One of the major reasons the Eagles felt emboldened to pull the trigger on the trade for Jay Ajayi last week was Duce Staley.
Staley, the former Eagle who is in his fifth season as the team’s running backs coach, is an interesting personality blend of Sgt. Hulka, The Rock and your dear old dad. At least to the players under his command.
“Duce, he’s the great equalizer in that [running backs] room,’’ head coach Doug Pederson said. “You’ve got to have a guy like Duce, who has played the position, in that room because that room can be dynamic.”
“Personalities can be kind of all over the place at times. He has the right demeanor to deal with LeGarrette [Blount], to deal with Wendell [Smallwood], to deal with all of the guys we have. He’s the perfect fit and the perfect coach for handling this situation.’’
Staley’s strong and influential presence convinced executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman that he could put the talented, but (according to the Dolphins, at least) occasionally selfish Ajayi in the same room with Blount without risk of bloodshed or other divisive behavior.
Why even take the risk? Well, because the Eagles unexpectedly have found themselves on the scent of a Super Bowl, their ground game was starting to develop cracks in the wake of Jason Peters’ injury, and Ajayi is a young, explosive back who can get through holes a tad more quickly than the nearly 31-year-old Blount.
In his first, limited appearance in an Eagles uniform Sunday against the Broncos, Ajayi rushed for 77 yards on eight carries, including a 45-yard touchdown.
“You can see that passion,’’ Staley said of Ajayi. “He’s driven by that fury to go out there and show everybody what he’s made of. As we move forward, we’ll have to see where we can fit him in and what we want to do with him.’’
It appears the Eagles essentially will rotate three running backs: Ajayi, Blount and impressive rookie Corey Clement, who had three touchdowns against the Broncos.
Kenjon Barner will be the fourth active running back, because he also returns punts. The odd man out will be Smallwood, who was active Sunday only because tight end Zach Ertz sat out the game with a tight hamstring.
Clement, being an undrafted rookie, obviously won’t make waves. He’s just happy to be playing.
But the challenge for Staley and Pederson will be keeping both Ajayi and Blount content with their individual workloads each week.
No one can relate to that better than Staley, who went from a workhorse back to part of the Eagles’ famous “three-headed running back monster’’ in 2003 with Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter when the Eagles made their third of five NFC Championship Game appearances under Andy Reid.
The trio combined for 1,618 rushing yards, 2,465 yards from scrimmage and 27 rushing and receiving touchdowns that season.
Staley, who had 269 rushing attempts for 1,029 yards in ’02, had just 96 carries for 463 yards in ’03. He wasn’t happy about the reduced workload, but he dealt with it.
“Having gone through it myself, having a little history with it, I’ve seen it work,’’ Staley said. “All three of us had a chance to play. We were productive. We won a lot of games that way. There’s no reason this can’t work. And it will. They all have good attitudes and want to make it work.’’
Staley, Pederson and Roseman all have made a point of saying Blount still is the team’s starting running back. He has been their primary running back on first down. Sixty-one of his 100 rushing attempts in the Eagles’ first eight games had been on first down.
That changed Sunday against the Broncos. Just two of his nine carries came on first down, and five of Ajayi’s eight carries did.
On the Dolphins last year, 154 of Ajayi’s 260 carries, or 59.2 percent, were on first down. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry on first down. In the Eagles’ previous two games without Peters, Blount averaged just 2.2 yards per carry on first down.
“It’s all about the hot hand,’’ Staley said when asked about snap distribution and carries. “It’s all about who’s rolling.
“LeGarrette has had the hot hand. He will continue to have the hot hand because he’s our starter. When he gets rolling, he’s tough to stop.
“But when he comes out, you want to have that same type of guy enter the game. You want to keep that momentum rolling with that same type of style. And that’s what we’re doing.’’
Staley was tasked with breaking the news to Blount about the Ajayi trade. He was able to get to Blount before he found out about it on social media.
“In a situation like that, it’s all about honesty,’’ Staley said. “With social media, things seem to leak early. It was my job to find him and make sure I communicated with him [about the trade] and let him know what was going on. And also reassure him about his role and what we think of him, which was imperative.
“If you communicate with people and you feel good about the relationship, everything else will take care of itself. Now, I’m not saying there might not be bumps along the way. That’s part of the game. And that’s part of them being competitive.
“I mean, I want a guy who wants the ball a hundred times. You want that kind of guy. Especially a guy like [Blount] who goes out there and imposes his will.’’