The Eagles' punt-return unit takes the field. Darren Sproles catches the football, makes a man miss, and he’s off to the races again.
Only thing is ... it wasn't Sproles on Sunday vs. Arizona. On Sunday, it was Kenjon Barner.
Barner ripped off a 76-yard return and was finally pulled down at the 15-yard line, setting up an Eagles touchdown three plays later. And like so many huge returns and momentum shifts before, it may not have happened without Sproles.
Who do you think taught Barner that?
“I studied Sproles, I studied Devin Hester, even going back to Dante Hall, really studied guys like that,” Barner said Sunday after the Eagles’ 34-7 win over the Cardinals. “Usually, if you make that first guy miss, you can go a long way.
“Watching Sproles, being here with Sproles, it’s very rare that first guy is ever going to touch me. Very rare. If you make that first guy miss, you can be off to the races.”
Barner has demonstrated an innate ability in the return game going back to his days at Oregon, taking a kickoff back as a freshman, then a punt as a sophomore. But it wasn’t until he joined the Eagles and began watching Sproles from up close and personal that Barner began to realize his full potential.
Instincts and athleticism were never the issue. Barner said he learned how to approach the return game from Sproles.
“Prior to me getting here and being around Sproles, I just went out there,” Barner said of his pregame routine. “I caught punts from our punter. I didn’t really pay attention to the other team’s punter. Obviously, you watch film on them, but I didn’t actually see him kick. I would just catch our punter’s punts and carry on.
“[Sproles] taught me how to be a professional about it, how to study. What you see on film may not be what you see on the field. So catching punts from our punter initially, getting warmed up, but then going down and watching their punter. Seeing how he’s hitting the ball, seeing how he’s hitting his plus-50 kicks, seeing how deep he’s kicking it, seeing if he’s mishitting balls — just really paying attention to everything their punter is doing.”
In 2015, one year after he first joined the Eagles in a trade from the Carolina Panthers, Barner had a preseason to remember, returning two punts for touchdowns. He wound up making the team out of training camp and stuck for two seasons, but saw limited opportunities behind Sproles and was allowed to depart as a free agent this past offseaon.
The Eagles simply didn’t need another return man until Sproles suffered a season-ending injury. But when the call came, Barner was beyond prepared to step into that role.
“Watching film, you know (Cardinals punter) Andy Lee’s track record,” Barner said. “You know he’s going to kick the ball. You know he’s going to boom it. You know you’re going to have an opportunity.
“But aside from that, I needed to get a visual for myself up close and personal. Pregame, I was back there with the Cardinals on their side of the field. I’m approaching the ball like — I’m not going to catch it, but I’m getting behind their players while they’re catching it just so I can see it, just to get a feel for it, and that’s what Sproles taught me.”
Less than two weeks into his Eagles return, Barner felt as though he finally got a monkey off his back. The only thing that was missing was a touchdown.
“My guys up front just did a great job,” Barner said. “They opened holes for me, they opened lanes for me, allowed me to see the field. I was able to make a guy miss, cut back.
“I would’ve liked to finish that play a lot different.”
The offense was able to finish what Barner started, but that return against the Cardinals did a lot more than help put six points on the board. It provided the entire team — and all of Lincoln Financial Field for that matter — with an infusion of energy.
“Uplifts the whole team and puts us in a great field position offensively,” said Eagles coach Doug Pederson. “Thought he did an outstanding job there today in the return game and also as a runner.
“Some of the returns that we got, I think it just kept injecting juice into the team, into the atmosphere,” said Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins.
There’s no way to replace a three-time Pro Bowler like Sproles. His role on offense is almost impossible to replicate. Yet, at least in the return game, the Eagles have somebody who has been shadowing Sproles for years in Barner.
Barner is just grateful for the opportunity, not only to finally return kicks in a meaningful NFL game, but also to be back with the Eagles.
“It’s just in the short time that I’ve been here — two weeks now — guys are closer,” Barner said. “Guys have a lot of belief in each other. Not that they didn’t have belief in each other last year, but I think guys having a year in Doug’s system, a year under him getting comfortable with his coaching style, getting comfortable with each other.
“I think that’s the biggest difference. Guys really knowing what we have in this locker room, knowing what we’re capable of as a team.”