Darren Sproles has heard the arguments time after time, year after year, and after 11-plus seasons they still don’t hold much water.
He’s can’t be the primary ballcarrier.
He’s too valuable in the passing and return game.
He’ll break down by December.
And the case against more Sproles seems to always boil down to his most prominent feature.
“My size,” the 5-foot-6 Sproles said Friday. “It always comes back to my size.”
Some now even mention his age – 34 years old – when making the case against the diminutive running back becoming the Eagles’ workhorse. But no matter the number of carries, the overall touches, or the time of year, he has maintained roughly the same amount of production over his career.
On Sunday, Sproles carried the ball a team-high 10 times in the Eagles’ loss to the Chiefs. Coach Doug Pederson was either looking for a spark after LeGarrette Blount failed to break out in the opener against the Redskins (14 carries for 46 yards), or he wanted to use Sproles’ skills against Kansas City’s defense.
“It depends on the defense,” Sproles said. “Wherever we can get the best mismatches, that’s really the back that’s going to play.”
Pederson ended up calling a pass-heavy offense even though Sproles averaged 4.8 yards a carry. Blount didn’t have one carry, and Wendell Smallwood, who is averaging a paltry 1.1 yards a rush this season, ran three times for 4 yards. Some tailbacks need carries in bulk to get into a rhythm.
But personnel has been as much a source of the Eagles’ ground game woes as execution. Blount has a history of success, but never outside of New England, and he did turn 30 last December – the expiration date often cited for big-bodied tailbacks. And Smallwood has struggled to get out of the gate in his second season.
Sproles, though, doesn’t look as if he has lost a step, and if he has it’s hardly noticeable. He has been great throughout his career, and yet he has never been given the chance to be the No. 1 running back for an extended period.
Would he be fine with 20 carries a game?
“If I have to, then, yeah,” Sproles said.
What if the coaches asked?
“That’s not my role,” Sproles said. “We all have our roles. … My main thing is I want the ball in space. That’s the way I feel like I’m at my best.”
Sproles said that 15 carries would probably be a good amount. And yet he has had more than 15 carries only twice in his career. If there’s a counterargument to more Sproles it’s that he has been a multifaceted threat for so many years because his carries have been kept to a relative minimum.
“When you get 20-something carries a game, they’re pounding you,” Sproles said. “You get them hard-nosed runs. But if I have to, I can do it.”
In 170 games, he has averaged four rushes per game and 4.91 yards per carry; 3.1 catches per game and 8.75 yards per catch; 1.7 punt returns per game and 9.63 yards per return; and 1.9 kick returns per game and 25.2 yards per return.
But when given rare the opportunity to rush more than 10 times a game, he has been as productive as when he logs fewer – 4.80 yards per carry vs. 4.94. Broken into smaller groups, Sproles has averaged 5.41 yards when he has had 0-5 rushes a game (129 times over his career); 4.36 yards when it’s 6-10 (33 times); 5.18 yards when it’s 11-15 (nine times); 2.28 yards when it’s 16-20 (one time); and 4.88 yards when it’s 20-25 (one time).
If there has been a dip in productivity, it has been as a receiver. Sproles has averaged 9.0 yards per catch when he has rushed 10 or fewer times and 5.5 yards when he has rushed more than 10 times. When you break it down, he has averaged 8.49 yards when he has had 0-5 rushes a game; 10.5 yards when it’s 6-10; 5.2 yards when it’s 11-15; 7 yards when it’s 16-20; and 13 yards when it’s 20-25.
But Sproles’ punt return average increased dramatically – 15.62 yards a return vs. 9.04 – when he has rushed more than 10 times. The sample of games with more than 10 carries – 11 total – may not be enough to support the notion that he is better when given more touches, but the same could be said of any dissenting view.
In his four seasons with the Eagles, Sproles has been the lead ballcarrier only five times, and typically in the week or weeks following the No. 1 running back’s struggles.
In 2015, he paced the offense with 15 carries against the Patriots after DeMarco Murray had been demoted. In 2016, after leading the way with 12 rushes in Week 2 against the Bears, he led the way with 15 and 13 totes midseason against the Cowboys and New York Giants following Ryan Mathews’ fumbling problems.
And Sproles took most of the handoffs last Sunday.
“We know that he’s primarily been a third-down guy for us, situational player, and then at times he’s carried the bulk of the load. So I don’t go into it putting a number on it,” Pederson said. “Just kind of keep it more situational with him.”
Sproles had only two carries at Washington, but he still led all running backs in snaps, as he did at Kansas City. Pederson can’t seem to commit to rushing more Sproles, who is the Eagles’ best receiving and blocking tailback, because he already has a significant role.
He can’t be worried that Sproles will break down. His statistics in each month of the season over his career are consistent – from September (4.53 yards per carry, 11.13 yards per catch), to October (5.34, 7.94), to November (4.53, 7.89) to December/January (5.12, 7.83).
Sproles said that he has heard the argument for running him into the ground since this is likely to be his last year in the NFL.
“You can think about it that way, but my main thing is winning right now,” Sproles said. “I want to get to the playoffs first and then we can make a good run to the Super Bowl.”
Running Sproles more may give the Eagles their best shot.