After the Eagles finished their season in January, Darren Sproles cleaned out his locker, flew back to his home in suburban San Diego, spent a week decompressing, then sat down with his wife, Michel, and discussed the R-word.
Sproles was 33 going on 34 (he turned 34 in June), which is well past the sell-by date for an NFL running back.
He had a career-high 94 rushing attempts and 146 total touches from scrimmage, the second most of his career. He had a late-season concussion that sidelined him for a game.
He handled the heavy workload fine, averaging 4.7 yards per carry, 8.2 yards per catch and a career-high 13.2 yards on punt returns.
But his two daughters, Devyn and Rhyan, were going to be eight and three. He had had a good, long run, and wondered whether it might be time to get on with the rest of his life.
“I sat down and talked it over with my wife,’’ Sproles said Monday. “She was fine either way.
“But I decided I wasn’t ready yet. We haven’t been to the playoffs since I got here [in 2014]. I didn’t want to leave like that, you know what I’m saying?’’
There’s obviously no guarantee that the Eagles are going to make the playoffs this season, but Sproles wanted to return for at least one more try.
“The guy’s 35 and plays like he’s 26,’’ running backs coach Duce Staley said. “He’s running around out there and beating veterans. Guys will have the angle on him, and he’s beating them to the angle. In my opinion, he still has two-three years left.’’
That might be so, but Sproles is only focused on this season right now.
The Eagles are limiting Sproles’ summer workload, so that he’ll be fresh for Week 1 against Washington. That’s something they’re also doing with a few other veterans, including wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, 35-year-old left tackle Jason Peters, and 30-year-old running back LeGarrette Blount.
Sproles didn’t play in last week’s first preseason game against Green Bay and, according to head coach Doug Pederson, probably won’t play in any of the remaining three exhibition contests as well, including Thursday night against Buffalo.
Last summer, in Pederson’s first year as head coach, Sproles played just 18 snaps and had only four touches during the preseason.
Pederson is also rationing Sproles’ practice reps.
“For us, having all these bodies (there are six running backs in camp), that’s huge,’’ Sproles said. “It keeps everybody fresh.
“You just have to make sure that, in practice, you’re really getting your work in as far as timing and all that.’’
Sproles takes care of his body. Even at Sproles’ advanced football age, no one on the Eagles trains harder.
Despite the heavy workload last year, he said he felt surprisingly good after the season.
“I only took a week off, so that should tell you,’’ he said.
The year before, he skipped all of the Eagles’ voluntary OTAs so that he could spend more time with his children in the offseason.
After Sproles made the decision to return and play at least one more year, it was assumed he would once again skip OTAs and spend the spring on the West Coast.
But with two rookies and two second-year players among the Eagles’ six running backs, Staley told Sproles he was needed at the spring workouts. Since they were voluntary, he could’ve said no. But he never considered doing that.
“He wanted me here because our room was young,’’ Sproles said. “He wanted me here to help out the young guys.’’
Sproles has been a valuable mentor for rookie fourth-round pick Donnel Pumphrey. The 5-9, 176-pound Pumphrey and the 5-6, 190-pound Sproles are similar players who are lethal in space and can line up anywhere in the formation.
“With my role, having Darren to learn from is invaluable,’’ Pumphrey said. “I talk to him all the time. He gives me advice on what I can do better. It’s definitely helped my game.’’
Said Sproles: “He’s going to be a great player. The thing about him is he really wants to learn. He asks a lot of questions, and that’s good.’’
With the arrival of the 6-0, 240-pound Blount, Sproles will probably be used less as a runner this season and more as a receiver. Same with Pumphrey.
Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich want to get the ball to both of them in space as often as possible. Pumphrey played 26 snaps last week against the Packers and was targeted six times. He had five catches, most on flares out of the backfield, for just 12 yards.
“That’s just our thing now,’’ Sproles said. “More so than even last year. We’re trying to get mismatches. Once you get [the ball to us] in space, that’s our strength.’’
Eagles cornerback Aaron Grymes said both Sproles and Pumphrey are a nightmare to stop in space single-handedly.
“Once they get the ball in the flat and they’re out there in space, it’s tough to bring them down,’’ Grymes said. “You have to make a quick decision. Otherwise, they’re going to make you look really bad.
“When they have the ball in their hands, that’s when the trouble starts happening.’’