There’s an old saying in football that you can’t make the club in the tub, which means injured players soaking in a tub (hot or cold) can lose their jobs simply because they’re not able to do them and somebody else is. And when that somebody else does the job well — maybe even better than the injured player did – it can be career changing.
Wendell Smallwood doesn’t have to worry about losing his job, but the Eagles running back from Smyrna High does have to worry about losing playing time and the opportunity to show what he can do.
That’s why Saturday night’s NFL preseason game in Indianapolis is so important to Smallwood, who missed the first two exhibitions with a pulled quadriceps, and injury that also seriously limited his practice time.
Smallwood, a rookie from West Virginia, was drafted by the Eagles in the fifth round of April’s NFL draft, and it looked the perfect place for him, and not just because of the close proximity to his home on Wilmington.
The Eagles got rid of last year’s starter, DeMarco Murray, and handed the job to veteran Ryan Mathews, a talented, but injury-prone player who has only played in all 16 games once in his six years in the NFL. Mathews has missed a total of 23 games in that time, including three last season.
The second-stringer is Darren Sproles, but he’s a situational player, not a workhorse. And the only other running back on the roster when Smallwood was drafted was Kenjon Barner, a former practice squad and special teams player who had just 28 carries last season for 124 yards. Smallwood appeared to have an edge on Barner, who was brought to the Eagles by Chip Kelly, his former college coach. Smallwood, meanwhile, was drafted by current coach Doug Pederson, who obviously liked him in college for a reason.
So, everything pointed to Smallwood being an integral part of the Eagles offense, something that doesn’t happen often to fifth-round rookies.
And then he injured his leg in training camp, which opened the door for Barner to get more reps in practice and more snaps in the preseason. And Barner has taken advantage of that opportunity – he’s the Eagles’ leading rusher in the preseason with 76 yards on 13 carries, an impressive average of 5.8 yards per attempt.
He’s also shined on special teams.
Now, finally, Smallwood will get a chance to show what he can do in game situations. The Eagles held him out of last week’s exhibition against the Pittsburgh Steelers as a precaution, and they’ll keep a close eye on him against the Colts, for two reasons – to make sure he doesn’t overwork his sore leg and to finally see him carry and catch and block in a game situation.
“He’ll get a good look,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said of Smallwood. “This is his first opportunity to play, so we want to make sure he’s ready to go. We’re going to be smart with it at the same time. But we definitely want to see him get some work in that first half [with the starters].”
How well Smallwood does that work could impact how much work he gets in a few weeks, when the games start to count. The Eagles know what Mathews can do when he’s healthy, and Barner impressed them with his play in the first two preseason games.
Now it’s Smallwood’s turn and the Eagles really don’t know what to expect. “It’s a little bit harder, with all the time that he’s missed, to evaluate,” Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said of Smallwood. “With a ‘back and a runner, you just want to see him get the ball in his hands and see what he can do in traffic inside, see his patience, his vision. But there’s nothing you can do about it as a coach. You don’t get too frustrated by it. You know injuries are a part of the game. Those guys take a lot of hits, so on and so forth. So, we still have to be smart with them and continue that evaluation process and let him grow.”