LeSean McCoy shouldn’t have to prove anything. He’s been a force of nature since entering the NFL, a running back able to cut on a dime and leave defensive backs picking grass out of their face masks. The Eagle has run roughshod over the hard-boiled NFC East for the past half decade and is easily the greatest running back in the history of one of the league’s oldest franchises. And yet here he is in late June, surrounded by moving boxes at his suburban New Jersey home, still reeling from a trade that no one saw coming. In March, Philadelphia shipped McCoy off to the Buffalo Bills—football’s Siberia—in exchange for the unheralded Kiko Alonso.
“When my agent called, I told him it had to be bullshit,” McCoy says. “I was in total disbelief. I had fallen in love with the city, the fans, the team. When you think of the Eagles, you think of Shady McCoy.”
And for good reason: McCoy is the type of player who can change a team’s fate in a second. The NFL was built on guys like him, unique talents whose incredible efforts on the field turn fans into devotees.
For the past six seasons, McCoy was the face of the Eagles, a team that had shifted through six starting quarterbacks while somehow still remaining relevant. Much of that was thanks to McCoy, the Eagles’ all-time leading rusher, and a talented corps of receivers who reflected both the flash and grit of the city they played for. McCoy, who grew up in nearby Harrisburg, put up huge, memorable performances under the spotlight, like the time in 2013 when he racked up a franchise-record 217 rushing yards during a snowstorm in south Philadelphia.
But the NFL changes as fast as a Shady McCoy cutback. An emerging school of thought holds that players like McCoy are no longer valuable. In fact, with McCoy’s ability to unilaterally take control of a game, these radical thinkers believe he might actually be hurting, not helping, his team.
When longtime Eagles coach Andy Reid was fired after the end of the 2012 season, he was replaced by the ideologue Chip Kelly, a college coach who employed a system that tried to overwhelm opponents with speedy play calls and complicated pre-snap motion. Under his system, stars become bit players in an elaborate drama, an approach Kelly believes can be employed with almost any level of NFL talent. When Kelly assumed control of personnel decisions, McCoy and other star Eagles found themselves increasingly unwelcome in Philadelphia.
Shady, detecting what he saw as a suspicious pattern in Kelly’s management choices, insinuated that the coach was displaying a bias. “You see how fast he got rid of all the good players, especially all the good black players,” McCoy told a reporter in May. (Kelly denies that his decisions were racially motivated.)
“I’m not going to forfeit any statement I made about Chip Kelly,” McCoy tells Maxim one evening in late June. We’re sitting in the backyard of his Marlton, New Jersey, home, which he is placing on the
market while he hunts for new digs in Buffalo. “I mean what I say, and I’ll never go back on it.”
McCoy has a laid-back manner. In person, he gives the distinct impression of a man who knows what he wants and has firm expectations about how he should be treated. Sitting beside a pond next to his home at sunset, McCoy seems tranquil. He stresses the importance of “being professional” and giving respect where it’s due, something he’s learned from his good friend, former Eagles QB Michael Vick, who knows a thing or two about how money and stardom can lead to disastrous decisions.
The way McCoy sees it, even a coach with a system needs to treat his players like more than cogs in a machine. They’re humans, too. “It’s like, yeah, I got a system that I want to set up,” he says, “but players make the system actually work.”
If McCoy feels any disappointment about having to play for Buffalo, a franchise long synonymous with mediocrity, he doesn’t show it. His new coach, Rex Ryan, is considered the polar opposite of Kelly in approach and temperament, famous for the affection he shows his players and vice versa. “Rex is the man,” McCoy says. “He’s the type of coach that all players dream about playing for: a hard worker, a guy who has fun but also works you hard. He takes care of his players.
Especially the older players.”
At 27, McCoy is by no means old, but in the modern NFL, he’s nearing the age when most running backs begin to run out of steam. Statistically, he dropped off slightly last season—but to be fair, his offensive line was falling apart around him and his relationship with Kelly disintegrating by the day. In Buffalo, he’ll be back to working in a fairly simple offensive scheme, perhaps the one he’s most comfortable with: Give Shady the damn ball.
Shortly after being traded, McCoy signed a five-year, $40 million contract with the Bills, with more than half his money guaranteed. With numbers like that on the table, the Bills clearly believe in LeSean McCoy, a player whose talent has never been in doubt.
This year he’ll be playing for more than just victories. He’ll be aiming to prove that great athletes still matter, that a system can only take you so far, and that wherever you send them, players like Shady McCoy will not just go away. They might even run right over you. ■
Photos by Sasha Maslov for MAXIM