It took Darren Sproles 12 NFL seasons and 161 games before he heard a coach utter the declaration that Doug Pederson made last week when Pederson called Sproles the Eagles' lead running back.
"No," Sproles said when asked whether a coach had ever said that. "[Not] that I'm a full-time running back."
Sproles warned against misinterpreting Pederson's plans, insisting that the other running backs would still be used. This was before Ryan Mathews rushed for 109 yards and two touchdowns Sunday. But even with Mathews' reclaiming a bigger role, Sproles still played the most of the Eagles' four running backs. That's been the case every game this season. In the process, Pederson might change the way the 5-foot-6, 190-pound running back is viewed.
Sproles, 33, is on pace for the most carries of his career and to play his highest total of plays since the NFL started keeping track in 2012. His production has always seemed to be limited by the idea of what someone his size could do. Even Sproles became resigned to the possibility that he would never have a chance to be a lead running back.
"That's what I always thought," Sproles said. "Just the way teams used me. That's why I started thinking, 'I'm a scatback.' They're going to bring me in in spurts. Bring me in in third downs. But for me to get this much work now? It kind of has me feeling good."
Want to make Darren Sproles laugh? Tell him he won't last if he keeps playing this much.
Sproles is on pace for 108 carries, well beyond his career high of 93 in 2009. But Sproles is averaging 5 yards per carry this season, and he's given no indication that he cannot handle this type of workload.
The only reason to think otherwise is his height and his age. The same skepticism wouldn't be directed at a 6-foot, 25-year-old running back. But only five players in the NFL have a better rushing average than Sproles. Almost every player below him is bigger, younger - and free of the critique that Sproles cannot escape.
"I laugh at stuff like that," Sproles said. "Because the work I put in in the offseason, that's what's going to help me last. So when people say that, I just laugh."
Sproles remembers draft day in 2005. At Kansas State, Sproles led the nation with 1,986 rushing yards in 2003, was fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting, and recorded three 1,000-yard rushing seasons. He still slipped to the fourth round, watching 13 running backs selected ahead of him and three in the top five. Only Frank Gore, a third-round pick, is still playing. The Eagles drafted Ryan Moats ahead of Sproles that season. Moats hasn't played since 2009.
"They told me when I was coming out of college if I would have been 5-10 or something like that I would have went first round," Sproles said. "[Critics are] still on size. Even now. That's always going to be the barrier."
Offensive coordinator Frank Reich said the 20 offensive touches Sproles had against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 8 "might be the max." The most offensive touches Sproles tallied in a season came in 2011 with the New Orleans Saints, when he finished with 87 rushes and 86 receptions. That was the season Sproles pointed to as the best in his career. He's on pace for 108 rushes and 59 receptions this year - six fewer touches than 2011, and the second-highest total in his career.
"I mean this in the most complimentary way possible: He's a freak," Reich said. "He is a genetic and physical specimen. We all know the size thing, but he's probably the strongest guy pound-for-pound on the team. There's something to be said for that. He can handle a lot. Now . . . his age, is that a factor? Absolutely."
Sproles believes he can be used in any situation, too. He's not considered a short-yardage running back because of his size, but he's averaging 5 yards per carry on third and fourth downs with 1 to 2 yards to go. He missed a fourth and 1 inside the red zone against the New York Giants, and questions were asked about why the Eagles didn't turn to Mathews. Mathews averages 1.4 yards per carry in those situations, even though he's six inches taller and 30 pounds heavier.
"What a lot of people don't realize is when you're short, the linebacker has a hard time seeing you when you get low," Sproles said. ". . . You can find little holes. But when you don't get it that one time, they want to bring your size to it."
After coming to Philadelphia from New Orleans with Sproles, Malcolm Jenkins raved about Sproles' blocking ability. Sproles said that's the skill he's proudest of this season. His blocking is one reason he's on the field so much. When the other running backs play, it's often tipping a run. But the Eagles can call almost any play with Sproles, and pass rushers have gained appreciation for a 5-foot-6 blocker.
Against the Giants, Sproles remembered a linebacker making a comment to him after the play. Sproles said it happens often. He never wants to be viewed as small, and Sproles makes sure the quickest he rises to his feet comes after a big hit by a big defender.
"You want to make it seem like that hit was nothing," Sproles said. "You've always got to get back up."
Full speed ahead
During practice last Thursday, Pederson stood with Sproles during an otherwise insignificant special-teams drill. Every play was full speed, with little difference between a practice session and the fourth quarter against the Cowboys.
"He talked about creating bad habits," Pederson said. "If you don't practice fast, you can learn bad habits, and for him it's always about practicing fast, so he doesn't have bad habits that way."
Former Eagles coach Chip Kelly called Sproles "the best practice player" he had ever been around, and remarked that he never saw any player practice "as consistently hard as Darren does every single day."
Teammates are drawn to him. On Monday, the Eagles nominated Sproles for the Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees said Sproles is "the epitome of what would you want in a teammate" based on the way he prepares and competes. Reich, who spent the last three years in San Diego, said Sproles was "legendary" in the Chargers weight room. Sproles left San Diego in 2010, and they still talk about him there.
After Sproles took at least 80 percent of the snaps in Weeks 8 and 9, Pederson said the Eagles had to monitor his workload to keep him available - "especially as the season wears on." Sproles understands this opinion, and he pointed to the other running backs as the reason he won't take that many snaps each week.
He also believes the traditional lead running back is antiquated. In Sproles' rookie season, there were 24 running backs with at least 200 carries. Last season, there were 15. Sproles said that one of the reasons he's been able to last this long is he didn't take the pounding earlier in his career.
"He's an explosive playmaker," Reich said. "So he's got to be on the field his lion's share. When he can't handle anymore, I'm sure he'll retire. But in the meantime, we have to find that blend of how much can we use him without overusing him?"
Sproles would not discuss how much longer he will play. After signing a contract extension in July, he said he has two good years remaining. But he's never heard of a player setting a career high in carries at 33, and knows this year is different from any other - even with unending questions about when he'll slow down.
"I don't say nothing," Sproles said. "I just laugh."