There was a time when it seemed Darren Sproles might have been the Eagles’ latest miscalculation at the running back position.
That’s a tough notion to entertain without a bit of a wince, of course. From his little-engine dimensions to his professional demeanor, the 35-year-old third- down back is an easy guy to root for. Yet after Jay Ajayi went down with a knee injury and the season became a week-to-week struggle to replace his production, it was easy to wonder whether the Eagles had sacrificed competitiveness for sentimentality in deciding to allocate a roster spot for an aging, undersize player with some bald on the tire.
Sproles, sidelined with a hamstring injury that would cost him 10 straight games, could do little but watch as Doug Pederson’s once-prolific rushing attack ground to a halt.
In that sense, the last month has been something of a vindication, both for the running back and for the bosses who brought him back for one more shot at postseason glory. There might be some level of coincidence in the fact that the Eagles have won four of five games since Sproles returned to action, but only some.
Of the 120 snaps he has played during that stretch, three have ended with him in the end zone, including a 37-yard catch-and-run in the Eagles’ 32-30 victory over the Texans in Week 16. In his last three games, all victories, Sproles has gained 190 yards on 27 touches while also averaging 8.7 yards on three punt returns.
All of this has set the stage for a postseason in which the Eagles will need him to be more than a feel-good story. Last year, Sproles was one of a number of key contributors who missed the team’s Super Bowl run because of injury. This year, heading into Sunday’s wild-card matchup against the Bears, it is he who will need to fill a void, with Ajayi and second-year back Corey Clement both on injured reserve.
“It’s going to mean a lot,” Sproles said. “We’ve all been grinding pretty hard. We want to do something in the playoffs. ... We missed the party last year. So, to be in it this year, we’re ready to get the ball rolling.”
The Eagles backfield is an area of the roster that will continue to be a focal point well beyond this postseason.
Ajayi, whom the team acquired for a fourth-round pick midway through last season, will be a free agent. Clement, a revelation as a rookie, struggled to build upon that performance in Year Two, averaging just 3.8 yards per carry before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Undrafted rookie Josh Adams has made a case for a lasting spot, with 511 yards and three touchdowns on 120 carries, but he has yet to show the all-around game that would establish him as a legitimate feature back.
In a way, the Eagles’ opponent in Sunday’s playoff opener serves as a testament to the difficulty they themselves have encountered in building a lasting backfield.
Both teams used a couple of mid-round picks on running backs in the 2016 and 2017 drafts. But while the Eagles ended up with Wendell Smallwood and Donnel Pumphrey, both of whom have spent most of their careers buried on the depth chart, the Bears managed to land Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, a duo who, this season, have combined for 1,379 yards rushing, 870 yards receiving, and 17 total touchdowns.
The Bears' pick of Howard in the fifth round in 2016, three picks before the Eagles selected Smallwood, was one of the many impressive lines on the resume of Joe Douglas when the Eagles hired him as their personnel chief later that year.
The following draft, the Eagles may have waited too long to snatch their running back, as the Bears selected Cohen in the fourth round, one pick after the Eagles took wide receiver Mack Hollins. Thirteen picks later, they selected Pumphrey, who has yet to appear in a game.
Incidentally, Cohen has developed into the kind of player the Eagles hoped Pumphrey, now on the practice squad, could become. He makes up for his lack of size with excellent hands and route-running ability that are evidenced by his 71 catches and 725 receiving yards this season.
“Literally, they use him all over the place," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “Line him up in the backfield, line him up as a wide receiver, wide receiver motion into the backfield, in the backfield motion out, jet sweep, inside runs, outside runs, deep passes, short passes. He’s a really important part of their offense.”
Sounds a lot like the longtime book on Sproles, doesn’t it? In fact, it was 10 years ago this month when the then-second-year running back exploded onto the national radar in San Diego’s 23-17 playoff victory over the Colts, carrying 22 times for 105 years and two touchdowns while catching another five passes for 45 yards in the upset win.
“That was a long time ago,” Sproles said. “It was a game I had to go. We had a couple injuries. My number was called.”