Not long ago, someone asked Press Taylor, the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach, what he thought the next major offensive innovation in the NFL might be. Based on Taylor’s countenance – he is just 31 years old and could pass for younger – this was akin to asking a kindergartener with a lemonade stand to produce a business plan for a way-cool juice-bar franchise. But Taylor is sharp, an up-and-comer in the coaching ranks. Chip Kelly hired him as a quality-control coach in 2013, and Doug Pederson thought enough of him not only to keep him on staff in 2016, but also to promote him last year after John DeFilippo left.
More, the Eagles have been so cutting-edge under Pederson – their aggressiveness on fourth down, for instance, went from being daring to commonplace – that picking the brain of one of his assistants could provide some insight into what might be ahead for them and the sport as a whole. So speculate, Taylor did.
“One of the big things will be having multiple people on the field who can throw the ball,” he said. “You’ve seen the ‘Philly Special,’ all the different versions of double passes. At some point, I could see something like that coming into play. I’m not saying we’re doing anything like that, but I do think it’s something that could happen with pushing the envelope.”
Forget could happen. It’s already happening, and it’s a safe bet, given the data accumulation and analyzing that the Eagles do, that Taylor knew it was. There were 43 passes thrown by non-quarterbacks – running backs, wide receivers, punters – during the 2018 regular season, compared to 27 in 2017, according to the database Pro Football Reference.
That’s a fairly big spike, and sure, maybe after seeing that Pederson and Nick Foles had the guts to call and run “Philly Special” on fourth-and-goal in Super Bowl LII, a few more coaches and coordinators were more inclined to let their gadget flags fly. But it’s more likely that the increase was a natural byproduct of well-documented trends and changes, of concepts and athletes trickling up to the NFL over time from football’s lower levels. Corey Clement-to-Trey Burton-to-Foles might have been just the last little wave to crest and crash before the dam broke.
“You get these guys coming out of college who are dual-threat quarterbacks and transition to receiver,” Taylor said. “Just to be able to get your best players on the field and threaten the defense in the best way possible, it’ll be fun to see.”
Braxton Miller would seem to be just this kind of NFL player, if only he could find a way to play in the NFL again. After spending two years as Ohio State’s starting quarterback and tearing his right labrum twice, Miller moved to wide receiver and caught 25 passes in 2015 as a senior. A third-round draft pick, he had 34 receptions over two seasons with the Houston Texans before they waived him last September.
He’s been on the Eagles’ practice squad since, and on a roster that features Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Nelson Agholor, and two tight ends – Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert – who are comfortable lining up out wide, Miller is under no illusions about his chances of cracking the game-day lineup. The thought that the sport might evolve in such a way that it creates an opportunity for a player of his versatile skill set, though, gives him some hope.
“I wouldn’t mind if it happened,” he said with a laugh. “It would be great to be a different type of weapon on the field. I wouldn’t mind at all.”
It isn’t outlandish to think that the league will end up where Miller wants it to be, even if he might not get to enjoy the spoils. Assume for the sake of argument that the Eagles were open to having Miller or another quarterback-turned-receiver on their practice squad, Greg Ward, throw a pass out of a deceptive formation or play, as Burton did in the Super Bowl or Agholor did in the Eagles’ season opener last year against the Falcons. The likelihood that Pederson would have Miller or Ward dress would still be slim, because an NFL team is permitted to activate just 46 players on game days, and each of those spots is precious.
Rare is the coach who would be eager to fill a roster opening just to keep open the possibility of using a multidimensional player for a snap or two. But coaches such as the Falcons’ Dan Quinn and the Saints’ Sean Payton have suggested that the NFL should expand its teams’ game-day rosters, and it would seem only a matter of time before the league assents. Play-calling would be more creative and productive with more players, and the arc of NFL history bends toward points, points, and more points. “Hey, man,” Miller said, “if they need me, I’m available.” Someday, they probably will.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Mike Sielski is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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