The last kick returner the Eagles had who finished in the top 10 in the NFL was Brian Mitchell 12 years ago.
They’ve had some electrifying punt returners, notably Brian Westbrook and DeSean Jackson, but it’s been four years since Jackson was really an effective returner and other than one Damaris Johnson touchdown in a meaningless game late in the awful 2012 season, the Eagles’ punt return game has been ineffective the last few years as well.
Which brings us to 2014.
For the first time in years, the Eagles have no clue who will return punts and kicks for them during the regular season.
“We’ve got a bunch of options, so I’m excited about it,” special teams coach Dave Fipp said. “I think it’s great. It’s better than having none.”
Jackson and Johnson split the Eagles’ punt return duties last year, with neither having much success. Johnson was OK on kickoffs at 25.9, but he’s not expected to make the roster this year.
Overall, the Eagles ranked 25th in the NFL in kick return average last year (21.4) and 27th in punt return average (6.6). They didn’t have a kick return of 50 yards, and they didn’t have a punt return longer than 32 yards.
They have to get better.
But do they have the people to do it?
Fipp said the Eagles during their spring camps used rookie Josh Huff, along with Nolan Carroll, Jeremy Maclin, Johnson, Darren Sproles, Brad Smith and Chris Polk on kick returns and Sproles, rookie Jordan Matthews, Maclin and Riley Cooper on punt returns. During minicamps, Sproles appeared to take most of the first reps bringing back punts, with Huff getting the first reps on kicks.
Sproles is a big key here because he’s got by far the most experience of anybody on the roster, with 195 career punt returns for an 8.3 average and 328 career kick returns and a 25.3 average.
He’s one of only five active NFL players to average over 8.0 yards on punt returns and 25 yards on kick returners for his career (minimum of 100 of both), along with Josh Cribbs, Leon Washington, Jacoby Jones and Brandon Tate.
The problem is Sproles turned 31 last week and was among the worst in the NFL last year with career-worst averages of 6.7 yards on punt returns and 21.3 on kick returns.
Among those with 10 or more returns, Sproles last year ranked 39th out of 41 kick returners and 33rd out of 39 punt returners (Jackson was last).
Sproles did have a 39-yard kick return in the Saints’ playoff win over the Eagles at the Linc to set up Shayne Graham’s 32-yard game-winning field goal.
The numbers say Sproles is on the decline, but Fipp said he hasn’t seen that.
“He’s been great,” Fipp said. “He’s worked hard. He’s an unbelievable practice player, works really hard on the practice field both offensively and for us on special teams.
“He’s been really good. He’s quick, he’s elusive, it doesn’t look like me that he’s lost a step. The players going down and covering him over the offseason don’t think he has.”
One issue Fipp and head coach Chip Kelly will have to deal with is figuring out whether the best returner is actually the smartest one to use.
Maclin could be the Eagles’ best returner, but he’s going to be playing offense just about every snap. Fipp said over-use caught up with Jackson last year. That’s why a role player like Polk, Huff or Smith may make more sense than someone like Sproles, who is in his 10th season and older than most effective returners.
“DeSean Jackson a year ago, there’s times he’s sucking wind because he’s playing a lot on offense and he’s thrown into a returner role and maybe it’s hard at that moment,” Fipp said.
“So you have to look at the big picture. What’s he being asked to do? How many plays does he play in the game? All those things factor into it to some degree.”
Kelly quickly identified Sproles, Huff and Matthews as guys who are at the top of his list as training camp approaches.
“Darren is the one proven commodity that has had a lot of success in the league doing it,” he said. “But anxious to take a look at two of the young kids -- Josh Huff returned kickoffs in college and Jordan Matthews returned punts in college.”
The Eagles haven’t had a kick return for a touchdown in six years, since Quintin Demps’ 100-yarder vs. the Ravens during that 36-7 blowout loss in 2008 – the game Andy Reid benched Donovan McNabb at halftime. They haven’t had a meaningful one since Mitchell’s 94-yarder at Arizona in 2001. They haven’t had one at home in 14 years.
Jackson and Westbrook had their share of heroics bringing back punts, but the Eagles have had only two punt returns for TDs at home in the last 35 years.
One last critical note: When you look at the Eagles’ recent playoff issues, you can look right at the return game as a big part of it. They’ve lost four straight postseason games and haven’t had a punt return of at least 30 yards or kick return of at least 40 yards in any of them.
If all of this is going to change, it’s going to change with somebody new fielding kicks and punts.
What will the final decision be based on?
“Who’s the best,” Fipp said. “How much energy is he going to have? But it’s who can do it the best, ultimately. Who gets the ball out the furthest.”