LeSean McCoy and the Insistent Style

Even as the Eagles sleepwalk through losses against inferior opponents, they hold the promise of a style of play that could make the league a hell of a lot more varied.
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After nine games and countless jokes about the Dream Team becoming a nightmare, the Philadelphia Eagles have firmly established themselves as the biggest disappointment of the NFL season. Perhaps more surprising than their 3-6 record, though, is that Michael Vick hasn’t even been the most electrifying player on the team. Instead, it’s been LeSean McCoy, who currently leads the NFC with 906 yards on the ground, has scored 12 touchdowns, and has not yet lost a fumble. If it’s possible, McCoy has looked even better than those stats suggest. 

Broadly speaking, McCoy does the same thing as other agile, speed-first backs like Chris Johnson and Ryan Mathews. But he also does it differently, and better, and with a running style that turns the NFL’s execution obsession on its head. With his ever-present spontaneity and willingness to meet the defense head-on with agility rather than brawn, McCoy presents a challenge to common conceptions of standard offensive operating procedure.

The role of the featured back is the most individually expressive in the NFL, the one that depends least on complicated systems and most allows for individual creativity. Offensive lines and the holes they make obviously matter to success, but most massively productive runners put their stylistic impression on a game through a variety of cuts, broken tackles, and incisive vision that finds and manufactures holes where they didn’t previously exist. Whereas quarterbacks are generally expected to adhere to uniform mechanical standards and receivers must run their routes with anonymous precision, running backs are allowed to be as weird as they want to be — there’s not a strict style guide that promises success. As long as the production is there, the chosen means are up to them.

McCoy, like any great back, has a unique style. What sets him apart, aesthetically, is a proactive approach that’s distinct from both the smash-intensive approach that’s generally filed under half-meaningless buzzwords like “aggressive” and “downhill” and the “run away from people” evasion usually associated with smaller backs. While stars like Ray Rice and Arian Foster have distinctive running styles and varying strengths, they tend to carry the ball with the same general outlook towards getting yards. The standard NFL running attack is predicated on strong line play, with the men up front ideally creating holes big enough for the running back to saunter through at his leisure for a big gain. (The platonic block is basically football’s version of the platonic box-out in basketball, in which the rebound just falls to the floor because all five players have so effectively shielded their opponents from the rim.) The offensive line (and, increasingly, the fullback) never touches the ball, but they’re conceptually the team’s first line of attackers, a sort of mobile infantry designed to decimate the defense’s front before the more skilled warriors take over. Every running back must make quick decisions in space, but the vast majority do so only after the line has done its work. 

The ball-carrier, then, can only assert himself in the play once a hole has formed. For all their physical gifts, many of the most celebrated running backs of the past decade have been prized especially for their patience, i.e. the ability to bide their time in the backfield before the line does its job. Quarterbacks get graded on their control of an offense, but Priest Holmes and Matt Forte have played similar roles in the ground game. A long highlight package of Walter Payton touchdowns, for instance, is paradoxically at its most impressive in the moments when Sweetness isn’t stiff-arming a linebacker or breaking a defensive back’s ankles after reaching the second level of defenders. It’s the brief hesitations behind the line — the moments of puritanical restraint — in which he sets himself apart. Payton was great in the open field; that video proves as much. But even Adrian Peterson, who has every physical attribute you could want from a running back, only makes his move after considering what’s been set before him. It’s no shock that the starts of most great runs are best enjoyed in slow-motion, where it’s easiest to see how barely perceptible deceleration changes the entire fabric of the play. 

By contrast, McCoy’s greatness is most apparent at full speed. Like every man who’s ever played the position, McCoy prefers wide running lanes. But he also needs them less than other rushers, which has proven especially helpful given the uneven performance of this year’s Eagles line. McCoy has great vision, but he’s not especially patient. Instead, he runs with a level of consistent intensity that brings to mind Nolan Richardson’s “40 Minutes of Hell” pressure defense on the basketball court. Most great running backs strike when they have a gap — McCoy goes full speed from the moment he gets the ball. Impatience becomes a virtue. He’d rather dictate space on his own. Strong blocks are fortuitous, of course, but they’re not building blocks. He appreciates the help, I’m sure, but also needs it less than any of his peers. 

McCoy’s 29-yard run against the Arizona Cardinals this past Sunday effectively demonstrates what makes him so special. The play is designed to hit a hole between the right guard and tackle, and it’s largely contained by the defense. McCoy doesn’t force himself into the gap, but he also doesn’t slow down. With nowhere to go, he runs directly at a defensive end off-tackle. As usual, he attacks the defense until it yields to his will. A juke shakes the end, and McCoy is off into the defensive backfield, where he enacts the same process with smaller defenders. He’s shifty in the same way an eel is slippery — it’s as if the adjective were created to describe him — and the best chance the Cardinals have of stopping him is to force him out of bounds. There are effective blocks on the play, but it’s almost as if he doesn’t need them. It’s a style reminiscent of Barry Sanders, except McCoy never seems willing to forgo positive yardage in order to find a gap later. He pushes forward, convinced of his own ability to extend the play without ever giving an inch, as if that sort of tactic would serve as an admission of moral failure. For McCoy, every part of the field is open. To borrow a phrase Brian Phillips once used to describe the Brazilian star Kaka, he isn’t merely slalom skiing. He’s simultaneously creating the slope. 

It’s a remarkably insistent way of running the ball, one in which instantaneous action becomes more important than carefully planning. (It should come as little surprise that he led what was arguably the most successful Wildcat offense ever during his two seasons at Pitt.) For McCoy, a cut in the backfield serves the same general purpose as an eminently GIFable one in the secondary, because he conceives of blockers less as pawns to be deployed than as part of the scenery. He’s everything we hoped Reggie Bush would be.

At its increasingly rare best, the Eagles offense adheres to the style of McCoy, as opposed to those of Vick or DeSean Jackson, last year’s big-play darling. They press on, overwhelming the opposition with a single-minded belief in their own superiority and a trust in improvisation not seen since Brett Favre’s best years. Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers dissect a defense with the precision and scientific principles of a pathologist. The Eagles hack up the corpse and discard the individual pieces at various spots along the Delaware River. In a league in which technique and execution are supposed to matter more than anything, they refuse to hew to accepted standards of propriety. 

No other offense in the league plays this way or looks half as exciting at its best. Even as the Eagles sleepwalk through losses against inferior opponents, they hold the promise of a style of play that could make the league a hell of a lot more varied. It’s why some of us won’t give up hope in this intermittently transcendent mediocrity until the team disbands. As long as this amazing collection of talent takes the field together, they can do something we’ve never seen before. It may or may not happen often enough to get the team a win, but it will happen. And when it does, it will look like it all came together on a whim. In a sense, it will have.

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