FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Donnel Pumphrey set the all-time collegiate rushing record as a senior at San Diego State, but the Eagles didn’t expect that sort of production from him this season as a rookie fourth-round pick. After all, he’s only 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds.
They figured he’d field a few kicks, earn a few runs, snag a few passes, and gain a few pounds. If things went right they would have a plug-in replacement if the biggest little man in the league, 5-6, 181-pound Darren Sproles, decided to retire after 12 seasons. Quick, fast, elusive, and tough, Sproles is the kind of weapon that can make a good offense great.
It didn’t quite work out that way. Pumphrey struggled in training camp, he barely made the team, and he hasn’t played a snap. He’s a forgotten man, shelved on injured reserve since mid-September with a nebulous hamstring injury.
The Eagles have no idea what Pumphrey is, or what he might become, but expect them to be patient .– this time. They’ve cut bait too early on a good little guy before.
When the Eagles drafted 5-foot-8, 195-pound Dion Lewis in the fifth round in 2011, they hoped that he, too, would be like Sproles, who then played in New Orleans. The Eagles already had a featured back in LeSean McCoy, but everyone needs a backup. Unfortunately, those were the last, mad days of Andy Reid’s reign. For two years he ignored Lewis and gave most of the backup work to other, bigger backs.
It got no better for Lewis when Chip Kelly came along in 2013, because Kelly despises small backs, and so he traded Lewis to Cleveland that April. He got linebacker Emmanuel Acho in return. Acho played 20 games.
Acho now is an ESPN analyst. Lewis is chasing his second Super Bowl ring as the Patriots’ starting running back. Acho noted their divergent career paths on Twitter, saying that whoever made that trade should be fired.
— Emmanuel Acho (@thEMANacho) January 15, 2017
Kelly was fired, in 2015. He’s at UCLA now. Lewis is still very much in the league.
He became the Pats’ starter in Game 6. In the last 13 games, counting the playoffs, he is averaging 90 yards from scrimmage, 4.84 yards per carry, and 6.90 yards per catch. He has scored 10 touchdowns — six rushing, three receiving, and one kickoff return.
Pumphrey, 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, watched it all, and was inspired.
“I see on film how he comes out of the backfield. He’s able to run different routes, like Sproles,” Pumphrey said. “I feel like that’s definitely what I’m trying to be when I’m healthy.”
Lewis wasn’t always healthy. He broke his leg with the Browns before the season began in 2013, and it cost him any real chance to play in 2014. So, after sitting out two full seasons, he finally signed a futures contract with the Patriots for 2015 and began to make noise.
But again, in New England, a bigger back — in this instance, a really big back, LeGarrette Blount — got most of the action. And, again, an injury cost Lewis time. He tore the ACL in his left knee halfway through 2015 and complications in the healing process cost him the second half of 2016.
Now whole, he is a handful.
He hasn’t missed any of the Patriots’ last 28 games, including playoffs. In those games Lewis has averaged 4.62 yards per carry and 6.46 yards per catch. He has scored 13 touchdowns. Since his arrival the team is 32-3 when he plays, 13-7 when he doesn’t.
The little guy makes a big difference. Patriots coach Bill Belichick credited his former personnel assistant, who also worked with the Browns and the Eagles, with selling him on Lewis’ playmaking potential.
“It was Mike Lombardi,” Belichick said. “Mike saw that at Cleveland [as GM]. When you see somebody on the practice field on a daily basis and you’re around them, you know a lot more about them, especially a player like Dion, who you didn’t get to see on the field a lot.”
It was Joe Banner who saw it first. Banner was the Eagles president when the Birds drafted Lewis, and he was the Browns’ CEO when they traded for him, and he was delighted when Lewis landed in New England,where he knew Lewis would shine.
Belichick’s career has been built on making silk purses from sows’ ears, from receivers David Givens, David Patten, and Julien Edelman to Tom Brady, who, of course, was a sixth-round pick. So many late draft picks and marginal free agents reach their full potential in Foxborough that it no longer seems remarkable, but when guy as small as Lewis makes it this big, it’s amazing all over again.
Like any plucky little guy, Lewis insisted that he would have reached his potential anywhere.
“It’s my first time being given the opportunity to have a large role, so I’m embracing it,” he said Thursday. “I wasn’t given the opportunity to play other places. I’m very confident in my abilities. If I’m given the opportunity to compete, I could compete with anybody. These guys gave me the opportunity that nobody else gave me. I’ve just got to embrace it.”
At this point, Pumphrey will embrace anything that gets him to where Lewis is. The formula, Lewis said, is simple:
“Just keep staying positive. Keep staying confident in your abilities and make your game better. Try to get better at everything: running the ball, receiving, and even blocking. Stay confident. Ask your coaches, as well, what they think you could do better to improve yourself on the field, and just keep working your tail off.”
And, of course, stay patient. One day, maybe they’ll stop looking over you.