Duce was in Shady's shoes, but he wore them better

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Eagles' running back coach Duce Staley, left, talks with head coach Chip Kelly, right, during Eagles practice at the NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia on November 12, 2014. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)

A former Eagles running back was asked Wednesday about his old team. He had left the Eagles a while ago, and he was bitter at the time of the departure, and probably had been bitter for a long time before then, too. Now he was fielding questions from reporters, but he didn't particularly want to answer the questions, because he didn't particularly want to talk about LeSean McCoy.

"Our situations," Duce Staley said, "are totally different."

It's coming up on 12 years since Staley, who's been the Eagles' running backs coach since Chip Kelly took over as head coach in 2013, was himself at the center of offseason controversy. Entering the 2003 season and the final year of his contract, Staley held out of training camp for 26 days, hoping to persuade Jeffrey Lurie, Joe Banner, and Andy Reid that he deserved a long-term extension. They were not persuaded, and Staley returned to the team without an extension, played out the season, and bolted for the Pittsburgh Steelers once he became a free agent.

The primary reason Staley was so quick to distinguish between his exit and McCoy's, of course, is that Staley never stooped to slandering Reid as a racist, as McCoy has done to Kelly since the Eagles traded McCoy to the Buffalo Bills in March. As Staley met with the media Wednesday at the NovaCare Complex, McCoy was in western New York, declining to elaborate on his comments to ESPN The Magazine about Kelly, all but rubbing his hands together like a punk kid who had just set off a bottle bomb and was reveling in the damage he'd caused. And even after coaching McCoy for two years and forming a friendship with him, Staley wasn't about to defend the insidious nature of McCoy's accusations.

"Chip is not a racist at all," Staley said. "That's definitely far-fetched."

Once he was finished standing up for Kelly, Staley drew a less incendiary connection between the Eagles' final season with him and their first season without McCoy. That 2003 season was the year of the "three-headed monster" in the Eagles backfield: Staley, Brian Westbrook, and Correll Buckhalter. The trio combined for 1,618 rushing yards, 83 receptions, and 27 rushing and receiving touchdowns in helping the Eagles go 12-4 and reach their third straight NFC championship game. And it's easy to remember the team's success with those three backs and see Kelly employing the same tactics with DeMarco Murray, Ryan Mathews, and Darren Sproles.

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"I just know when I think back to those times, we had three good running backs who all could catch, who all could run the ball, who all could block," Staley said, "and Coach was like, 'Let's just keep them fresh. We were throwing screens to Brian and be running the ball with Duce and Correll. Let's switch it up. Put Duce out wide.' It was just a game of chess out there sometimes."

The irony of Reid's willingness to rely on those three running backs was that, despite his preference for throwing the football and the fireworks (on the field and off) that accompanied Terrell Owens' arrival, the Eagles offense may never have been better under Reid than it was in the second half of the '03 season. The Birds averaged nearly 31 points over their final seven regular-season games, winning six, and for one four-week stretch, the Eagles - under Andy Reid, mind you - averaged 160 rushing yards a game.

It was a testament to Reid's coaching and to Staley's character that the two of them made that system work. Bear in mind: Westbrook was entering just his second NFL season, and Buckhalter was coming off a knee injury that prevented him from playing in 2002. But Staley had rushed for more than 1,000 yards in a season three times. He had been the Eagles' clear-cut No. 1 running back - the fulcrum of the offense before Donovan McNabb developed into a star - and his holdout was predicated on his belief that he should be paid like their No. 1 running back. Yet Staley never squawked, even though he ended up with the fewest carries (96) among the three backs.

Contrast that situation with the one Kelly faces this year with Murray, Mathews, and Sproles.

"When you go back and check the pedigrees of these three, these guys have all been proven," Staley said. "So we brought them here, one big pot of gumbo."

Kelly and Staley can use all the team-building tricks in their bags, can laud each player's unselfishness, but it's going to take some finessing to keep these three satisfied.

The upshot is, there was no chance that McCoy would be satisfied with such a collaborative approach. That's part of the reason the Eagles traded him. That's what separates him not just from Murray, Mathews, and Sproles, but from the man who coaches them, from an old running back who could have stayed bitter years ago and didn't.

"He's gone," Duce Staley said. "He's not a part of the Philadelphia Eagles now. I've moved on."

Maybe someday LeSean McCoy will grow up enough to do the same thing.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski