Many happy returners for Eagles
Eagles punt returner Damaris Johnson and kick returner Brandon Boykin are seeing results from the switch to special-teams coach Dave Fipp.
IN A YEAR when not much went right for the Eagles, the punt-return game fit right in.
Like the rest of the organization, the special teams were overhauled in the offseason. New coach Chip Kelly brought in Dave Fipp from the Miami Dolphins to run the special teams. He came in and instilled confidence in his units, but not in a customary way.
"Our special-teams coordinator, coach Fipp, he comes with a great mentality," said punt-return man Damaris Johnson. "He lets the returners be themselves. He doesn't say, 'If it's a return right, you definitely have to go right.' He says, 'You are the man, so you have to go out there and make plays.' He lets us go out there and cut it loose. I think I'm able to go out and play freely and play my game."
Said kickoff return man Brandon Boykin: "Coach Fipp trusts the returners. We are the guys with the ball, and he wouldn't put us back there if we didn't have the ability and confidence to do it. He says whatever we see, wherever you see an opening, go and take it and make the most of it. That freedom does give you a lot more confidence as a runner."
Johnson and Boykin, both second-year players, see the improvement in the return game as vital to the Eagles' success in 2013.
The Eagles went without a punt return of more than 12 yards until the eighth game last season. Johnson was the man to pull through and break that streak, returning a punt against New Orleans for 20 yards. The Birds only had six returns of more than 12 yards all season.
Johnson last year averaged a modest 11.2 yards per return, the average skewed a bit when he took one to the house for 98 yards at Dallas on Dec. 2 in a 38-33 loss. While he did find some success last season as an undrafted rookie out of Tulsa, he is excited to play in the system under Fipp.
"Everybody likes it, especially a playmaker," said Johnson. "If they give you a chance to just run around the field, it feels good to go back there and know I can hit any spot on the field and try to make a big play."
The preseason has offered a glimpse of light into the Eagles' return game. Through the first two games, Johnson is averaging 29 yards on three returns, including one of 62 yards. As a team, the Eagles have returned a total of eight for 124 yards.
On kickoffs, Boykin has two for 74 yards and the team has four for 123 yards.
"I like that attitude that we bring as a unit," Boykin said. "We are aggressive, and we expect to make a big play every single time . . . If we would have had that mindset last year, we would have been more successful. Knowing that we have that now, we will definitely have more plays."
Added Johnson: "It's really important. Punt returns are the most exciting play in the game because guys are coming out and you may get your head taken off, or you might take it back 95 yards. I think it's exciting, and I'm happy I get the chance to go back there and do that."
While he only has done it three punt returns thus far in the preseason, the results are promising.
"Experience," Johnson explained. "Just getting a year under my belt. I always was confident, but having more confidence going out there and playing my game, not really trying to make too much happen, but letting the game come to me and be patient."
Boykin has seen the difference in Johnson: "He's really stepped it up from last year, experiencewise, and his confidence is higher, whether it is receiving or returning punts and kicks.
"It is like he is always so close to breaking one, kind of like myself, and the confidence is the biggest thing. I think we will both have a bigger year and hopefully get some touchdowns."
Eagles fans will have to be patient to see if the changes in the system and the added confidence will pay off when the bright lights of the regular season shine on Monday night, Sept. 9, in Washington.