How Sirianni needs to handle Sanders' return


For much of the season, we were begging Nick Sirianni to get Miles Sanders more involved. We might be getting to the point now where we're begging him not to get Sanders involved.

Sirianni is facing quite a dilemma as Sanders nears his return.

Sanders is the Eagles' de facto lead running back, and he's been largely productive when healthy in his three NFL seasons. Since entering the league in 2019, he's one of only seven NFL running backs to average 55 yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry. Up there with Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb, Jonathan Taylor and other elite backs.

Here's the thing.

The Eagles are doing just fine without him. 

Jordan Howard and Boston Scott have been pretty much unstoppable with Sanders sidelined the last three weeks. Since Week 8, there are eight NFL running backs with 180 rushing yards and a 5.0 average, and Howard and Scott are two of the eight.  

Sirianni has masterfully alternated Howard and Scott, keeping defenses off-balance, keeping the chains moving, keeping the clock running, keeping the defense off the field. This is as well as the Eagles have run the ball in half a century, and they've done it with Sanders sidelined with a knee injury.

Scott and Howard don't dance. They don't hesitate. They don't mess around. They hit the hole. No nonsense.

And that's exactly what this offense needs right now.

In the three weeks since Nick Sirianni shifted to a run-first scheme featuring Howard and Scott -- the three games the Eagles have played without Sanders -- the Eagles are No. 2 in the NFL in scoring, No. 4 in total yards, No. 2 in first downs and No. 1 on 3rd-down.

This has become a methodical, grind-it-out, move-the-chains offense that doesn't produce big plays but eats clock, converts third downs and wears down opposing defenses.

And Howard and Scott are the ideal backs to fit that style of play.

I'm not saying don't play Sanders. I'm not saying bench him.

But the Eagles have a good thing going right now and it doesn't make sense to change. 

I like Sanders, but you can't ignore the fact that this offense has been more effective without him. There are a lot of other factors. The O-line has played better, Sirianni's play-calling has improved dramatically and Jalen Hurts has been more efficient. But Scott and Howard have just been consistently productive in a way that Sanders hasn't been.

Over the last three weeks, Howard has averaged 70 yards per game and 5.2 per carry with three TDs and Scott has averaged 60 yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry with two TDs.

Sanders has never rushed for 40 yards with a 4.0 average three straight weeks. Howard and Scott have both done it the last three weeks.

Since 2019, when Sanders, Scott and Howard all made their Eagles debuts, Sanders has lost yards on 11 percent of his runs, Scott 7 percent and Howard 5 percent.

There's something to be said for consistency. There's something to be said for moving forward.

This isn't a knock on Sanders, just an acknowledgment that he's a different kind of back than Howard and Scott. He's a home-run threat on a team that isn't trying to hit home runs right now.

So what happens when Sanders does come back?

First of all, you can't play four backs, so rookie Kenny Gainwell is the odd man out. He did some nice things early and has a bright future, but he hasn't been particularly productive lately -- 4.7 yards per carry with 14 catches in the first five games, 2.5 yards per carry with six catches in the last five games.

Howard, Scott and Sanders are your backs, but Howard and Scott need to remain the focus of the ground attack, with Sanders mixing in situationally as a runner and receiver. 

Go with the hot hand. Keep feeding Howard and Scott. Work Sanders in there when it makes sense. 

Can it work? 

It sure worked in 2003, when Brian Westbrook, Correll Buckhalter and Duce Staley combined for 1,618 rushing yards, 83 receptions and 27 touchdowns as the famed Three-Headed Monster carried the Eagles to a 12-4 record and the NFC Championship Game.

It can't be about where guys were drafted or how much money they make or what they've done so far in their careers. It's got to be about who makes the most sense for the team to win games. And that answer is clear.

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