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Quiet off field, Darren Sproles makes immediate impact on it for Eagles

PHILADELPHIA -- The questions never stopped.

What was it like playing with Drew Brees?

How did you like New Orleans?

Which running backs in the league do you like? Which ones do you not?

LeSean McCoy was relentless. He is a talker, an extrovert, an ebullient personality who enjoys conversation. So when he met new teammate Darren Sproles in the spring and realized that Sproles is the exact opposite -- quiet, reserved, borderline shy -- McCoy made it his mission to pull Sproles out of his shell.

Day after day, meeting after meeting at the Philadelphia Eagles practice facility, McCoy peppered Sproles with questions. Little by little, Sproles opened up. He shared bits of himself. He let his new teammate in.

Rather quickly, McCoy and Sproles formed a bond. They became friends. There is no jealousy, no marking of territory even though they play the same position. They are partners, and they have become one of the most feared running back tandems in the National Football League.

Part of it is McCoy. He is the NFL’s reigning rushing leader. At 26 years old, he is in his prime.

But a big part of it is Sproles, his demeanor and his insistence that at 31 years old and after nine years in the league he is simply happy to do everything possible to support McCoy and make him even better. That Sproles has done more than that in his first three games this season is part of why the Eagles are 3-0 for the first time since their Super Bowl run in 2004.

"Without him, we would be in trouble," McCoy said. "We really would. He can do so much from the pass game to the run game. I kind of knew that before he got here, but I can really see it. I’m happy he’s my teammate."

McCoy is not exaggerating that the Eagles would be in trouble without Sproles. They would. He jump-started the offense in the season opener against Jacksonville, breaking a 49-yard touchdown run -- the longest of his career -- to score Philadelphia’s first points of the season and cut into the Jaguars’ 17-0 halftime lead.

In Week 2 at Indianapolis, Sproles set career highs with 152 receiving yards and 171 yards from scrimmage. He made two catches of 50-plus yards and had a 19-yard touchdown run, and was subsequently named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week.

Sunday in a 37-34 win against Washington that was highlighted by the efficient play of quarterback Nick Foles and the Eagles wide receivers, Sproles had two carries for 20 yards, caught three passes for 30 yards and averaged 13.5 yards on two punt returns.

Through it all, Sproles has been steadfast about his purpose on the team: "As long as [McCoy] is fresh when we get to the fourth quarter, that’s all we want. ... Keep him fresh. That’s what I want to do."

And win.

After winning the player-of-the-week honor for the first time in his career, Sproles said, "It’s cool, but I don’t really feed into that. I don’t know. It’s cool though, I guess. As long as we get the win, I don’t care."

Growing up in Kansas, Sproles began playing football, he said, when he was in third grade. His father, Larry, played running back at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Kansas City and constantly played catch with young Darren. Although the younger Sproles was also a running back, he was always able to catch the ball out of the backfield.

While Sproles was in high school, his mother was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. He opted to stay close to home and attend Kansas State to be near his mom, who died during his junior year. Sproles set 23 school records at Kansas State and in 2003 led the nation with 1,986 rushing yards and 2,735 all-purpose yards. That season, he finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting.

Sproles slipped to the Chargers in the fourth round of the draft in 2005 in part because of his size. He is only 5-foot-6, tiny by NFL standards. Nevertheless, according to ESPN Stats & Information, since Sproles’ rookie season in 2005, no running back is averaging more yards per touch than Sproles (7.0) and only Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles (6.1) is within one full yard of Sproles’ average.

Including this season, Sproles has 3,577 receiving yards, the most by a running back since 2005. Forty-six percent of his career touches are receptions, easily the most among qualified running backs, and since 2006 his 8.6 yards after the catch per reception is the most among 64 players with at least 400 receptions.

"He’s my guy," Brees told ESPN’s Ed Werder last season. "I’ve known him since 2005. Pound for pound he’s the toughest player in the league. He’s everything you want in a teammate -- his work ethic, focus, loves football, always full speed, no such thing as a walk-through for Darren Sproles. He’s just a game-changer.

"He walks in the room, and he’s 5-7, 190 pounds and you’re like, 'There’s no way this guy is an NFL player.' Not only is he that, but he’s pound for pound one of the best ever."

McCoy certainly agrees. That is why he has been lobbying Eagles coach Chip Kelly to develop packages where he and Sproles are on the field together. Of the Eagles' 213 offensive snaps this season, Sproles and McCoy have only been on the field together nine times.

Sproles has played 72 offensive snaps and is averaging 6.9 yards per rush and 14.0 yards per catch.

"I’m actually like 'we’ve got to give him the ball more,'" McCoy said. "The thing is, this works as a team. Now instead of watching one or two guys, defenses are watching three guys, and it opens up for everybody. The same way I can help him out to get free, I want him to do the same thing for me to help me get free, and we’re working together."

Sproles insists his "job" is to keep McCoy "healthy and fresh." He has done that, but he has done so much more. Now, McCoy doesn’t have to pepper Sproles with questions to get him to talk. Now, Sproles is comfortable and happy.

"Whatever I can do to help this team, that’s what I’m about," Sproles said. "It’s been fun, but that’s what I want to do."

Five things you might not know about Sproles

1. While preparing for the NFL scouting combine in 2005 in Venice Beach, California, he challenged Shawn Merriman to see who could bench press more weight. Sproles benched 415 pounds twice. Merriman could not. "He was mad, Sproles said. "We’re good friends to this day, though. I always mess with him to get him mad again."

2. He developed a love of lifting weights from his father. He has short arms, but he is strong. "My dad likes to lift weights, so he started me off kind of young," Sproles said.

3. Sproles and his wife, Michel, have two daughters, Devyn and Rhyan. They chose the names because they like boy names for girls.

4. He misses his mom, Annette, who died while Sproles was in college at Kansas State. "The thing that kills me is my kids, they’ll never know her," Sproles said. "That eats me up sometimes. She would’ve loved it, too. Girls, too."

5. Sproles said when he retires, he and his family will live in San Diego, where they still own a home. He said the best things about San Diego are the weather and the beach. "San Diego is like, it’s not too fast, it’s not too slow. It’s just right for us," Sproles said.