Do you know why the Eagles have played 45 consecutive regular-season games without back-to-back losses? (No other team comes close to that run; Tampa Bay is second with 27 straight.)
Sure, Philadelphia has been shutting down opponents for the last three seasons, finishing among the top 10 in the NFL in team defense each year. Yes, quarterback Donovan McNabb, though streaky, has emerged as the offensive cornerstone coach Andy Reid thought he was getting when he made McNabb the No. 2 pick in the 1999 draft. But the secret to the Eagles' consistently strong performance—they are the winningest NFL team since the start of the 2000 campaign—is the running game. Philly averaged 4.5 yards per carry over the last three years.
That translates into ball control. The Eagles had a 2:20 edge in time of possession per game in 2002, 11th best in the NFL, even with McNabb missing six games with a broken ankle. And after backup Koy Detmer was hurt in his first start for McNabb, third-stringer A.J. Feeley had to take over the next five games. Though Reid may be known as a West Coast, pass-happy coach, remember that he was an offensive line assistant for 14 years and likes to pound it.
That brings us to this dicey question: Is third-year back Correll Buckhalter, who hasn't been an every-down player since his senior year in high school, the man to keep the Philadelphia rushing attack in gear?
Because of a 26-day holdout by incumbent running back Duce Staley, who has one year, at $2.2 million, remaining on his contract and didn't report until Sunday, Buckhalter had a clear shot at becoming the starter in training camp. The 6-foot, 222-pound Buckhalter was a backup at Nebraska for four seasons, averaging nine carries a game. A fourth-round pick in 2001, he set the Eagles' rookie rushing record as Staley's understudy, with 586 yards and a 4.5-yard average per carry. Then, in an April '02 minicamp while preparing to compete with Staley for the starting job, Buckhalter tore the ACL in his left knee and missed all last season.
Even with Staley back in camp Buckhalter, if healthy, will most likely get the bulk of the workload, 15 to 18 carries a game. Though he occasionally struggled in camp—not always picking the right hole or knowing when to make a cut—his athleticism is superior to Staley's. In one morning workout he took a handoff, cut upfield and ran past a corner and a safety. That's the kind of move that has the Eagles thinking Buckhalter is more of an all-around threat than Staley. "He's a guy who definitely can change the pace of the game," says McNabb.
One of the reasons the Eagles are trying to get quicker on offense and defense (page 70) is to avoid disasters like their 27-10 loss in the NFC Championship Game, in which Tampa Bay ran circles around Philadelphia. So look for change-of-pace back Brian Westbrook to get more than the 55 touches (46 rushing, nine receiving) he got as a rookie last year. There's little question that if Buckhalter and Westbrook combine for 22 to 25 carries a game and Staley gets the remainder, Philadelphia will have a more athletic backfield than it had last year.
In the physical NFC, though, it's just as important for running backs to be durable as athletic. "I prepared myself all through the spring and summer to be the man," Buckhalter says. "Whether it's 10, 15, 20 or 25 carries each Sunday, I know I can do it. Remember, I went to Nebraska, and all they play there is hard-nosed football. I'm ready for the hard-nosed football of the NFC. Running backs run the ball. Football's football. Don't make too much of it."
It's understandable for Eagle Nation to fret about a player coming off knee surgery and at the same time becoming an NFL starter. All that's at stake is the Super Bowl.
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