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Are the Eagles really going to try running back-by-committee?

The Eagles have four capable running backs. How will they use them?

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

In the Eagles’ win over the Bears on Monday night, Darren Sproles ran the ball 12 times, and Ryan Mathews ran the ball nine times.

You might have heard that people were confused by this distribution. You may have been confused yourself. I was certainly a little surprised.

In the days since, and particularly in Doug Pederson’s Wednesday’s press conference, the idea of the Eagles trying out a running back-by-committee approach has been floated by many. With Mathews and Sproles, as well as Kenjon Barner and rookie Wendell Smallwood, the Eagles certainly have the bodies at the running back position to give such an approach a try.

"Having four running backs available on game day is awesome," Pederson said Wednesday. "It helps Ryan, it helps Darren, it gives them a break so they’re not taking a pounding every single play."

It sure makes sense to preserve your running backs, trying to keep them as fresh as possible as the season slogs on. Running back is one of the most brutally physical positions in the sport, and injuries crop up constantly. (Just ask Mathews.)

But are the Eagles really going to be using a running back-by-committee approach this season? 

For examination’s sake, let’s lay it out this way: for a running back to be a team’s "primary running back," he has to account for more than 50 percent of the team’s carries by a running back.

That means stripping away quarterback runs and wide receiver runs from the team’s total carry count. Out of the running backs (and fullbacks), for a team to have a designated primary back, he should be the guy doing the lifting on more than half of runs by a running back.

With that in hand, then, we can also say a running back-by-committee approach happens when there is no primary running back.

This seems fair to me. Hopefully it does to you, too.

Going by that criteria, the Eagles have taken the running back-by-committee approach just once since 2003: last season, when DeMarco Murray led the team with 193 carries for 702 yards. He accounted for 49 percent of the team’s rushes by running backs. (And he did not do much with his allotted 49 percent.)

Before that, they came close to dipping below the by-committee line twice, once in 2009, when LeSean McCoy carried 51.5 percent of the team’s running back rushes, and 2005, when Brian Westbrook carried 51.8 percent.

The last true running back-by-committee, before last year, came in 2003, when the Eagles rolled out three backs, by design, and looked great doing it.

That year, they split 340 carries nearly evenly. Correll Buckhalter was the leading rusher, carrying the ball 126 times, for 37 percent of the team’s running back rushes. Westbrook was second, with 117 carries for 34 percent, and Duce Staley was third with 96 carries for 28 percent. (Jon Ritchie carried the ball once, for one yard.)

That was a running back-by-committee. The Eagles had three backs of largely equivalent talent level, each with skill sets for certain situations.

What the Eagles will be doing this season will be a diversified running game, which is smart and good for their players. Ryan Mathews has finished two of his first six seasons in the NFL with 200 carries; in both cases, he didn’t start 10 games the following years.

The Eagles are decidedly not operating a running back-by-committee approach.

Mathews, though two games, has 53 percent of the team’s rushes by running backs. He’ll probably finish the year around that mark.

And that’s okay. In fact, it’s probably for the best. Darren Sproles is 33 years old, and he’s not much of a rusher anymore. Kenjon Barner is good in bursts, which is likely how Doug Pederson will continue to use him. And Wendell Smallwood may have potential in the future, but for now, he’s not a big-numbers back.

What we saw on Monday night was more of a changeup from Pederson than a blueprint for the rest of the season; if Mathews continued to run with the frequency from Week 1, he would never make it to Week 17. By giving Mathews a few carries off here and there, Pederson can preserve his best rusher while giving other, good players opportunities to impress.

But Ryan Mathews is absolutely the Eagles’ primary running back. What we learned on Monday night is that he isn’t their only option.

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