PHILADELPHIA—Ryan Mathews stepped out of the building that day back in March, saw the helicopters circling overhead, and knew they weren’t there for him. He was already at the Philadelphia Eagles' team complex on a free-agent visit, preparing to join the Chip Kelly Show, when word started breaking that DeMarco Murray was also headed to town.
Suddenly, Mathews’ acquisition wasn’t just an under-the-radar move being made by the frenetic and free-wheeling Eagles. It was a transaction being played out under the helicopters, as the local TV news teams gave Murray’s impending arrival the full rock-star treatment, relegating Mathews to side-bar status.
For a minute or so there, after ex-49ers running back Frank Gore surprisingly bailed on a verbal agreement with the Eagles in free agency in favor of a deal with Indianapolis, it looked like Mathews, a former first-round pick by San Diego, would be the No. 1 guy in Kelly's confusing backfield carousel. But then, in true Kelly fashion, here comes the blockbuster deal with Murray, one of the NFL’s biggest prizes in free agency, and Mathews knew he now carried a 1A designation.
“I like it that way,” Mathews said Monday after an Eagles’ OTA session at the team’s NovaCare Complex in South Philly. “I don’t need all the attention and everything. Being off the radar, that’s what I like, that’s just me. The man [Murray] led the league in rushing. He deserves those helicopters, and the praise, and everything that comes with that. With all the trading and the moves that have been made here, we know Chip has a plan, and we’ve just all bought into it and are getting ready.”
Mathews said he never flinched on joining Philly, even after Murray, 27, entered the picture, insisting that he “welcomed” the Eagles’ pursuit of the former Cowboys star, who led the NFL with 1,845 yards rushing in 2014 and helped to lead Dallas to its first playoff berth since 2009. It’s not every day that the league’s top rusher changes teams—before Murray, the last to do so was Bill Dudley, who was traded from the Steelers to the Lions after the 1947 season.
“I was real excited, because I’ve always liked how he ran the ball in Dallas,” Mathews said. “I knew it was going to be either Gore or him, and they’re both great backs, so I wasn’t shying away or hesitant about it or anything. I knew I wanted to be here, and involved in what they have going on.”
However, Mathews's take doesn't exactly mesh with how new Eagles receiver Seyi Ajirotutu remembers it going down, and he and Mathews have been the closest of friends and teammates throughout their entire collegiate and NFL careers, having played together now at Fresno State, San Diego and Philadelphia. Murray’s reported five-year, $42 million contract dwarfed the three-year, $11.5 million deal contract Mathews was set to receive, and Mathews briefly considered mimicking Gore’s pull-the-rip-cord move, opting to pass on the chance to relocate from California to Philadelphia.
“I know I talked to him and at first he was a little hesitant, like, ‘Well, I’m not doing that,’” Ajirotutu said, standing just outside the Eagles locker room. “But then he got a chance to sit and think, and he decided it doesn’t matter what the [depth chart] situation is here, he’s just going to go out and give it his all, give it his best, and that’s going to be enough.”
It might be more than enough for Eagles opponents. Murray got all the headlines when he jumped teams within the NFC East, and understandably so. But it’s instructive to remember that Mathews and Murray both own two 1,000-yard rushing seasons in the NFL, with Mathews just two years removed from his career-best 1,255-yard rushing production of 2013, when he carried a whopping 285 times, averaged 4.4 yards per attempt and helped the resurgent Chargers make a surprising playoff run.
With Murray, Mathews and veteran change-of-pace back Darren Sproles all slated to be used in rotation in the Eagles backfield, Kelly should have no problem avoiding the workload the Cowboys asked of Murray last season, when he carried a ridiculous 392 times, adding 57 receptions for 416 yards, with another 48 touches in the two Dallas playoff games. In the two seasons in which Mathews has stayed healthy and started at least 14 games in his five-year career (2011 and '13), he has logged 200-plus carries and topped 1,000 yards rushing in each.
Loaded with that much potential in the backfield, no wonder the Eagles have been zealous about their re-commitment to the running game in 2015, with the expectation that Philly will run more than it passes this season, fielding one of the league’s most potent and productive ground games and lifting some of the offensive load from the shoulders of oft-injured quarterback Sam Bradford.
The method behind Kelly’s madness in the stunning LeSean McCoy trade? He envisioned building a backfield that was never forced to rely on just one standout starter. Though both Mathews (52 starts in five seasons) and Murray (47 starts in four) have endured injury issues in their careers, they are in essence Philly’s double-barreled insurance policy. Not exactly interchangeable. But representing quality redundancy.
“Ever since Coach Kelly was at Oregon, he’s always had great backs and he’s always run the ball,” Mathews said. “I remember when we played them at Fresno State, they just ran it down our throats. That’s what I wanted to do, play for a coach who runs the ball. I had that in my mind early on that I wanted to be here. You saw how Shady [McCoy] was running the ball before, and I’ve seen what Coach Kelly can do with an offense. That’s why I didn’t shy away from this situation.”
While Murray runs in the downhill hammer style Kelly favors, replacing the more east and west dancing that McCoy used to produce so many highlight clips, Mathews is powerful enough to run between the tackles and elusive enough to have home-run potential once he reaches the second level. The idea of he and Murray having relatively fresh legs late in games and late in the season, with Sproles tormenting defenses in his scat-back role, seemingly gives the Eagles an embarrassment of ground-game riches.
“To be able to have two quality guys in there, and then to have Sproly give them a change of pace, it’s going to be tough for defenses to stop us,” Mathews said. “Especially toward the end of the season, when people are tired. To be able to have two fresh running backs out there just thumping, it’s going to be hard. I think we’re all going to work well together and complement each other.”
Mathews turned 28 last month, and while he had his highlights in San Diego, the Chargers made no serious bid to retain him in free agency, most likely due to his injury history. San Diego replaced Mathews by trading up in the first round to select Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon at No. 15, but Ajirotutu foresees a career rejuvenation for Mathews in Philadelphia.
“I know his mindset, and all he’s got to do is go out there and do what he’s always done, run hard,” said Ajirotutu, who is sharing a home with Mathews this off-season in downtown Philadelphia, as the two former Chargers acclimate themselves to the intensity of life and football on the East Coast. “Coming in to the league as a first-rounder (Mathews was taken 12th overall in 2010), he’s always had that pressure. Now he doesn’t have it on him here. The only pressure is within himself to go out there and perform like he knows how.
“I was there with him in 2013, when he had by far his best year. But I feel like his full potential is still untapped. I know what he can do and I’ve seen the things he’s capable of. Being here, this is situation I know he can thrive in. It’s pretty scary what he and [Murray] could do.”
If all goes to plan in this hugely critical season in Philadelphia, Kelly’s Eagles will ride their revamped running game back to the playoffs, and perhaps make even a serious bid for the franchise’s first Super Bowl trip in 11 years. Murray hopefully will be front and center, leading the way in the No. 1 back role. But Mathews probably won’t mind. If the Eagles win enough, the headlines and helicopters will be plentiful enough for everyone.