Sproles' Role Key to Birds' Victory

It was one of the Great Mysteries of training camp and the preseason – how were the Eagles going to use running back Darren Sproles when the games counted.

Running back? Wide receiver? Punt returner? Major contributor? Seldom-used back-up?

Nobody outside of the Eagles knew how the multi-talented Sproles would be used and how much he would be used. The Eagles already had the best running back in the NFL in their backfield and LeSean McCoy is a similar player as Sproles – they’re both quick, shifty and elusive and they’re both good receivers who can do plenty of damage with the ball in their hands.

The preseason told us nothing – Sproles only had nine carries and three catches in limited playing time — but the first game of the regular season told us plenty. McCoy, as always, was the featured player in the Eagles’ offense in the 34-17 victory over Jacksonville, but it was Sproles who made the big plays that won the game.

McCoy was in the game for 67 percent of the offense plays and carried the ball 21 times and gained 74 yards, a sub-par game for the All-Pro – he averaged 3.5 yards per carry against the Jaguars, after averaging 5.1 yards last season. McCoy also had a team-high six receptions.

Sproles was in the game for 38 percent and he carried the ball 11 times for 71 yards, including what might have been the most important play of the game, a 49-yard touchdown run that gave the Eagles their first TD and a new lease on life.

Sproles also had four catches for 14 yards, but some of his biggest contributions came on punt returns. The biggest came at the end of the Jags’ possession following Sproles TD run. He returned a punt 22 yards to the Jacksonville 40 and the Eagles used that good field position to score another touchdown and cut the lead to 17-14. Sproles averaged 15.5 yards on four punt returns and to put that into perspective, the player who led the NFL in that category last season, Tandon Doss of Baltimore, averaged 15.6 yards.

“He was everywhere,’’ Eagles center Jason Kelce said of Sproles.

Sproles is used to being everywhere and being a jack-of-all-trades, but one of the reasons he was eager to join the Eagles this season was the chance to get his hands on the ball more often, and that included more touches in the running game. Sproles has played in the Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl, but in his previous two stops – San Diego and New Orleans – he only averaged a little more than three carries per game, which he almost tripled on Sunday against Jacksonville.

Sproles doesn’t say much and he certainly doesn’t shine in interviews, but he maxe it clear he appreciates being a bigger part of the game plan.

“It’s been a while since I have had that many carries,’’ he said quietly. “Liked it a lot.”

And he’d better get used to it, according to Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.

“We’re going to call our offense regardless of whether Darren or LeSean is in there, and we like to run the football,’’ Shurmur said. “So, whoever is in there, you’re going to get a chance to touch the ball and you’re going to get it handed to you, all right. That’s safe to say.’’

It’s also safe to say that the Eagles’ first impression of Sproles was a good one and he said that was important for him – despite his impressive resume, he wanted to show the Eagles and their fans that he can still be a valuable asset and can still help a team win games.

“It was big,’’ Sproles said of his impressive debut. “People ask if I still have it, being 30 years old. I wanted to come out and prove I still have it.’’

McCoy admits he was one of the people who weren’t sure what Sproles had left or how much he could help the Eagles. Then he saw the way Sproles approached his job in training camp and in the season opener, and McCoy said there was one thing in particular that impressed him about his new teammate.

“I didn’t know he had that much fight in him,’’ McCoy said. “Every time that I saw him [on television], it was for a play here or a play there, a punt return, a couple routes, maybe a run or two. But playing with him from camp on, he has so much more fight to him.’’

And McCoy is more than willing to share center stage with Sproles – McCoy had carries last season, the most in the NFL, and that’s not good for his long-term career.

“His role is bigger here,’’ McCoy said of Sproles. “By committee we are going to do it together.’’

Contact Kevin Noonan at knoonan32@aol.com.

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