Bryce Brown: No fumbles but few yards

Bryce Brown worked hard in the offseason to overcome his fumbling problem.
Bryce Brown worked hard in the offseason to overcome his fumbling problem. (YONG KIM / Staff)
Posted: October 12, 2013

These first five weeks of the Eagles season have hardly been the showcase for running back Bryce Brown that one once might have thought they'd be.

Chip Kelly was coming in with his new-age, run-oriented offense, and LeSean McCoy and Brown seemed bound to form a spectacular backfield. Instead, Brown has gained 75 yards on 28 carries, a paltry 2.7 average. The meager production does not bother him, he said. "It's our first time in this offense," he said. "We're all trying to figure it out. I don't get caught up worrying about playing time and how many plays I get." And besides, there has been a bright side: He hasn't fumbled yet.

If that sounds like an insignificant achievement ( A running back who hasn't fumbled yet? Well, whoop dee do.), remember how Brown burst into people's consciousness late last season. Yes, he rushed for 347 yards and four touchdowns over back-to-back games, but he fumbled four times in 115 total attempts. Every time he took a handoff, you were whipsawed by two opposite sensations: the anticipation of what he might do and the fear that the football would fall to the ground again.

So in January, when Brown began his offseason workout program with his trainer and longtime mentor, Brian Butler, their mission for the next six months was strangely simple: Brown had to relearn how to hold a football. He had gone two years without playing organized ball - ricocheting from Tennessee to Southern Cal to Kansas State, leaving the Kansas State program in September 2011 after suffering an ankle injury, and declaring for the 2012 NFL draft.

A state-champion hurdler in high school, Brown had run for Kansas State's track team during his hiatus from football, and Butler theorized that, over that time, Brown redeveloped some bad habits born of his background in track and field.

It was not an outlandish theory. The Giants' David Wilson, the Bills' C.J. Spiller, and other former sprinters among NFL running backs have had fumbling issues similar to Brown's. The reason is pretty much self-explanatory: The loose, arm-pumping running style that sprinters use contradicts what every running back is taught: Keep your upper body and your arms rigid and hold the football high and tight against your chest. The biomechanics of the two motions don't match.

"When you look at runners in football who don't come from a sprinting background, they expect the quickness to come from their legs," said Peter Thompson, who has a master's degree in biomechanics from the University of Oregon and is a track coach with the International Association of Athletics Federation. "They're not looking to move their arms a good deal."

Thompson said that it's natural for sprinters, even when they're toting a football, to want to move their arms as they would in a race because it helps to increase their speed. But in the 4x100 relay, there's no free safety charging at you from your blind side, trying to knock the baton out of your hand.

This was Brown's problem. "I was the same way," he said. Butler decided to fix it. The two have known each other and trained together since Brown was in eighth grade, but they had rarely incorporated a football into their workouts. Last offseason, they finally did.

"In the past, if we ever used it, I let him run with it any kind of way just to be at maximum speed," Butler said in a phone interview. "The goal this year was for him to have confidence building maximum speed while keeping the ball high and tight.

"Bryce's initial fear was he would slow down if he couldn't use both of his arms to run. Like I told him, he's one of the fastest people in the league if it comes to straight-out speed. He didn't have to worry about losing half a step. He'll still get to where he needs to be."

If Brown ran up a steep hill, if he went on a long-distance jog, if he plodded through a sand pit to keep his legs strong, he always carried a football with him. Butler made sure of it, and he made sure Brown's form was correct. "If I had the ball out here," Brown said after a recent practice, extending his right arm away from his hip, "he'd say, 'Do it over. Start again.' "

He has created just one moment of concern since. In the Eagles' second preseason game, against the Jaguars, Brown broke free for what seemed a sure touchdown, only to fumble at the 3-yard line. Watching from his home near Wichita, Kan., Butler "was a little disappointed," he said. "But I think it was a good reminder for him, because he hasn't fumbled since."

Maybe he won't again. It would be nice to think that. Nevertheless, there are 11 weeks left in the regular season, so much time, so much opportunity for Bryce Brown to do something spectacular in this offense, and we'll see what happens the next time that free safety sneaks up on him.


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