The Eagles rank 10th in the NFL this season both in rushing attempts, with 408, and in rushing yards, with 1,699. It's a good thing they do. Otherwise, Frank Reich might start to get a reputation.
Before becoming the Eagles' offensive coordinator earlier this year, Reich had spent two years in the same position with the San Diego Chargers. The obvious connection between those two stints has been that his quarterback might have needed arm balm. In 2014, Reich's first season as the Chargers' coordinator, Philip Rivers threw 570 passes. That might sound like a lot, and yes, the single-season total was the third-highest of Rivers' 11-year career. But then he threw 661 passes last season, which eclipsed his previous career high by nearly 80 attempts.
Now, Rivers could be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame someday, and injuries hampered tailback Melvin Gordon last season, and in recent years the Chargers have had plenty of upheaval along the offensive line. They were last in the AFC in yards per rushing attempt in 2014 (3.4) and last in the NFL in 2015 (3.5). So it's understandable, to an extent, that Reich and head coach Mike McCoy would rely on Rivers to carry the offense. It would have seemed a little less understandable for Reich and Doug Pederson to repeat the pattern this season, with Carson Wentz, a rookie, as the Eagles' starting quarterback. Yet if Wentz throws just eight passes Sunday against the Cowboys, he'll break Donovan McNabb's franchise record of 571 attempts, and if he throws 38, his average per-game workload this season, he'll finish with 602 - after throwing just 612 passes in his entire career at North Dakota State.
If you're familiar with the 14-year tenure of Andy Reid - Pederson's mentor - as the Eagles' coach, you know where we're headed. The concern that Reid was allowing his fondness for and belief in the power of the passing game to lead him astray in his play-calling was ever-present throughout his time here. That system of checks and balances between the head coach and the offensive coordinator, the run-pass push-pull, was always an area to watch with fascination.
During Reid's early years, Brad Childress often acted as the angel on Reid's shoulder, reminding him that Duce Staley and Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter were fine runners and that McNabb didn't have to drop back on every play. Later, when Marty Mornhinweg was the Eagles' offensive coordinator, it was Reid who actually became, relatively speaking, the voice of reason compared to Mornhinweg's wild-eyed-mad-scientist tendencies in the passing game.
With the Kansas City Chiefs, and with Pederson as his coordinator for three seasons, Reid has directed a more conservative offense than he did with the Eagles. But his quarterback in Kansas City is Alex Smith: reliable, accurate, but not as gifted and dynamic a passer as Wentz promises to be. Pederson appears to prefer having Wentz throw and throw often, and Reich doesn't have a track record that suggests he will do much to dissuade him. So how has the play-calling process worked between them this season?
"During the week, we're game-planning together," Reich said Tuesday. "We have our system in which the inventory of offensive plays is available. There is a process in which we go about the plays that we start with and then how we narrow that down each week. We work together on that, as well as with the staff. And then as far as play-calling goes, Coach calls the game. He takes input. I'll suggest a few plays here and there. We'll talk in between series, but he's in charge and has really good control during the game. Doesn't flinch. Just seems in complete control.
"But what I really like about the dynamic is we're talking in between series. I might say, 'Hey, this next series, how do you like this? How do you feel about this? I was just talking to Carson. He likes this. I was just talking to [offensive-line coach Jeff Stoutland]. He feels these runs look good.' So there's a really good dynamic on game day."
When running the ball, the Eagles have had as much success, maybe more, than one might have hoped, given the motley group of running backs on their roster this season: oft-injured Ryan Mathews, 34-year-old Darren Sproles, unknowns Wendell Smallwood and Kenjon Barner. If anything, Pederson and Reich could have called more handoffs than they have, and it's fair to wonder: If the Eagles have thrown the ball this much when Wentz was a rookie, why would they throw it less when he's a more mature and experienced quarterback?
"He's thrown all these pass attempts and has a chance at setting a rookie completion record, and those aren't records you set out necessarily to get," Reich said. "When you balance that with the fact that we're still a top-10 team rushing, that's not all that bad, and there have been some good developmental things from it. But over the long haul, you need to be able to run it consistently."
No one argues that. The question for the Eagles under Doug Pederson and Frank Reich, as it was years ago under Andy Reid, is whether they can. Or even want to.