mostly from the sidelines? Sproles and Barner got the call on the Eagles' last seven carries.
"Things we were doing were working, so it went well for us," Murray said of not getting the late-game opportunities.
Well, until Barner fumbled with 1 minute, 13 seconds left.
"They have faith in me. They have confidence in me," Barner said. "But plays like that last play can diminish that very easily."
Getting Mathews back could, too. Or facing a Buffalo defense with smaller linebackers than the Patriots' Jaime Collins (6-3, 250), Jonathan Freeny (6-2, 255) and Jerod Mayo (6-1, 250).
But not on this day. Asked what he would have said if he were told before the season that he would get more carries than Murray against New England, Barner had a two-word answer:
"You're crazy," he said.
It's not so crazy anymore.