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Doug Pederson has a running back conundrum

Nov 5, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller (58) with Philadelphia Eagles running back Jay Ajayi (36) and running back LeGarrette Blount (29) on the field at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

One of  Doug Pederson’s strengths as Philadelphia Eagles head coach, his players have often said, is his honest and open communication.

Duplicity isn’t beyond even the best football coaches. It’s not uncommon to hear talk coming out of both sides of a head coach’s mouth.

Pederson comes from a different lineage. His coaching mentor, Andy Reid, earned a reputation for appealing to his locker room through candor and by allowing players to express their own feelings and personalities, a father figure of sorts.

As Eagle coach, Reid deftly maintained this reputation even as many of his players feuded with the front office over contracts. Reid wore an administrative hat as vice president of football operations, but his players separated him from the number crunchers and rarely held their contract beefs against him.

Reid’s apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. Pederson might cut to the chase even more. He recently told players who are currently on one-year deals that they could cash in big somewhere else next year if the Eagles keep winning this year, even if it means adjusting to lesser roles this season.

Oddly, it’s his honesty and relatability that potentially complicate some of his personnel decisions as the Super Bowl-aspiring Eagles head into the final stretch of the regular season, particularly pertaining to his running back committee.

Jay Ayaji, whom the Eagles acquired before the trade deadline in a highway robbery deal with the Dolphins, should be getting more carries.

Ajayi has played four games since the trade but carried the ball just 29 times, a hair more than seven carries per game. In those 29 carries, he has 229 yards, an average of just under eight yards per carry.

It’s ridiculous to think Ajayi would maintain that astronomically high average if he toted the ball more often, but there’s no denying he brings an explosive element that Blount doesn’t consistently offer.

Ajayi had one run of at least 30 yards in each of his first three Eagle games, including a 46-yard touchdown run against the Broncos in his team debut and a momentum-grabbing 71-yard run against the Cowboys that triggered a blowout win.

By comparison, Blount has four runs this season of 30 or more yards, only two since the Chargers game in Week 4. His two longest runs, 68 yards against the Chargers and 37 against the Cardinals, came in October. Blount is averaging 4.7 yards per carry this season and five yards per carry in his last three games, which is very good, but his calling card is consistency more than explosion.

The Eagles backed away from the run against the Seahawks in the second half after falling behind 17-3, but overall they ran with moderate success. Blount averaged 3.3 yards per carry on his eight carries and Ajayi averaged 3.9 yards on nine carries. It’s fair to wonder if more carries for Ajayi could have helped them offensively.

But here’s the issue Pederson confronts when deciding which running back deserves more carries. Pederson personally called Blount after the Ajayi trade to ensure Blount that he would remain the starter.

Blount has performance-based incentives built into his one-year contract. He’s played the good soldier all year, despite inconsistent usage. He didn’t complain when Pederson didn’t give him a single carry in a Week 2 game against the Chiefs and has accepted his role as one part of a committee, a workload share that has yielded great results.

Backing off his promise to Blount could jeopardize Pederson’s reputation as an honest and fair communicator and threaten to rock the apple cart at a time the Eagles need solidarity.

They’re coming off their first loss since Week 2 and remain on the West Coast all week in preparation for another measuring-stick road game against the NFC West-leading Rams.

Pederson implored his team to ramp up practice efforts and refocus following Sunday’s 24-10 loss to the Seahawks in Seattle, insinuating that the team hadn’t practiced up to standard in recent weeks.

The coach, who was backed by his players earlier this year when Pederson faced heavy doses of criticism, can’t come off as two-faced while he’s preaching about his team going back to its roots.

But somewhere there’s a happy medium, a way to get Ajayi more involved without completely relegating Blount to a short-yardage/goal-line role that would push him down the totem pole.

Pederson needs to find that balance without losing his identity.

— Geoff Mosher, a longtime Philadelphia sports reporter, is also a host on @975TheFanatic in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffMosherNFL.

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