Even more room for improvement with Wendell Smallwood as kick returner

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Even more room for improvement with Wendell Smallwood as kick returner

In 2016, the Eagles were tied for the best kick return average in the NFL at 27.3 yards per return and they were the only team in the NFL to have two kick return touchdowns. 

And there's still room for improvement. 

"I think we can even be better with the kick return game," head coach Doug Pederson said. "Wendell (Smallwood) shows some explosiveness back there. It's exciting to put the ball in his hands. He's a tough runner, being a running back and definitely has the speed to go the distance. Yeah, we can definitely improve there. It'll be a great opportunity for him this weekend."

Smallwood, entering his second NFL season, will be the Eagles' primary kick returner this season, Pederson confirmed on Wednesday. Smallwood returned kicks in 2016 but started off the year as the Birds' secondary option after Josh Huff. 

As a rookie, Smallwood took his third-career return 86 yards to the house. It actually happened on Oct. 16 in Washington, so he'll return to the scene of the touchdown this weekend when the Eagles open their season at FedEx Field. From that touchdown, Smallwood just remembers having good blocking in front of him, finding a hole and bursting through it. On that touchdown, he and Huff were both back to return and Washington booted it away from Huff. 

"You had to pick your poison," Smallwood said. "Me or Huff."

Huff was obviously released during last season after being pulled over and arrested for crossing into New Jersey with a hand gun. So this season, Smallwood is the Eagles' No. 1 option. Nelson Agholor is likely No. 2. 

Smallwood said he has loved returning since high school. He has just two NFL touchdowns -- one rushing, one returning -- and said the celebration for the return was more emphatic. 

"I think it's more of a team effort on special teams because everyone has to do something right," he said. "People work so hard in that area, it being special teams and not a lot of points come off special teams. I think it means a lot, all the work we put in and everyone getting their job done. It barely happens but it happens sometimes and when it does, it's big plays. It definitely means a lot. I feel like we celebrate special teams touchdowns more than we do offense and defense."

Special teams touchdowns are hard to come by in the NFL, so it makes sense that the celebration matches. Under special teams coordinator Dave Fipp, the Eagles have had a top special teams unit for the last few years. The unit lost several key pieces from a year ago, including Jon Dorenbos and Bryan Braman; it'll be up to Fipp to replace them and keep the engine running. 

Kick return is just one small part of the special teams puzzle, but it's an area where Smallwood can make an impact. And it's an area where Pederson thinks there's still room for improvement. 

"Yeah, it definitely is an X factor," Smallwood said. "We have a lot of starters on there actually. We got a lot of guys that take pride in special teams. Fipp tells us every day, man. He drills it into us every day how important it is to us. I think we approach it every day like we're going to make a difference in the game. Turn good into great. Turn bad into good."

LeGarrette Blount advises Eagles to 'stay humble' after 5-1 start

LeGarrette Blount advises Eagles to 'stay humble' after 5-1 start

With a 5-1 record, the Eagles sit all alone atop the division and conference standings, and are tied for the best mark in the NFL. Their quarterback was recently given the best odds of winning the league’s Most Valuable Player award. So, yes, right now, a trip to the Super Bowl seems to be very much on the table for this squad.

But take it from LeGarrette Blount, somebody who’s won a couple of world championships — the Eagles can’t afford to get caught up in the hysteria right now.

“We could lose 10 in a row,” Blount said Tuesday. “We could go 6-10, so we don't want to jump the gun, jump to conclusions. We want to make sure we take it week by week, day by day, keep a level head and make sure we're going to be ready for whoever the next opponent is.”

Blount is one of only five Eagles players with a Super Bowl ring, and the only member of the roster who owns multiple. The veteran running back won two of the last three years with the New England Patriots organization, which has been a perennial championship contender for the better part of the last two decades.

In other words, Blount knows better than anybody inside the Eagles’ locker room exactly what it takes to not only reach the big game and come away victorious, but also how to sustain that success.

“You have to stay grounded,” Blount. “You have to stay humble and make sure that all the guys that are in the building are on the same page. The coaches, the staff, everybody is on the same page, ignoring the noise, not worrying about what other teams are doing, what other teams' records are – just worrying about ourselves and locked into us.”

Easier said than done given the week the Eagles just had.

After going to Carolina and upending a tough Panthers squad on Thursday night, the Eagles watched as massive blows were being dealt to some of their stiffest competition over the weekend. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone on Sunday, potentially crippling one of the NFC’s elites for the remainder of the season. And Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott is awaiting word on the status of a six-game suspension that could seriously hamper the division rival.

But the noise can also be Eagles fans and their exponentially rising expectations, or a media that’s quick to point out any tiny flaw and raise controversy.

Blount has experienced the latter firsthand. Two weeks into the 2017 campaign, he finished a game without a carry — an Eagles’ loss — and was averaging 3.0 yards per carry going back to the preseason. The constant questions coming from reporters about his role easily could have become a distraction.

In the four weeks since, Blount has 344 yards on 56 carries for a 6.1 average. He never allowed the noise to get to him, instead becoming a big reason behind the ongoing four-game winning streak.

“We know what we've been doing to get to this point,” Blount said. “We know what it takes, so we just have to buy in to continue to do that, and continue to do every that it takes to continue winning games.

“A big part of it is just making sure you ignore the noise, don't listen to the outsiders, everything that is in house stays in house, and that you make sure and know that everybody that you see on TV isn't in your corner. Sometimes that can discourage the younger guys. Every now and then you'll hear them say, 'Oh, did you hear them say this,' or, 'Did you hear them say that? Or, 'Did you see this,' or 'Did you see that?'

“The big part is making sure that everybody ignores that stuff.”

Blount has been through extraordinary highs and lows in his football career and learned to maintain an even keel. But Eagles leadership has also done a tremendous job insulating players from the kinds of rumblings that have a tendency to create discord and cause entire seasons to come off the rails.

For evidence, look no further than rumors that defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was trying to undermine head coach Doug Pederson — and how quickly such talk dissipated.

“The veteran groups have a lot to do with it,” Blount said. “I also think the coaches have a lot to do with it — keeping the guys grounded, keeping the guys to where we have to continue to come here and work if we want to continue the success.

“Most of the young guys, all of them have bought into the program, and everybody's locked in and knows their role and what they want to do.”

While Blount wouldn’t go so far as to draw parallels between the ways the Eagles and the Patriots handle distractions, it’s clear he’s been able to quickly establish a bond with his new teammates and coaches since signing in May.

“Every team is different,” Blount said. “I can't compare this team to the New England teams, or any other team. We have a really close-knit team. We believe in each other. Everybody loves each other and we have each other’s backs.”

As far as Blount’s performance on the field is concerned, the best may be still to come. He’s finished with at least 12 carries in each of the last four games, and looked explosive and elusive while doing it. And with extra rest between a Thursday night game in Carolina and this Monday’s contest at home against Washington, the bruising runner said he’s feeling refreshed.

Most of all, it sounds as though Blount is in a great frame of mind and feeling comfortable with all of his surroundings. And if you’re looking for a great read on the Eagles’ situation through six games, just listen to the guy who’s come to expect confetti and parades in February.

Judge grants Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott reprieve, cleared for 49ers in Week 7

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Judge grants Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott reprieve, cleared for 49ers in Week 7

NEW YORK -- Dallas Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott has been granted another legal reprieve in the running back's fight to avoid a six-game suspension over domestic violence allegations.

A federal judge granted a temporary restraining order blocking the league's suspension Tuesday night, clearing Elliott to play Sunday at San Francisco.

U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty's ruling comes five days after a federal appeals court overturned a Texas court's injunction that had kept Elliott on the field this season.

Crotty granted the request for a temporary restraining order pending a hearing before the presiding judge, Katherine Polk Fialla.

Elliott, last year's NFL rushing leader as a rookie, was barred from the team's facility Tuesday as players returned from their off week. The NFL placed him on the suspended list Friday, a day after the ruling from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

The Eagles visit Dallas in Week 11 on Sunday night, Nov. 19. They host the Cowboys in Week 17 on New Year’s Eve.