Ryan Mathews' season is over, and he might have played his final game with the Eagles.
The Eagles running back suffered a herniated disk in his neck in Thursday's 24-19 win over the New York Giants. The injury is located in the C6 and C7 spinal segments and will require surgery. Coach Doug Pederson called it a "pretty major deal" that will cause Mathews to miss "some significant time." The Eagles finish their season next Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, meaning the injury would linger into the offseason.
"I don't think it's career [threatening]," Pederson said on Friday. "It looks like surgery is in the near future, but . . . it just has to get fixed."
Even before the injury, Mathews' future with the Eagles was in question. The 29-year-old, seven-year veteran has one year remaining on a three-year, $11-million contract. He counts $5 million against the salary cap next season, but the Eagles would save $4 million if they release him. For a team that might need salary-cap flexibility, that could be valuable cap space.
"I'm not going to speculate on any of that kind of stuff right now," Pederson said. "We'll save all those for the offseason and wait until that time to make any decisions."
At the very least, Mathews' second season in Philadelphia ends after rushing 155 times for 661 yards and eight touchdowns in 13 games. He also lost two fumbles. Mathews added 13 catches for 115 yards and one touchdown. He will finish the season as the Eagles' leading rusher and with two 100-yard rushing games.
However, Mathews was not able to consistently be the workhorse running back that he had the potential to be this year. He reached 20 carries in just two games. Part of it was circumstance – the Eagles played from behind often in the middle of the season – but Mathews' health was also a factor. He missed two games and was limited in others because of various injuries. Mathews has missed time in all but one season in his career.
"I think that Ryan obviously got off to a good start and then there was a little bit of a lull in the middle and he's finished up strong," Pederson said. "That's kind of been the nature of the season for him. These last couple of weeks he's kind of been our workhorse at the running back position and did some really good things for us. This obviously is unfortunate now that he can't finish the season for us."
The injury occurred in the third quarter of Thursday's game. Mathews collided with Giants defensive lineman Damon Harrison on a 2-yard, third-down run from the 3-yard line. Harrison was injured on the play. Mathews actually stayed in the game as the coaching staff was unaware of the injury. Mathews took the handoff for a fourth-down attempt, but he was stuffed for a 1-yard loss in a critical situation. That was his final carry of the season. It was not the first time Mathews played through an injury this year.
If it was his final carry with the Eagles, then Mathews' career in Philadelphia will end after 26 games with 261 carries, 1,200 yards, and 14 touchdowns. He split time last season with DeMarco Murray and Darren Sproles, and he was the top rusher this season while splitting time with Sproles, Wendell Smallwood, and Kenjon Barner.
It's possible the Eagles could try to bring Mathews back, but teams don't usually pay that type of salary to a running back of his age with his production – and injury history. Sproles remains under contract and fills a unique role for the Eagles. Smallwood also figures into the Eagles' plans in his second season.
In the short term, the Eagles must determine what to do at running back for Week 17. Smallwood and Kenjon Barner are already on injured reserve. Sproles and rookie Byron Marshall are the only healthy running backs remaining. The Eagles play with at least three running backs active on game day.
The only other running back in the organization is Terrell Watson, who was signed to the practice squad earlier this week. The Eagles can try to get by with two running backs and use a utility player such as Trey Burton in emergency situations. They can also sign a running back from elsewhere to have on the roster going into the offseason, or they can promote Watson.
"We'll take a look at it," Pederson said. "We've got time. Players won't be back until Tuesday. We've got time to evaluate it and see if there is anybody else available. If not, then by no means hesitate to bring Watson up and have him as an emergency third running back for next week."