Peer back through the swirling mists of time, to a long-forgotten era when the Eagles roster boasted five healthy running backs. You know, a month ago.
Well, now they have two, it would seem, for Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals – LeGarrette Blount and undrafted rookie Corey Clement.
Wendell Smallwood, who leads Eagles backs in snaps played this season, did not practice this week and is unlikely to play Sunday with right knee inflammation. Smallwood officially is listed as “questionable.” He suffered a right MCL sprain and went on injured reserve last Dec. 12; that injury healed, but the joint is not as tight as it was previously, something that can lead to swelling, a source close to the situation said. It probably isn’t a long term problem, but it is a problem, the latest in a series of injuries for the second-year back.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson was asked Friday how potentially being without Smallwood would affect the team’s running game. “It doesn’t,” he elaborated.
Donnel Pumphrey (hamstring) and Darren Sproles (knee, arm, wrist) are on IR. Kenjon Barner, who wasn’t even part of the original quintet, will return punts as he did last week, adding kick returns to his duties, but this is only his second week back with the team and the coaching staff seems reluctant to use him in the offense. Barner, cut by the Chargers after the preseason, returned to the Eagles when Sproles went down.
The team still could make a roster move by 4 p.m. Saturday. Running back Byron Marshall, a more natural receiver than Blount or Clement, remains on the practice squad. But bringing up Marshall would mean dropping a player. The obvious candidate would be defensive tackle Justin Hamilton, added last week because of the Fletcher Cox calf injury, but Cox is out again, and Hamilton seemingly will be needed this week. The Eagles listed DT Destiny Vaeao (wrist) as “questionable,” but Vaeao again did only individual work in Friday’s practice, he said. He was injured in the opener.
A Blount-Clement running back rotation is not what the Eagles envisioned this season. Blount’s 26 snaps last week were his Eagles high; ditto Clement’s 19 snaps. Neither player is renowned as a receiver or as a picker-up of blitzes. Those were among Sproles’ best attributes, and coaches were thrilled to see Smallwood do a solid job in both areas last week, especially the four catches for 45 yards.
Pederson said Clement is “improving” as a pass-blocker. “He’s smart. [Running backs coach] Duce [Staley] has worked extremely hard with him and LeGarrette both in protection, and he’s doing nice.”
“I can blitz pick up. It’s not hard,” Clement said Friday. “If they need me on third downs, I’ll be ready for it.”
Blount was not available to most reporters Friday, but on Thursday, he reiterated what he has said ever since he first was asked about fitting into a West Coast offense: “I can catch the ball.”
Clement never caught more than 14 passes in a season at Wisconsin, and has faced questions along those lines since he arrived here last spring.
“I know I answered this in training camp – like I said, throw me the ball. I can catch it. I don’t think I dropped one all training camp,” Clement said.
Clement is a fan favorite, as an undrafted player who grew up in Glassboro. He is looking forward to seeing his most extensive action of the season, in front of the home crowd.
“Playing in front of this crowd means a lot. Playing for my city means even much more. Playing for my family and friends – just stacking up each one, holding it in my back pocket, knowing what I’m trying to represent out there really allows me to play at a high level,” Clement said.
The backs had seemed to be settling into roles. Smallwood’s injury blurs those lines.
“We do have specific runs for guys, but all the guys have to know those specific runs,” Pederson said. “We do call for specific guys in certain situations, but listen, LeGarrette has to know them all, Corey has to know them all, Wendell has to know them all, even Kenjon Barner has to know them all.”
Barner played here under Pederson last season, but the staff seems to think he needs a lengthy reintroduction to the offense.
“The thing is, it’s one thing to know it and kind of have a refresher course, but then to do it full speed on game day is a little different,” Pederson said. “Want to make sure he’s comfortable with whatever we decide to put him in on, he’s comfortable with protections, with runs, with routes, whatever it might be.”
One factor lurking behind the injury situation and Sunday’s decisions: The Eagles play again Thursday, at Carolina. If Smallwood tries to play Sunday, would he be able to play again so quickly? And a player with a longer-term injury, such as Cox – if he didn’t practice at all this week and was ruled out of Sunday’s game two days early, is there much hope of him playing Thursday?
After Carolina, the Eagles have a break that’s a day longer than usual, following a Thursday game – they don’t play again until Monday, Oct. 23, at home against Washington. It’s easy to envision them maybe targeting that date for Cox, Smallwood and injured starting corner Ron Darby, who suffered an ankle dislocation in the opener.
Birdseed: The Cardinals will be playing outdoors for the first time this season, on what is predicted to be a muggy, rainy afternoon … Arizona left tackle D.J. Humphries was ruled out Friday with a knee injury. Other notable Cards missing include running back David Johnson (wrist) and pass rusher Markus Golden (knee).