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Replacing Shady: The 60 Million Dollar Backfield (Part 1)

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This article is a free sample from the 2015 Eagles Almanac. Eagles Almanac 2015 is the fourth annual preview emagazine self-published by your favorite writers and bloggers, bringing more than 120 pages of ad-free analysis, interviews, essays, scouting, statistics and more. Purchase your copy available as a PDF download or a paperback copy. The Almanac is available for purchase at http://www.eaglesalmanac.com/

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

In what will go down as one of the most memorable offseasons in Philadelphia Eagles history, it’s hard to point to one transaction as the biggest and most shocking. However, on March the 3rd, 2015 newly appointed GM Chip Kelly dropped a stunner on Eagles nation. Word broke that the Eagles had traded their franchise running back Lesean McCoy to the Buffalo Bills for former Oregon Duck, Kiko Alonso.

The immediate justification for this move was that it was made for salary cap purposes. McCoy was scheduled to account for almost 12 million against the 2015 cap. The line of thinking was that Chip Kelly didn’t need a superstar running back to succeed in his scheme and that he was making this move to invest more money on the defensive side of the ball. Furthermore, we should expect the Eagles to draft a running back or two to go along with Darren Sproles and Chris Polk. However, this wasn’t Chip’s plan. He immediately "signed" Frank Gore and the Eagles were rumored to be in the mix for former Chargers running back, Ryan Mathews. As we all know, Gore had a change of heart forcing Chip to make another move. That one turned out to be a stunner. Less than 2 weeks later the Eagles signed the 2014 NFL Rushing Champ and former Cowboy, Demarco Murray to a 5 year, $40,000,000 contract: So much for the cap savings argument and the fact that Chip didn’t need a superstar runner.

Since then, the dialog has changed more towards Lesean’s personality and the fact that he wasn’t a #culturefit. There’s also been the argument that from a purely football perspective Lesean’s running style just didn’t fit Chip’s taste and scheme. The truth likely lies as a combination of all these lines of reasoning. My best guess is that Chip’s decision to move on was a mix of financial, culture and football reasons and from my perspective, the last one is the most fascinating. Is Shady’s admittedly All-Pro running style an ideal match for Chip’s schemes and philosophies?

There are a lot of stats one can pull out to compare Shady vs. Demarco. Things like # of negative runs, # of 1st downs, # of explosive plays, etc. Diving deeply into those stats is a job for one of my other more qualified Almanac co-authors. However, one stat really jumped out at me from a pure philosophy perspective. In 2014, Demarco Murray had 1200+ rushing yards on 1st down alone. By contrast, McCoy amassed ~700 on 1st down. That is a massive discrepancy and when you think about it, that statistic had to catch Chip’s eye. Think about the tempo that Chip wants to run. The Eagles want to go fast. They want to quickly convert 1st downs and they want to score quickly. They want to avoid 3 and outs. Fundamental to this type of offense are manageable 2nd and 3rd downs, which enable you to move the chains and keep the drive going.

One of the weaknesses of Chip Kelly’s fast paced offense is that if the offense goes 3 and out it really puts the pressure on the defense. Naturally, Kelly wants to keep his 3 and outs to a minimum. By comparison the Cowboys were amongst the league leaders in lowest 3 and out drives (28) compared to the Eagles (37). The Cowboys 3 and out percentage was 15.64% vs. the Eagles of 18.23%. Obviously there are a lot of factors that go into those statistics and it’s foolish to trust stats alone. To really understand whether Demarco and Mathews are a better fit than Shady, we must go to the tape.

To begin with, you don’t need to watch much film of Ryan Mathews and Demarco Murray to notice a dramatically different running style from Lesean McCoy. Mathews and Murray are violent, one-cut runners. McCoy is more finesse and likes to dance and juke defenders. I’m not about to argue which style is better, both have their clear advantages, but when you understand the running plays and schemes the Eagles run, the picture becomes a bit clearer.

To break it down to a very high-level, the Eagles essentially employ 4 running plays. Inside zone, outside zone, power, and the sweep. Anything else is mostly just dressing up those runs with different motions and personnel. It’s really that simple. The Eagles also run a zone blocking scheme which is important to understand in the context of this discussion. We at the Chipwagon blog have spent a lot of time breaking down the details of the inside zone. Here’s a good place to start (start at the bottom and keep hitting previous to go through a couple of series we have done).

Below is a perfect illustration of the benefits of a zone blocking scheme. As highlighted below, the yellow arrow shows 4 different paths that McCoy can take on this run. Starting from the left he can cut back behind Brent Celek’s block, he can hit the left side B gap, he can hit the wide open A gap or the right side B gap. This play is so well blocked McCoy can almost do no wrong on options 2, 3, and 4. On this play he makes the right choice and hits the play down the middle in the left-side A gap for a nice gain:

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However, things don’t always look this rosy depending on the OL execution and the defensive front that gets employed. As a running back, you won’t always be faced with 3 or 4 nice paths into the secondary. This is where patience and decisiveness become key traits in a running back behind a zone blocking scheme. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Below we’ll see a well-executed outside zone stretch play. The first one highlights the blocking assignments from the OL. The second highlights 3 potential paths for McCoy on the playside (note the strong side A gap looks like the poorest option due to an unblocked LB filling this gap). The third shows the option McCoy chose and the fourth highlights how McCoy is rewarded with making the right read and decision:

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At times, McCoy doesn’t make the best decision, but his elite elusiveness saves him. Here’s a good example. This is another outside zone stretch play. The figure below shows 3 potential paths for McCoy. The arrow in red highlights probably the worst option of the 3 for McCoy, yet that’s the one he chooses. He decides to cut back to where the defensive pursuit is coming from and makes some nice moves to break free for a nice gain. Nice highlight but not how the play was drawn up.

Finally let’s move to a couple of examples that likely had Chip Kelly pulling his hair out in the film room. The first example is an Eagles 1st down in the red zone against the Colts. The Eagles call an inside zone run and at the mesh point Shady appears to have good daylight on the strong side B gap:

A second later, while Kelly has not dominated his block and the defender is making ground, there’s still a crease exactly where the play is designed to go and Kelce has a great block on the 2nd level. It’s here that you want McCoy to just hit the hole. Some of this is situational football. It’s 1st down in the red zone, get positive yards, don’t risk losing yards:

Instead, Shady hesitates and chooses to kick it outside. Making matters worse is that his blockers are backups Dennis Kelly and Andrew Gardner. He’s putting them in a position to sustain their blocks far too long. The result ends up being a negative play on 1st down on a key red zone possession:

Here’s another inside zone run against the Redskins. The Eagles execute a nice combo block and the David Molk is peeling off to get to Perry Riley #56 at the second level:

What you see next is great execution on the combo block and peel and a beautiful path for Shady to run through:

Inexplicably, he doesn’t take it. Instead he hesitates, dances and tries to cut back spoiling the potential for an explosive play:

The last McCoy play I will highlight is a sweep read where Sanchez will read an unblocked interior defender. This play is designed to go to the outside but the running back can make a cut when they see daylight. Here Shady appears to have just that. If Shady cuts up the middle he has a lot of room to run:

Instead he hesitates, dances and runs straight into Jason Pierre-Paul for a loss trying to stretch the play to the outside. (In fairness to Shady, it’s really easy to stop the tape and argue that he has room to run. On the field in real time, those holes close quickly and the fact that the unblocked defender really doesn’t have to respect Mark Sanchez as a runner on the zone read doesn’t help him. That said, it sure appears  as though McCoy had room to slide through:

That’s about enough Shady bashing. The truth is, for every bad decision Shady made there are probably 3-4 good decisions leading to positive runs. All running backs make the wrong read or hesitate from time to time. However, it just wasn’t that difficult to find illustrative examples of McCoy not trusting his blocking and the call on the field on a weekly basis. In the end, it comes down to running style.

In  Part 2 of this series that is available in the 2015 Eagles Almanac (Buy Here) we'll have a look how Ryan Mathews fits into Chip's scheme.

Ryan Sasaki is the author and owner of the ChipWagon blog with fellow contributors David Wieck and Bob Klein. Visit the blog for daily/weekly breakdowns at http://chipwagon.typepad.com and follow him on twitter at @chipwagoneer