Once upon a time “21 Pony” was all the rage at Eagles training camp, an "unstoppable" formation in T-shirts and shorts that put a couple of undersized running backs, Darren Sproles and Donnel Pumphrey, on the field at the same time.
The concept worked like gangbusters before quietly evaporating when the pads came on.
Fast forward to 2021 and “21 Speed,” the effort to get Miles Sanders and Kenny Gainwell on the field at the same time has been mentioned by both head coach Nick Sirianni and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen in recent days, so it’s picking up a little bit of traction.
Personnel groupings are overrated in the NFL and are really more a tool to label the players on the field.
To use 21 Speed as an example, the labeling system identifies that two backs (in this case Sanders and Gainwell or Adrian Killins typically) are on the field with one tight end and two receivers.
However, more often than not pre-snap motion sees Gainwell emptying out to a receiver role, leaving Sanders alone in the backfield, mimicking the default setting of 11 personnel (three receivers and one back).
The goal is never about the label. It’s about the personnel and whether or not you can generate the mismatch you want.
“I think with all of our packages right now, I mean all our personnel groups, we are installing our offense right now,” said offensive coordinator Shane Steichen before Monday's practice. “So we are finding out what these guys do well, 21 stuff, whatever, 12, 11, four-wide, all that stuff. We want to look at all that and see what our guys do best so when it comes to Sunday, we put them in the best position possible.”
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To date, like most rookies, Gainwell has looked up and down at camp and there’s no guarantee come Sept. 12 putting him on the field will give Sirianni a better chance to succeed than a third WR or a second TE.
What it does accomplish is giving a different personnel look to concepts that could keep a defense either off-balance or in a more desirable personnel grouping.
“You have your 11-personnel things," said Sirianni. "Now the defense has to prepare for all your 11 stuff. You have your 21 Speed stuff that the defense has to prepare for because you have these different pieces. Then they have to prepare for the 12 stuff.
"You might be running similar things out of each one of those sets, but out of different formations, out of different personnel groups and it looks completely different to the defense.”
With two RBs on the field, the defense is more likely to keep three linebackers on as the answer, and if Gainwell proves to be an adept receiver that could be an advantage over Travis Fulgham or Greg Ward signaling an extra defensive back should be on the field for the defense.
“I love Kenny. I love his game,” Sanders said. “He’s got real natural hands, and that’s what I really noticed about him. He can run the ball too. He reads the runs well and explodes through the holes. He’s going to be a big part of the offense.”
It's always about the players in the end, however.
If Zach Ertz is still here in Week 1, the 12 ratios will go up.
If DeVonta Smith is healthy and Jalen Reagor starts to click 11 it gets more desirable for Sirianni and Co., and if Gainwell gets going 21 Speed could outlast 21 Pony.
John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports-talk host Jody McDonald every morning from 8-10 on ‘Birds 365,” streaming live on both PhillyVoice.com and YouTube. John is also the host of his own show "Extending the Play" on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen
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