There are three running backs who figure somewhat prominently in the narrative for Sunday night's game between the Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys. In whatever order you choose to place them, the presence or absence of Ezekiel Elliott, LeGarrette Blount, and Jay Ajayi will play a part in the story, as the Eagles attempt to effectively close out competition for the NFC East title this season.
Elliott, Blount, and Ajayi were among an elite group of eight backs who gained 1,100 rushing yards last season. They combined for 41 touchdowns for their respective teams, none of which happened to be the Eagles.
A year goes by and things change. Blount was not pursued in free agency by his former team, the New England Patriots, and signed a one-year deal with the Eagles in May. Ajayi became dissatisfied with a struggling Miami offense and was traded to the Eagles on Halloween. Elliott ran out of road in his attempt to outrun a six-game NFL suspension and will be serving the second game of that sentence on Sunday.
All three have some reason to complain at the moment, at least from their points of view. Elliott feels he was denied due process. Ajayi thinks he was unfairly labeled a problem in the Miami locker room. And Blount? Aside from being cut loose at the age of 30 by a team that he helped win two Super Bowls, his current status isn't that of a star. Blount is on pace to gain fewer than 900 yards, and, if the talk emanating from the NovaCare Complex this week is accurate, he's about to slide into second chair in the Eagles running-back orchestra.
Judging by Blount's history, you might expect some of this to be a problem. He carries the baggage of someone who was suspended several times in college, once for punching an opponent after a game. In the NFL, he was charged with marijuana possession, served a brief NFL suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, and, once, during a stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers, left the field before time expired in a game during which he hadn't touched the football. The Steelers released him for that.
So, yeah, even though the Eagles are 8-1, and it is a happy locker room right now, there are things about Blount's situation and his resume that might have combined to become a problem. But Blount has been anything but a problem. Even earlier this season, when he got just six snaps and no carries in the loss to the Chiefs, he was serene as the surface of a windless pond. Maybe there are currents beneath the surface, but he's keeping them there.
"I haven't had a negative thought since I signed here," Blount said this week. "I feel good with where I'm at. Obviously, as a running back, you want as much as you can get, but I like that we've got a backfield that can split it up and still be really productive with any of the backs that are in there."
Offensive coordinator Frank Reich was effusive this week in his praise for how quickly Ajayi has learned the offense. While he was limited to eight carries against the Broncos in his first game, Ajayi has had two weeks to gain a working knowledge of the playbook and the trust of the coaches. According to Reich and position coach Duce Staley, he has done both remarkably well.
As you look down the road, with Blount on a one-year contract and about to turn 31 next month, and with the 24-year-old Ajayi in just his third season and still on his rookie contract, it's not hard to figure out which back might be a bigger part of the Eagles' future. Blount, who understands exactly how the league works, remains placid.
"It comes with growing up and becoming a professional. Over the course of time, I've become a professional. I've learned there are things you can't control," Blount said. "Early in your career, you want the ball, you want to prove yourself, because you know if you don't prove yourself in your first couple of years, you're going to be out of it. So, you're anxious. It's not that you're selfish; you're anxious. I understand it, but you can never have enough depth at any position. I know I made the right decision when I decided to come here."
Blount, whose 299 carries last season were second only to Elliott's 322, will have somewhere around 100 carries shaved off that workload this season. He accepts that, just as he accepts the possibility that 2018 will require another move.