EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Not long after he first became Darren Sproles' teammate, more than five years ago now, Malcolm Jenkins understood the elemental secret of how a 5-foot-6, 190-pound waterbug could make himself, inch for inch, the NFL's most fearsome athlete.
Sproles joined the New Orleans Saints in 2011, and Jenkins, their starting strong safety then, noticed something unusual about him during the team's first walk-through practice that season. While all the other Saints players jogged around the field to simulate the action of a game, Sproles returned every punt at full speed. Every cut, every spin, every burst into what would be the open field - Sproles gave maximum effort.
There was little difference, if any, between what Jenkins saw then and what he saw Sunday: Sproles' dazzling punt-return touchdown in the Eagles' 24-17 victory over the Jets, 89 yards over which Sproles left four would-be tacklers pawing at air and seemed less a human being than a video-game character.
"He keeps getting better every time I see him," Jenkins said.
Back in New Orleans, the sight of Sproles' blazing through that low-key workout had initially puzzled Jenkins. Didn't Sproles know this was a walk-through? It didn't take Jenkins long, though, to recognize that the most important aspect of Sproles' preparation wasn't the speed at which he moved, but the depth with which he thought about what he had to do.
"You see him in a game," Jenkins said, "and he's played that game probably six times before he gets to it. When he gets the ball in his hand, it's just natural for him because he's seen the looks. He's mentally put himself in these situations. . . .
"He's probably still the best returner in the game right now, and I don't see that changing."
Sproles scored twice Sunday - the second time on a 1-yard dive that gave the Eagles a 24-0 lead - but it was his return touchdown that swung the game, and perhaps the Eagles' season. It was the eighth return touchdown of his career, and the play was an indication of why Sproles, even at 32 years old and after 10 years in the league, still sends a current of excitement through his coaches and teammates when he catches a punt in the clear.
Based on his pregame homework, Sproles said, he knew that Jets punter Ryan Quigley tended to hit high, short punts. In turn, the Jets would be accustomed to covering those kinds of punts. So when he saw the ball leave Quigley's right foot on a line-drive-like flight, Sproles knew he'd have a good opportunity for a big return, even though Quigley did manage to drive the ball near the Eagles' sideline.
"When you see a low kick like that," Sproles said, "your thought is, 'Catch it, and get going.' . . . Tell you the truth, I don't know what I did."
This is what he did:
The Jets' Kellen Davis had the first chance to make a tackle on the play, just a heartbeat after Sproles caught the punt. But Sproles did an ingenious thing: Instead of dashing toward the middle of the field - the predictable thing to do, given how close he was to the sideline - he made a subtle fake in that direction before breaking toward the short side. Davis reached out with his right hand but grabbed nothing. Sproles already was past him.
"There are a couple of things that are guaranteed when he catches the ball," Jenkins said. "The first guy's going to miss. And then, if you can get a hat on everybody else, he's going to score. Every time he touches the ball, we expect him to score."
As suddenly as he'd slipped past Davis, Sproles cut back against the grain toward the hashmarks. Bilal Powell, a running back who also covers kicks for the Jets, fell down trying to stay with him. For good measure, Sproles cut back once more, this time toward the sideline and across the face of the Jets' Tommy Bohanon, a 6-1, 247-pound fullback. Bohanon just watched him go by like a ghost. Tanner Purdum, the Jets' long-snapper, dived at Sproles' feet, but by the time Purdum landed on the MetLife Stadium turf, Sproles' feet weren't there anymore.
Sproles then surged past Quigley. "When I got up on the kicker," Sproles said, "that's when I kind of knew." Powell, to his credit, hadn't given up on the play, and he sprinted down the sideline in a desperate attempt to catch Sproles. But the Eagles' Trey Burton shoved Powell just enough to make sure Sproles' path to the end zone remained clear.
"That punt return," Jenkins said, "was the reason we won this game."
He was talking about more than just the obvious: that Sproles' touchdown accounted for the difference in the final score. He was talking about something intangible, about context. The Eagles entered Sunday 0-2, with their season in the balance, facing a road game against a 2-0 opponent, and though they led 3-0 early in the second quarter when their defense forced Quigley on to the field, their offense had punted on its previous two possessions. There was no momentum. There was no telling where that game was headed. Then Darren Sproles caught that punt, and what followed was something that he, more often than anyone, had seen before.