The self-proclaimed best running back in the NFL was 54 inches from an improbable victory with two minutes left when something very strange happened on Sunday afternoon in San Francisco. LeSean McCoy didn’t touch the ball, and the Eagles lost their first game of the season.
With the outcome hanging in the balance, how could coach Chip Kelly ignore a player who just a few weeks ago was boasting about a 2,000-yard season? Were two throws into the end zone by a struggling Nick Foles a better option than McCoy? Is it possible that McCoy, at 26, has a mouth that now moves faster than his legs?
It is a sacrilege to say so, but still it must be said. McCoy is not the runner he has been over the past five years, and this sad reality cost the Eagles a game on Sunday. After a combined 1,501 runs and catches in his NFL career, he has lost a step. Even the very best running backs cannot elude the passage of time.
Of course, after the game – and again yesterday on my WIP radio show – Kelly remained loyal to McCoy, blaming the runner’s 2.7-yard-per-carry average on a depleted offensive line. To an extent, that excuse is valid, but the coach’s play-calls carried more weight than his words. And what Kelly concluded during the break at the two-minute warning was that McCoy couldn’t get him 54 inches.
Let the profound nature of that fact sink in for a second. The Eagles needed to break one tackle, to slip through one crack in the 49ers’ front defensive line, and Kelly didn’t have faith that McCoy could do it. The most innovative mind in football opted for two uncreative plays by a skittish quarterback rather than handing the ball to McCoy.
All around, it was not a good day for McCoy. During the game, lineman Jason Peters was seen trying to console him as the frustration continued to build, and afterwards the running back said he would talk about anything but his running -- which is one way to end any conversation very quickly.
The Eagles are facing a flood of issues right now, including the health of the offensive line, the struggles of the defensive secondary and the team’s chronic slow starts. Still, McCoy’s stunning drop from an amazing 5.1 yards per carry in 2013 is emerging as the story of the season. He is currently ranked 45th among NFL running backs – down from first a year ago. Those numbers don’t lie.
But players often do, especially to themselves. McCoy prefers to believe that he is merely the victim of losing Jason Kelce and Evan Mathis to serious injuries, not his own inevitable decline. Brian Westbrook started his fade at 28, Wilbert Montgomery at 27. You can look it up. Those numbers don’t lie, either.
Ultimately, the Eagles will survive the disappointment of their first loss, and McCoy will perform more effectively in the weeks ahead. But the story of Sunday’s game will persist. It was the day when 54 inches was too much to expect from the NFL’s best running back.