I've been waiting for this for a year. When DeSean Jackson was released, it was widely regarded as a wake-up call to LeSean McCoy, an innocuous class clown type whose professional and personal off-field habits have come under scrutiny, to get his act together and fall in line with the program — a "you're next" warning shot. By all accounts he did just that, but the reality was simple: It didn't matter what Shady did, 2014 was going to be his last hurrah as an Eagle. Age, cap number and the systematic philosophy of his head coach's offense were all working against him.
There were even rumblings that if Chip Kelly had his druthers, McCoy would've been shipped out at maximum value last offseason. However, the backlash stemming from the convoluted DeSean Jackson release was so vociferous that, from a public relations standpoint, it likely would've been too much to combat. Kelly obviously doesn't care about what anyone outside his immediate sphere thinks and could give a damn about public relations, but, as much as he'd like to, he doesn't operate in a vacuum. Who knows the level of truth, if Shady was in legit danger last offseason or if it was writing on the wall for 2015, but people who would know talked about it.
The inevitability of McCoy's impending departure only intensified during the season when, quite frankly, he did not look like the same player. How many times do you remember him making a defender miss or ripping off a signature "wow" run? The advanced stats backed it up, too. The offensive line being an injured, jumbled mess for the first part of the season was a valid excuse, as the line of scrimmage was getting reestablished yards deep in the backfield at the snap and plays were nuked before they could develop. Even so, when there were holes, McCoy hesitated, danced or altogether eschewed them. Then Lane Johnson, Jason Kelce and Evan Mathis returned and the full unit rounded into form, but McCoy still didn't look right. He went down easily, often in the grasp of a single defender. Plays where he would abandon the blocking scheme and improvise worked out when he could juke defenders and dart to open space, but they became losses instead of gains without his trademark ability and ruined tempo. The burst, quickness, shimmy shakes and unique lateral agility were all lacking. McCoy was a split second slow, a split second off, and that's really all it takes. He was indecisive, lethargic and just... bleh. Sure, he could still hit a gaping hole and delivered a performance to remember against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving, but Shady was not his usual, extraordinary self in 2014. That much was clear. Mostly he felt like a liability, a once sleek sports car that was leaking oil and breaking down. The question we all had to consider: Was this an anomaly, or the foreteller of decline?
NFL running backs start to decline after age 27. LeSean McCoy turns 27 in July. http://t.co/SvaIVdEzL4 pic.twitter.com/L210SbGUft— Brandon Lee Gowton (@BrandonGowton) March 4, 2015
The trend is unmistakable and the age curve for running backs is real, especially ones with a significant accumulation of wear and tear. The key to longevity at the position is, unsurprisingly, less or delayed usage. Related: Frank Gore is a cyborg. McCoy is at 1,761 career touches. If last season was merely a blip, it's still fair to wonder how many seasons of impact productivity he has left. One, maybe two? Here's an article Austin Lee of Pro Football Focus wrote in 2012 that examines the decline of fantasy points commensurate with career touches, and then another from Football Docs about the effect of a sudden increase in carries on future production (McCoy's 2013 and 2014 seasons fit into the second table). Then there's this from Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball):
Positive: LeSean McCoy rushed for over 6,000 yds past 5 yrs.
Negative: Since 1970, RBs who total 6k in 5 yrs rush for ~3k over next 5 yrs.— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) March 4, 2015
It's strange to think about age 27, which McCoy will turn in July, as the beginning of the end of the prime of a career. For any other profession — and life in general — it's just the beginning. But being an NFL running back isn't any other profession, and it has a short, brutal shelf life. I'm three months older than Shady and it's mind-blowing to think about. The destiny of an NFL running back is to be used and abused over a finite time period, then discarded. When a running back loses a step, the decline accelerates exponentially — it's rapid, dramatic, unsightly. Within a year or two, they're completely done. Shady, who peaked in 2013 after a 57% increase in carries from 2012, is at the edge of that cliff.
Before the 2014 season started, Jimmy Kempski told me something to the effect of, "You know how you'll know if Shady is done with the Eagles? If they give him over 300 carries. They're going to ride him into the ground one final time and then get rid of him." McCoy, who logged 314 carries in 2013, finished 2014 with 312 carries, and his 626 carries over the last two seasons is tops in the NFL. Now, not that the 12 extra carries is some definite tipping point, but it was a prediction that stuck in my mind nonetheless. Kelly even started to phase McCoy out in short yardage and goal line situations as the season progressed, and word is their relationship had begun to fracture. I don't know what the succession plan is, but there's one in place, whether it be a free agent (where I'd prefer to go with a short-term, low risk/high reward signing) or drafting a player and going with a committee that includes Chris Polk and Darren Sproles (and Matthew Tucker?). WHERE'S HENRY JOSEY?!?!?! I also get the sense Chip's targeting Shane Vereen. And, by the way: The ground game is going to be fine without Shady, so long as whoever is toting the rock can see and attack holes.
I'll miss LeSean McCoy and remember him fondly as the all-time leading rusher in franchise history. I'll remember the good times when he put the offense on his back, the exhilarating runs that got me out of my seat, made me gasp in amazement and dropped my jaw to the floor. Though when you strip emotion from the equation and look at this objectively, it's undoubtedly the right move. Better to get rid of an asset (especially one that's depreciating) a year early than a year late, and the Eagles are taking a calculated risk that should result strongly in their favor by acquiring a dynamic player entering his prime and who is cost-controlled for another three seasons. The alternative could very well have been cutting Shady and treating the cap savings as the sole reward (we all know how well everyone reacted when that happened with DeSean). Naturally, Kiko Alonso has to fully recover from an ACL tear — and has now torn both — that robbed him of all of the 2014 season, but he was a superstar from the very second he stepped foot on an NFL field. The upside of him pairing with fellow freak Mychal Kendricks in the middle of this defense is tremendously exciting — as exciting as, say, a vintage Shady run.
There's still a lot left to be done with free agency on the horizon and the building crescendo of a trade to get into position to select Marcus Mariota. Everyone said to expect a wild and transformative offseason, but the anticipation of expectation is never as jarring as the gravity of reality. The Eagles now have nearly $50 million in cap room (a chunk of which could be going to Jeremy Maclin) that will increase further if/when DeMeco Ryans is cut, and they're just getting started. See you next week.