One of the Eagles’ biggest offseason stories broke over the weekend when they traded
basically nothing a conditional sixth-round pick in 2020 for Bears running back Jordan Howard, who found himself as the odd man out in Matt Nagy’s offense. Naturally, I was away in Boston for the weekend doing nerd things, and couldn’t really say much as it happened. A lot has been said about the trade since then, and there’s one thing being repeated that I disagree with and felt compelled to address: “Jordan Howard is not a 3-down back” and its counterpart, “Jordan Howard is an early-down back.” These phrases are tossed around as if they’re an accepted truth, and I don’t think they are, as my title suggests. But before diving into my argument, let’s discuss definitions so we’re on the same page.
So what is a “3-down back,” anyway?
This is an important question to answer, as I’ve seen it used in different contexts. The one I (admittedly) see the most is a running back who is a legitimate receiving threat out of the backfield, since he can catch the ball on an obvious passing down. Jordan Howard has not been this player during his career, so if you are insistent that this is the correct definition of a 3-down back, you might as well stop reading now and jump down to the comments to tell me how wrong I am. I won’t argue with you on this.
Another answer to this question is a “featured back” who takes the majority of snaps throughout a season, in the mold of Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley, or Saquon Barkley. While Jordan Howard is durable and thus capable of handling 300+ carries in a season, it would be in a smashmouth run-first offense. This is not Doug’s offense, so Jordan doesn’t fit this definition either. Again, if this is your definition of a 3-down back, you can stop reading and tell me I’m wrong in the comments, although I’m more likely to fight you here, because I think this concept is covered by bell-cow back and workhorse back, which to me is a separate idea from 3-down back.
And finally, there’s the literal interpretation of “3-down back”: a running back who adds value to the offense by being on the field on a third down. This is the definition I’m using for this article, and while it may not be exactly how people interpret the phrase, when you say someone is not a 3-down back it implies he isn’t really useful on third down, or at the very least not as useful as pass-catchers. I strongly disagree with this implication, which is why I get bothered when I see this description of Howard. And now that we have our definitions all squared away, I can tell you why I get bothered.
What makes Jordan Howard a 3-down back?
This is an excellent question with a simple answer! Say it with me, everyone:
Jordan Howard can pass block.
Jordan Howard can pass block.
Jordan Howard can pass block.
This has absolutely been discussed before - but only really in passing. It’s been an afterthought, as in “Oh yeah he’s also good in pass protection, which is, like, cool I guess.” I think people are massively underestimating the value that a great pass-blocking running back brings to Doug’s offense, and how much he himself values a running back who is an asset in pass protection.
Take a trip down memory lane for a moment to 2016. It’s late October, and Doug is being hounded by the Philly media for overusing Darren Sproles. Aside from a boilerplate statement about going with the “hot hand,” how does Doug justify it? “He is our best pass blocker in the backfield.” In 2017, former fifth-round pick Wendell Smallwood found himself phased out in favor of UDFA Corey Clement, but why? On top of Clement being a better receiver, he also developed into a better pass blocker, which helped keep him on the field on third down. And just last year, Smallwood saw the same thing happen again, this time with Josh Adams, who not only showed more explosiveness as a runner (albeit temporarily) but also added more value as a pass blocker.
While there have been different reasons for Doug to favor one running back over the other during his time as head coach, one underlying theme is that he values pass protection in his running backs. This is because having a pass-blocking running back helps makes Doug’s offense unpredictable. I say this with full knowledge that “predictability” was a big reason why Howard wasn’t a fit in Matt Nagy’s offense - “if he was on the field, he was going to be handed the ball” - but Matt Nagy’s offense is not Doug Pederson’s offense (despite the identical coaching lineage), and there’s more than one way to make an offense unpredictable.
Matt Nagy wants to make his offense unpredictable by acquiring versatile players that can do multiple things with the ball in their hands. Quarterbacks who can run the option. Wide receivers that can run the jet sweep. And of course, running backs that can catch the ball. This is why Jordan Howard fell out of favor in Chicago - he was not really a receiving threat and will never be one.
On the other hand, Doug Pederson wants to make his offense unpredictable by having multiple plays that run out of identical formations. In other words, instead of having post-snap unpredictability (“What is he going to do with the ball?”), Doug favors pre-snap unpredictability (“Who is going to get the ball?”). In simple terms, Jordan Howard adds to pre-snap unpredictability because you can’t really be sure if he’s going to get the ball or stay in to pass block. This sounds really obtuse, and a dumb reason for a 1700+ word article, but the genius behind it begins to show itself when you analyze the current state of the roster, and one player in particular: Dallas Goedert.
Don’t worry, I’m going somewhere with this. In case you missed it in an edition of The Linc, Goedert (who was already a talented pass catcher) actually graded out as a top-five run-blocking tight end in his rookie season. Assuming he continues to develop, he will only get better. Now, between Howard and Goedert, we have the following skills offered by only 2 players:
- pass blocking
- run blocking
- pass catching
- downhill rushing
Starting to see where I’m going with this? Let’s assume the Eagles are facing a 3rd-and-4 (ah hell, let’s make it a 4th-and-4). They are in 12 personnel, since Doug learned that his offense is more successful in this grouping from last year. Carson Wentz is under center, Howard is lined up behind him, and Goedert is the in-line tight end. The ball is snapped, Goedert comes across to deliver a punishing trap block, and the red sea parts as Howard rumbles ahead with the handoff for six yards. First down.
Or or OR... the ball is snapped, Carson fakes the handoff, Howard holds a blitzer at bay while the line fakes a sweep to the left, and Goedert leaks out to the right for an easy pitch and catch on a tight end throwback for six yards. First down.
Both of these plays came out of the exact same formation. If you’re a defender, the question is: who gets the damn ball? Unless the Eagles mistakenly build a tell into their alignment or hard count, it’s impossible to really know. Moreover, who says the decision even needs to be made pre-snap? The Eagles already run a ton of RPOs. Let a defender pick his poison after the snap - but instead of crashing on the runningback or quarterback, he’s crashing on the runningback or tight end. This is the potential I believe Doug sees in a runningback with great pass-blocking skills.
Okay, fine, but what about 3rd-and-longs?
What about them? The example I gave above is just that - an example. One that primarily involved 2 players. Doug can whip up an entire Howard/Goedert subpackage of plays, all out of the same 2 or 3 formations, and we haven’t even discussed on how he can involve the rest of the offense, which includes the NFL’s best tight end, the greatest deep threat in NFL history, and one of the league’s best contested catchers. With a receiving corps like that, it gives you a lot of room for creativity in your running game.
Remember that, in 2017, the Eagles popped off more 10+ yard runs than any other team in the league. If it’s 3rd-and-7 (or even longer), and you have DeSean Jackson lined up outside, an HB draw could be just the trick to catch the defense off-guard. And if you decide to throw it, is it really such an awful thing to have an extra blocker in on long-developing routes? You can have Howard, Goedert, Ertz, Jackson, and Jeffery on the field all at the same time. With that kind of pass-catching prowess, are you really gaining anything by losing a blocker to shove Aggy onto the field as well (with all due respect to Agholor, of course)? I’m not so sure.
All right, I’m convinced (or am I?)
What constitutes a “3-down back” is subjective. If you think a “3-down back” needs to be a legitimate receiving threat, then I won’t have changed your mind. And that’s fine. It’s okay to have a runningback that can’t really catch - the Eagles won the Super Bowl with one like that 2 years ago.
But to say that such a player adds no value on third down and must be banished to the bench in favor of one with more pass-catching abilities EVERY SINGLE TIME isn’t really fair, either. And to be clear, I’m not saying that the role played by Clement or Sproles should be diminished in their roles - the Eagles need a pass-catching runningback in their stable. Howard may be a 3-down back, but he’s not their only back.
All I’m saying is that Howard’s role may be bigger (and more impactful) than what we expect, because of the offense that Doug runs. And I’ll trust Doug over any pundit that relegates Howard to the status of “early down bruiser.”