The Philadelphia Eagles have created a rather poor perception of their running game over the years. Eagles fans like myself have certainly spent years ranting and raving and joking that Andy Reid has never heard of a running game. After years of seeing Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick throw 40 or 50 times, while the likes of Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy often barely touch the ball late, Philadelphia has a low perception of how the Birds use running backs.
Yet despite the stereotype of the Eagles being a pass first, second and third team, they may just have the most dangerous rushing attack in the NFC East - if not the entire NFC. Having McCoy break out last season certainly helps, and if he repeats that effort in 2012 - and if Philadelphia lets him - the running game could bail the Eagles and Vick out this year.
But for all the complaints that Philadelphia never runs the ball, McCoy got 273 rushing attempts in 2011. In fact, if that goes up in 2012, there may be complaints that he's getting overworked - especially with how quickly running backs can get worn out in the long term. Yet since there is no reliable backup, the Eagles may have no choice but to overwork him.
However, since McCoy is on the verge of being a major star - and since Vick can still run the ball himself - the Eagles may just be more dangerous running the ball than they have been in years. It was certainly easy to put Philadelphia above its NFC East competition on Sept. 5, at least.
When the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants squared off, their runners barely got going for much of the way. The Giants used to be a grind-it-out team, but they are now as reliant on passing as anyone - although it has given them two Super Bowl titles. As for the Cowboys, DeMarco Murray did wind up rushing for 131 yards, but that was on the strength of just a few big runs.
McCoy is now the most dangerous runner in the NFC East by far, while the Cowboys, Giants and Washington Redskins mainly rise and fall with their quarterbacks. If Tony Romo, Eli Manning and Robert Griffin III went down, their teams likely couldn't rely on their rushers to take pressure off the backup quarterbacks. Of course, everyone thinks the Eagles will be finished if/when Vick misses serious time, yet McCoy can make life far easier for Nick Foles or Trent Edwards if/when they step in.
Reid is notorious for a lack of balance, so he can make the Eagles throw 30-50 times a game no matter who's throwing - and no matter who's running the ball. If McCoy is at his 2011 levels and if Vick can still get a big run or two, this would be more inexcusable.
Given how Vick needs to avoid hard hits and must give up the ball a lot sooner, Philadelphia needs to run more for his benefit. But it had to pass less for Donovan McNabb's benefit in years past and often didn't, even with Westbrook in the backfield.
The Eagles often have to be dragged kicking and screaming into using the run more, yet it shouldn't be that hard this season. Not when they can strike more fear than almost any other NFC team when they run the ball. And not when exploiting that can save Vick more wear and tear, and therefore save both his and Reid's hides in this make-or-break year.
Robert Dougherty is a life-long Philadelphia resident who has followed the Eagles since he was eight years old.
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