LeSean McCoy studies game tape the same way he runs the ball: You’re never quite sure what he’s going to do next. Our film guru says he’s the NFL’s most dynamic runner since Barry Sanders
Watching football with LeSean McCoy is a lot like watching football with your childhood buddy. There’s a lot of oohing and ahhing. Fantastical emphasis is placed on highlights. Attention spans stop and restart. When McCoy’s laser pen isn’t pointed at the screen, dissecting the action, it often targets the ground, swiping ephemeral red markings across the floor. It’s no surprise that McCoy’s nickname, Shady, was bestowed upon him by his mother for his mischievousness as a young kid.
As we make our way through the film, I ask him if there are any runners in the league who come close to doing what he can from a physical standpoint.
“Oh, I got a good one right here,” he says. “This a block?”
It takes me a second to realize he’s ignored the question and has moved on to the next play queued up on the screen. I then know immediately what he’s referring to, because he’d asked about seeing this block earlier.
We’re in a meeting room at the Bills’ headquarters in Orchard Park, N.Y., watching the Eagles-Cardinals game from last season. The guy McCoy “got a good one” on was blitzing dime safety Deone Bucannon.
“Yeah, I got him right in the mouth,” McCoy says as the film rolls, letting out a terse laugh for emphasis. “Look at his neck drop! Slow it down. Watch his head pop. Boom!”
We watch the play over and over. It was an excellent inside blitz pickup. I point out how McCoy didn’t wait for the defender, but rather, attacked him, giving his quarterback more room in the pocket. “Yeah, I’m gonna get you,” McCoy mutters, ignoring me and speaking directly to the hard-charging defender on the screen.
And now Nick Foles can be more comfortable having two extra yards to work with, I say, hoping to steer the conversation toward the mechanics of pass protection.
“Look, his head pops up!” McCoy says again. “Whoop!”
Studying McCoy closely, his pass blocking is better than you might guess. But that’s not what’s brought me—or him, for that matter—to Buffalo. McCoy is the most dynamic runner the NFL has seen since Barry Sanders. Perhaps not coincidentally, Sanders was his favorite player growing up.
Strangely though, the traits that make McCoy dynamic—lateral agility, change-of-direction, peripheral vision—might be why he’s now in Western New York and no longer in the City of Brotherly Love. Eagles head coach Chip Kelly is a run-oriented coach who wants a downhill smasher, someone who always hits the hole the way a play is designed. That’s not McCoy.
“The way I run the ball has been productive since I’ve been in the league,” McCoy says. “So I don’t know why I would change it. There’s tons of backs that can bang it up in there, but those guys usually just… [he trails off for a second, searching for the right words] …you don’t really talk about them too much.”
By reputation, and in this conversation, McCoy’s self-assuredness can border on defiance—another trait Kelly doesn’t exactly relish. But no one can argue McCoy’s point: His running style works … for him. He’s averaged 1,268 rushing yards a season since 2011. And his elusiveness has left him still fresh at 27, which is late middle-age for a running back.
After the Cardinals game, we’ll watch the 2013 Eagles-Lions snow game. McCoy had 217 yards that day. “So go back,” he says quickly as we see his 26-yard scamper in the fourth quarter. “This is some more dancing they kill me for.”
On the play, McCoy had a giant hole but decided to cut laterally. Safety Louis Delmas whiffed and McCoy hit open field. Still, many coaches would want the runner to immediately go downhill in this scenario.
“Uh huh. But that ain’t me,” McCoy says. “I don’t sweat it because, I mean, this is what I do.”
If there’s any doubt about McCoy’s commitment to the way he does things, just look at how he holds the ball when he runs. Notice how far away it swings from his body? It’s almost the exact opposite of how they teach it.
How many coaches, I ask, have tried to have a serious conversation with you about this?
“All of them,” he says. “But I don’t fumble the ball, really.”
He’s right about this, too. McCoy has averaged one fumble every 126 carries over his career. The league rate for backs with 100+ carries is one for every 85.
“I think I just use the ball for balance, because of the way I run. But I’m in the process of changing [how I hold] it now.”
“Yeah, in the process.” A wry smile creeps across his face.
I tell him I get the sense he’s been coaxed into this “process.” The wry smile remains and he nods faintly, like a leaf in a mild breeze.
It was before the season when McCoy and I sat down to analyze his game tape. The question at the front of everyone’s mind then was, How much changing would the Bills ask him to do?
Before trading for the dynamic back, new head coach Rex Ryan hired Greg Roman to coordinate his offense. Before arriving in Buffalo, Roman had conducted a creative, power-oriented, old-school running game as the coordinator in San Francisco. There, he had Frank Gore, a consummate north/south runner—the very man Chip Kelly originally tried to sign as McCoy’s replacement.
It reasoned that Roman would intend to keep the power running chapter in his playbook. Early in free agency, the Bills signed veteran fullback Jerome Felton to a four-year, $9.2 million contract. Felton was on the field for more than 60% of Adrian Peterson’s carries in 2012, when Peterson nearly broke Eric Dickerson’s single season rushing record.
“Is that right? Wow,” McCoy said upon hearing this, apparently, for the first time.
For years, it was believed that Peterson lacked the patience to run behind a lead-blocking fullback. It was assumed he was more comfortable in a single-back set, like what McCoy has played in for most of his career. That changed with Felton, though.
I asked McCoy if he could envision himself running behind a fullback 20 times a game if Roman asked for that.
“See the thing is, that never happens,” he said. “That never really happens, [running so many times] just straight behind the fullback. Unless you’re trying to run the clock out. That never happens because you’ve got so many formations, third downs, everything. Sometimes you might get a sack or a tackle for loss, now it’s second-and-15. So it’s not just always behind the fullback.”
This isn’t to say McCoy can’t operate in a traditional ground game. I was a little surprised to learn he actually prefers running out of an I-formation rather than shotgun, where the majority of his carries came from in Philadelphia.
“[In an I-formation] I’m deeper, I can see everything. I could pick and choose where I want to go. The shotgun, it’s forcing you one way. So now I can’t see anything back here. It’s all front side.”
We watched a play where McCoy, out of a single-back I-formation, hits it right up inside for a sturdy gain of five. It’s the type of run that the Chip Kelly’s of the world cherish. What if Roman approaches you and says, “Hey, LeSean, this week we’ll need you to do this eight or nine times?”
“I don’t think he would sell me that,” McCoy said. “Because what I bring to the table is that special type of twitch, to see different things, to go up the middle, bounce it out, bounce it left, you know? That’s why I’m one of the elite backs in the league. Not because I can just bang it up in the middle.”
So far, Roman has not asked that of his back. Buffalo’s ground game has been a mixture of concepts, many of which come out of shotgun. The most notable and successful tactic has been gap-scheme runs to the perimeter, with a guard (very often Richie Incognito) pulling to the point of attack. This requires patience from the running back, who must set up the angles and blocks. But because the run is outside, it is slower developing, giving McCoy more time to use his sharp vision and creativity for locating alternative rushing lanes.
One surprise is that McCoy has not had an enormous impact in the passing game, averaging fewer than 28 receiving yards an outing.
In 2010, McCoy had 592 yards on 78 receptions. In 2013, his first year playing for Kelly, he had 539 yards on 52 catches. But last season, those numbers dropped to 155 on 28. On film, we watch McCoy catch a swing pass against Arizona.
“Our first year we killed [teams] with this,” he says.
Why didn’t the Eagles do more of it last year?
“I don’t know. There was a lot of different things going on. [Here in Buffalo] I think a lot of things are cooking up. With all of us together, we can be getting the ball on the outside.”
On another play, the Eagles threw a well-designed shallow cross to Josh Huff. McCoy was strictly a decoy, running a swing route to the other side of the field. But had the ball gone to him, he would have been one-on-one in space against safety Rashad Johnson.
Would you go to your coach later on this and say, “Hey, we have something here? Let’s call a variation of this play that puts the ball in my hands next time?”
“Yeah, for sure,” McCoy says. “I was open. This was a one-on-one opportunity, that’s all you can ask for.”
A few plays later, we see McCoy on an outside run behind a center and left guard, both pulling to the left.
“One thing is if you cut-block [defenders] down, that’s like big trash,” McCoy says, referring to bodies clogging the running lane. “I really want to hit between here [he points between the two pullers], or out here [toward the boundary], or come underneath. But see you knock them down and [the blocker] takes you out the play.
“Sometimes you do want linemen to cut-block. It depends. It’s all about what they feel. Our job [as runners] is to make them right.”
Later, we see the Eagles in a two-minute situation. On third-and-10, McCoy crossed the formation to pick up a blitzing cornerback.
“He grabbed me by my neck,” McCoy exclaims, paying no mind to the awareness and fundamentals he displayed in his blitz pickup.
“One thing,” McCoy says, almost offhandedly as we watch the play from the end-zone angle, “I saw the safety here cheating over. I just followed that and it led me to the corner.
With the safety cheating over, McCoy is tipped off that the corner is about to blitz. McCoy says this sort of nuance is something he didn’t really start diagnosing until around the end of his third NFL season.
A few plays later, the Cardinals stormed the backfield. This time McCoy acknowledges that dancing got him in trouble.
“I probably shouldn’t”… (he pauses) … “like right here, they got us. They got us. Nobody gets [linebacker Larry Foote]. I try to outrun him; then right here I should have just …”
Called it a day?
He sums this up as part of “the good and the bad” with his style.
Tackles in the backfield often are not a running back’s fault. We saw a case earlier in the game where the Cardinals simply had the Eagles out-manned and out-leveraged before the snap. Linebacker Alex Okafor, unaccounted for, came in clean and made the play.
“I hate when that happens,” McCoy scoffs at the film. “The guy’s not even blocked and he gets all the [credit].”
The next play was particularly interesting. Nick Foles faked a handoff and threw a quick slant to Jeremy Maclin.
“The quarterback is looking at this linebacker,” McCoy says, pointing at Foote. “If he goes with the fake, we throw it. If he doesn’t and he [reacts to] the receiver behind him, Foles hands it off. That’s the cool thing about that offense.”
We finish up by watching a few more highlights from the Lions-Eagles snow game. The young fan in McCoy returns.
“I didn’t know we were losing this game,” he says when we see the scoreboard just before his 57-yard go-ahead touchdown. “I thought we were just whooping them.”
After the touchdown, McCoy did more dancing. Few could have a problem with it this time, though. “That’s my little thing I always do: The Shady bounce.”