ALL WEEK LONG, he carried a football with him. To meetings. To lunch. LeSean McCoy squeezed the ball against his ribs as he ate, cradled it in one hand as he turned the pages to his playbook.
"Take it to bed with you?" he was asked after yesterday's 34-14 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.
"No," the Eagles' rookie running back replied. "Not to bed."
McCoy did this on his own, before he found out that Brian Westbrook's iffy ankle would be rested, before he found out yesterday would be his first NFL start.
He had been used on a limited basis in the Eagles' first two games - nine carries against the Carolina Panthers, five in last weekend's loss to the Saints. He played well at times, but there were rookie moments as well: missing blocking assignments, running to the wrong place.
And there was a moment in each game in which the ball popped free from his hands, too.
"I don't want to get that tag that 'He can't hold onto the ball,' " he said. "So I made it one of those things to myself that I was going to hold onto the ball no matter what."
McCoy scored the game's first touchdown yesterday, the first of his NFL career, too, bouncing and churning from 5 yards out after taking a direct snap. It was a great run, complete with a 180-degree spin on the 3, but the most impressive part was that most of it was done with both hands on the ball.
"Nice and high and tight with plenty of leverage on it," said Eagles coach Andy Reid.
"I didn't want to get in trouble with that," McCoy said. "Sometimes during the game I get carried away and the ball gets away from my body."
The theme of yesterday's easy victory over the hapless Chiefs was the future. Kevin Kolb again passed for more than 300 yards in his second straight start. With eight more catches, Brent Celek has 22 catches in three games, five short of his 2008 regular season total. DeSean Jackson caught 10 passes, one for 64 yards, another for 43 yards.
In place of Westbrook, McCoy ran the ball 20 times for 84 yards. Many of those yards were hard-fought, and a few ended with him pushing and shoving for a few more inches, the kind of plays that so often end with a ball popping loose.
It never did. Not even a bobble.
Reid called it "a complete game." Ball security was part of that obviously, but what had the head coach uncharacteristically gushy were some of the plays McCoy made without the ball. On Jackson's 43-yard catch, which was a quick slant, McCoy picked up a blitzer and bought Kolb an extra second or 2 to complete the play.
They are moments that don't get you game balls, but gain trust. Kolb will be back on the pine in 2 weeks. Celek will be catching Donovan McNabb's pitches and bowling people over. Despite a few left turns yesterday instead of rights, despite a ridiculous launch into the end zone after missing practice with a sore groin, Jackson will be back out there as well, because what he brings to this team can not be duplicated.
Assuming Westbrook returns to health after Sunday's bye, McCoy's role will be limited again. But recent history suggests there will be more chances for the rookie. You can even argue that his performance - not Kolb's - was the most important of yesterday's blowout.
At least on the immediate horizon.
"I thought he protected well and ran the ball well," Reid said. "They threw some different blitzes at us, and he had to come across the formation . . .
"Are there things I can find that he can do better after I watch the film? I'm sure I'll find something there, but he played well."
Maybe as important for someone who projects as Westbrook's heir is that he behaved well, too, before, during and after. McCoy's bond with Westbrook, whom he called "my big brother," is no act, and it's clear that he clutches to advice given like he held onto the ball yesterday. McCoy celebrated his first-ever NFL touchdown with something he called "The stinky dance," but what came next probably describes him better - and suggests longevity, if not impending stardom.
After walking around with a ball in his hands all week, McCoy lost track of the ball he carried into the end zone for his first touchdown.
"Oh my God. I forgot all about it," he said. "I was so excited. I've got to get that ball. You think it's too late?"
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