Three is better than one for Eagles

With their triple threat at running back, the Eagles could be headed to their third staright NFC title game.

Updated: December 15, 2003, 5:09 PM ET
By David Fleming | ESPN The Magazine

It was early one morning during the first part of the 1998 season when Eagles running back Duce Staley woke up with a burning pain in his lower abdomen. He laid there for a moment, feeling around in the general vicinity of the pain, trying to assess the damage before leaping out of bed to declare: "Oh my god, I think the lord has blessed me with a third testical." Alas, it was not a blessing. Not even close. But rather, a hernia. An excruciatingly painful injury that, somehow, did not slow Staley down one bit on his way to 1,065 yards rushing that season.

30-second column
Please take 30 seconds out of your day to bow down to the power and glory that is Miami (Ohio) football. OK, seriously, here's something I never thought I'd ever get to enjoy in my lifetime (and really, isn't that why we love to cheer for lost causes?): My Lil 14th-ranked RedHawks, led by a legit 2004 Heisman Trophy candidate QB, embarrassing a ranked opponent on national television to win the MAC title. Wait, it gets better. During the game I dressed my two-year-old daughter up in my old MU letter jacket and watched her run around the house screaming MIAMI RULZ! Wait, it gets better. Miami is going to its first bowl game in 17 years and it's within driving distance of my home (sorta). Wait, it gets better. We play the ultimately beatable Conference USA patsy Louisville in the GMAC Bowl on Dec. 18. (PREDICTION: Miami 93, UL 7.) Wait, it gets better. That means at least one more game to watch future first-round QB Ben Roethlisberger work his magic. Wait, it gets better. I now have the entire holiday season to talk trash to my brother Greg and his sorry alma mater, Notre Dame.
Flem File Five
Top Five Most Bizarre Interview Settings in 2003
5. Keenan McCardell in a Tampa Bay office with the Maury Povich Show blaring in the background
4. Deuce McAllister in a darkened Saints locker room surrounded by napping teammates during training camp.
3. Kris Jenkins during a recent lunch as he slurped creamed spinach off his plate.
2. TIE: Michael Vick, 35,000 feet above Tennessee on a USAir flight to L.A. and Vick at an L.A. studio while he was getting laser scanned for his Nike commercial.
1. Donovan McNabb while still dressed in his Santa suit after making a charity appearance in Philly Tuesday night.
Flemister File
Wherein we continue to follow the exploits of FlemFile mascot and Washington TE Zeron Flemister.

This is a tough time of year for Z Flem. No, not because the 5-8 Redskins never managed to shake off their FlemFile Curse and are heading home for the holidays...again. And not because Z has as many catches (5) as he has special teams tackles. No, this time of year is especially hard on Z Flem because of his on-going battle for shoes. Yeah, that's right. Out shopping for the holidays, Z Flem has trouble walking by any store that sells shoes -- dress shoes, hi-tops, boots, loafers, sandals, you name it -- without marching in and blowing a couple hundy on new kicks. And this is a guy who already gets dozens of free shoes from the Redskins each week.

It's an affliction that stems from a childhood spent in not quite cool enough brands. Something I can relate to. (Swear to god: my mom use to buy our shoes at a Uniroyal Tire Plant in downtown Detroit.)

"I guess you could say I have a shoe problem," he says. "I see 'em and I gotta have 'em." If the shoe fits...Z Flem will buy three pairs. A few weeks ago, he did an autograph signing at a local sports store and, at times, was considering buying up entire rows before he came to his senses. Perhaps OBC Spurrier will do the same in preparation for Dallas this week and instead of turning Z into a blocking dummy, he'll utilize him as a weapon in the passing game where the Cowboys are weak in the deep middle when they play their version of "Cover 2." If not then, OBC can just count his days in D.C. until the other shoe drops.

The WHYLO (Who Helped You Log On) of the Week
Ah, a fresh batch of holiday hate mail.

Robert writes, "Taking a concept from this past week's article, how about you quit, so we the readers can finally win."
Writes Curtis, "Too bad your latest 'quitter' column was devoid of wit and came off sounding like a bitter and desperate writer grasping at conceptual straws to fill column space by a deadline. I think if you'd be honest with yourself, you'll find that's true, but what do I know? Just that you've done better before. Better luck next time."
Paul writes, "To concede one play to strengthen ones position on the next play is not conceding victory. Your message and point is confused and it belittles the strategies employed regardless of the outcome."
Bob writes, "You gotta come back at the Bon Jovi idiot who threatened "Hope you don't live in Jersey or plan to visit there." I mean, who the hell would want to?"
Khoi says, "Wow. That was some unintelligent piece of writing there. You really should have someone else read your crap before submitting it."

And finally, thank goodness, Glen writes, "We're all a bunch of quitters at heart! So if you want someone to blame, why don't you go after the liberal tweakers who run around this country pervading this selfish nonsense!"

For trying-poorly, I might add-to politicize this column, I'm happy to award Glen with the non-partisan WHYLO of the Week Award.

Flem Gems
Philly Scene No. 1: Thirty seconds off the plane and I know I'm in Philly because as I walk by, I can hear the Santa at the airport complaining about not getting his break or something. ... Took my daughter to see Elf last week and during the first pause in the movie, she yells out with pure fury and indignation...HEY DADDY, DIS NOT NEMO. ... Quincy Carter has Michael Vick disease. As the season wears on and his body wears down, his fundamentals have flown out the window. If he wants to be a great QB, he has to get to the point where his technique is so solid that when things break down nothing changes. That takes tedious, tiresome and timely repetition in the offseason, which starts pretty soon for the Cowboys. ... PSN2: A Philly radio station provided fans with cockroaches to eat before the game. I kept listening because I figured fans got free tickets or a trip to Atlantic City or something for eating the bugs. Nope. Nothing. And you thought press box hot dogs were bad. ... While visiting the Titans a few weeks back I nearly dozed off while talking to Jeff Fisher because of the tranquil water sounds emanating from the serenity fountain in his office. If the Titans win 11 games and have to travel in the first round of the playoffs as a wild card, somebody better up the water pressure on that thing. ... Outside the stadium in Carolina there are giant statues of panthers that have been decorated with wreaths for the holidays. More and more those things are beginning to look like choke chains. ... PSN3: Doesn't apparel that says in big block letters AUTHENTIC PRO GEAR kinda defeat the purpose? ... Have you noticed that no one waves anymore when you let them merge? When did that stop? ... PSN4: I knew the Cowboys were doomed in the second half when kicker Billy Cundiff came out to warm up for the second half wearing sweat pants over his football gear to stay warm. ... PSN5: Thank you to the fan in Philly who spent most of the game with his back to the field so he could flip the bird at the press box. ... Who was that making out in the stands in Cleveland last night, the Gores? ... My daughter is convinced that in addition to bringing toys to children all over the world, Old Saint Nick also delivers made-to-order cakes.

THIS COLUMN WRITTEN WHILE LISTENING TO: Rage Against the Machine, Live at the Grand Olympic Auditorium...A feroucious tempest of musical stylings, stitched together with passion, power and protest and brimming with such punch-your-hand-through-the-wall-energy and an emotional, eletrical tug of war between anger and hope, that it immediately cracked my all-time top five CD list.

I mention this now only because, well, after five years of waiting for the right moment to use this classic anecdote it has finally arrived. You see, what Duce learned that day -- and what the Eagles offense has proven again this season -- is that with all things in life, three is always better than two.

Forget your fantasy geek charts for a moment. The leading back in the NFL is not really Jamal Lewis or Deuce McAllister or even Priest Holmes. Instead, it's the Eagles Three-Headed Monster of running backs -- Staley, Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter -- who have combined for what would be a league high 22 touchdowns and 2,018 total yards from scrimmage for the 10-3 Eagles. "We're writing the book on how to use three backs and be successful with it," says the indomitable Dr. Staley.

So you can slap any title you want on the book these three guys are writing. And trust me, people have. Thunder, Lightning and Thunder. The Three Headed Monster. The Eagles Trio. The Three Rushkateers. Thrillogy. The Bermuda Grass Triangle." And, of course, my personal fav ... The Threeagles. But what often gets lost in all the name calling is the kind of rare team-first 'tude that epitomizes this group and, at the same time, saved Philly's season.

"A lot has to be said about the character of these three guys and their unselfishness and their willingness to play a role on this team," says fullback Jon Ritchie. "They are stars sharing the same galaxy." Which is truly a rare and refeshing thing, to see such unselfish play in the Every Man For Themselves Era of modern sports -- where no one seems to represent, or play for, anything bigger than themselves anymore.

Sure, you see platoons at running back all the time in the NFL. And you would think it should work. I mean, other positions sub in personnel for every imaginable variation of down and distance. But backs sharing time usually means one thing: the team has three backs and not a single decent runner. Not so with the Threeagles. This is textbook. Three guys willing to subjugate their own egos and stats for the good of the team; a locker room full of leaders who make sure it stays that way; and coaches, like offensive coordinator Brad Childress, smart enough to use each guy's unique talents in a way that creates a kinda Swiss Army Knife offense.

That's what Dallas saw on Sunday. Three rotating backs, four if you count quarterback Donovan McNabb, along with nine pass-catching targets and no idea who or how or when the Threeagles were gonna hit them. With so many interchangeable parts, versatile weapons and methods of attack coming at them, most defenses have been forced to sit back and react (read: guess) rather than dictate the tempo of the game.

As a result, since starting the season 0-2 (and sending the folks of Philly into their usual daily waves of apoplectic shock followed by sobbing fits of joy), everything has begun to roll for the Eagles -- in sets of three.

On Sunday against the wilting Cowboys (whose top three receivers did not catch a pass), McNabb threw three touchdown passes to put the Eagles on the verge of their third-straight NFC East title and setting them up for their third-straight trip to the NFC championship game. The Threeagles, meanwhile, combined for 245 total yards, three touchdowns and nine first downs against Dallas, while showcasing the strengths of each back.

Like all good trilogies this one has an explosive, electric opening act in Westbrook. The NCAA leader in all-purpose yards while at nearby Villanova, Westbrook put the Eagles up early 10-3 with a slippery 16-yard scamper on a screen. The way he runs with such heart and fury, no wonder the coaches call this guy Seabiscuit. It was Westbrook, after all, who may have saved the season when he returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown to beat the Giants in Week 7. "We sure got the feeling (before drafting him) that Brian could be the guy if needed," says Andy Reid, the mad scientist behind the Threeagles. "Really, I think all three of them can be No. 1 backs."

At halftime inside the Eagles locker room it was Staley, the steady, unifying bridge Part II of this trilogy, who called out his teammates for their lack of fire in the first half. After a training camp holdout Staley could have moped around, whining about his reduced role and poisoned the locker room waiting for his free agent escape. Instead, he has become a steadying influence just when the Eagles needed it most.

How about that? A guy named Duce leads a group named the Threeagles?

"I just said one thing, 'Make a play, make-a-play,' " says Staley, dressed in a sweet retro Detroit Tigers jersey after the game. "We do this as a team and we have a lot of heart in this locker room. And I've always told them, If I'm doing something bad, call me out. And I'll do the same."

He sure did. Staley then came out and backed up his words in the second half with a sellout bulldozer dive on a little shuttle pass that made it 17-10. Buckhalter, part III of the Threeagles trilogy, then stepped in and closed things out with a relentless 109 yards in the second half. But the most fitting play of all for this group may have been when they finally got on the field at the same time -- in a wishbone formation no less -- and none of them got the ball. The Eagles threw out of that formation. Go figure. And not a peep of complaint was heard from the backfield.

They're the Threeagles, remember, not the Keyeagles.

"You have to understand that we all want the ball," says Staley who just happens to be third on the Eagles all-time rushing list. "That competitive edge is there. But this is about chemistry."

And wins too. Four more and the Eagles will be back to the NFC title game and you just know what they'll be saying then.

Three's a charm.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at Also, he'll be in chat Friday at 3 p.m. ET. Got something to say to Fleming? Click here to leave him a question.