STARTED TO ask Bobby April about the Eagles' 2011 kick- and punt-returning performance. Didn't get real far.
"We were terrible," the Birds' special-teams coordinator said, interrupting his questioner's tiptoeing with a brusque shake of his head. "We had terrible results … It's hard to put a finger on [exactly why], we were just really inept. I can only say the ineptitude comes from me, because what we were asking guys to do, they were unable to perform it. Either they couldn't or they wouldn't. In either case, that's a mistake by me … We were really poor, the poorest I can remember in a long time. Just nothing. We made nothing happen."
The Eagles' kickoff-return average of 20.9 yards ranked 31st in the 32-team NFL. Their 7.07-yard punt-return average ranked 28th. As reasons for not making the playoffs went, this was less pertinent than, say, having the highest interception rate in the league, but it definitely didn't help. The only mitigating factor was that the Eagles did a fine job covering kicks (tied for 13th) and punts (third), which kept their own meager output from becoming a huge disparity. Nobody ran back a kickoff or punt for a touchdown, either for the Eagles or against them.
Fans tend to focus on the returner as the obvious focal point, and last season, the Birds used a rookie running back, Dion Lewis, to return kicks for the first time in his life, while their formerly explosive punt returner, DeSean Jackson drifted in and out of the picture, Jackson admitting his since-settled contract dispute affected his play. Other punt-return options, such as Chad Hall, didn't produce great improvement.
April said he definitely wasn't putting it all on the returners' shoulders.
"We've got to play with a lot more tenacity by the blockers, a lot more preparation – solid preparation – during the week, particularly the kickoff return," he said. "The kickoff return demands a tremendous amount of cooperation from the rest of the team. That has to come innately from the player, or I have to force it out of them … you're talking about a play that covers a lot of space. That means you need a lot of guys involved in the play … If [that week's opponent] runs a twist between the 3 and the 4, and we get a sloppy 3-4 look from the scout team, we're not really preparing ourselves properly."
Nonetheless, it's unlikely either Lewis or Jackson will work as a primary return man in 2012. The Eagles drafted Georgia's Brandon Boykin in the fourth round this spring; Boykin is Georgia's all-time leader in kickoff return yards (2,663 on 110 returns) and touchdowns (four). Then they signed Demaris Johnson as an undrafted rookie. Johnson sat out his senior season at Tulsa under suspension after an incident involving underpaying for merchandise at a Macy's where his girlfriend worked, but he still ended his career as the NCAA's all-time leader in all-purpose yards (7,796) and kickoff-return yards (3,417). April also likes the work of former USC receiver Ron Johnson, who was with the Eagles last year, mostly on the practice squad, and Mardy Gilyard, a 2010 fourth-round pick of the Rams. Hall remains in the picture as well.
If you were handicapping that group out of OTAs, you'd say cornerback Boykin seems most likely to make the team and be active on game day, followed by Hall and maybe Damaris Johnson, who has shown dazzling speed as a receiver. All those mentioned have fielded punts in these OTAs as well as kicks.
"I really have done a lot more kickoff than punt returns. I started to do punt returns my junior year; I've been doing kickoffs since my freshman year," Boykin said Tuesday. "I can do both at a high level."
Different skills are involved, Boykin said.
"Kick return, you know there's not going to be anybody there [right after] you catch the ball. Punt return takes a lot more focus, I guess you could say guts, to catch that ball without fair-catching it," Boykin said.
"When he was there in the fourth round, I was shocked," April said of Boykin. "I had him as just an elite player."
It's unlikely the fan base would be very excited to see Hall back there again, but he's smart, surehanded, works extra hard, and has survived 2 years here, at a listed 5-8, 187. Hall averaged 10.9 yards on just seven punt returns last season, fair-catching the ball 10 times.
Part of Hall's value in these OTAs has been translating April to the new guys; the special-teams czar employs his own dense, eccentric jargon, spiced with cultural and historical references that often baffle as much as they illuminate. April recently was overheard explaining a coverage concept as "an assembly line, like Laverne and Shirley." The players he was talking to, all born at least a decade after Laverne and Shirley disappeared from the airwaves, seemed puzzled.
"He's very smart. All the references, some of us don't get them," Hall said. "But a very smart guy. He does break it down, to every detail, to where everyone can understand it. He's very dramatic, gets into it, and that's fun to have. He's a different type of coach."
April had a lot to do with the signing of Demaris Johnson, as Eagles coach Andy Reid has noted. April explained Tuesday that he hails from the same part of Louisiana as Johnson, knows people at his high school, knows people in law enforcement there. Reid wanted April to help him judge not just whether Johnson could help the Eagles, but whether his legal misadventure, which resulted in 80 hours of community service, was a youthful mistake or an indicator of chronic trouble.
"It was a big mistake that was uncharacteristic of him," April said. "I think he really learned from it. Based on the people [April spoke to] and talking to Demaris, I don't think you're going to see that kind of thing ... It cost him a lot."
Johnson signed with the Eagles at least in part because he said he feels April is "a real genuine, a real straightforward guy."
When it comes to deciphering April, Johnson is thankful for Google.
"He just goes off the wall sometimes. Sometimes you'll have to go back and look up some of the things he said, just to make sense of it," Johnson said.
Johnson said he doesn't feel punt returning is any harder than kickoff returning.
"Punt returning is just quicker," Johnson said. "Less reaction time. Kickoff return, you have to have that patience to read blocks more."