Philadelphia Eagles

Are the Eagles really that bad at kickoff and punt returns?

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It’s no shock to hear booing at the Linc – but the cause of that booing is sometimes unexpected. Kickoff and punt returns, for example, have provoked displeasure from the crowd in recent weeks. But are the Eagles really so unproductive in this area? Let’s take a look at how the men in midnight green stack up against competitors and previous rosters, and who is to blame for any perceived shortcomings.

Catching fair criticism?

Kickoff and punt returns provide can’t-look-away moments with the potential to electrify the crowd and get adrenaline pumping on the sidelines. That’s possibly why a measly return sometimes feels so deflating for fans. But just how bad have the Eagles been in the return game this season?

For kickoff returns, the Eagles currently average 18.1 yards per attempt in 2021, ranking 29th in the NFL. That sounds bad – but spectators’ catcalls may be slightly uncalled-for. The averages for all 32 teams are only separated by 11.2 yards, from the Jets at the top (28.3) down to the Broncos at the bottom (17.1).

Interestingly, the Jets have attempted 44 kickoff returns (second most), compared to just 17 for the Broncos (second fewest). Teams that try returning kickoffs more often boost their probability of a touchdown return, which inflates their average because returners begin from so close to the goal line. So far, there have been just eight kickoff return TDs in the NFL this season, out of 965 attempts.

When returning punts, the Eagles average 7.5 yards. That puts them 22nd in the NFL, ahead of the Buccaneers and the Colts (Dallas ranks dead last). There have only been nine punt returns of 40+ yards so far this season, placing Jalen Reagor’s 39-yard return against the Giants on December 26 at the upper end of the curve. Only two of 778 NFL punt returns have been taken all the way to the end zone in 2021.

What’s the key message? Returning kickoffs and punts is difficult – and is also a numbers game. The perennially abysmal Jets (4-11) currently rank top for average yards from kickoff returns and second for average yards from punt returns. Maybe the return game isn’t worth getting so worked up about…

Trending in the wrong direction?

How does this year’s Eagles roster compare to previous years?

When it comes to kickoff returns, the Eagles are slipping down the rankings. In 2019, they averaged 22.5 yards (14th in NFL), with 18 returns of over 20+ yards and one of 40+. In 2020, they averaged 20.9 yards (20th), with 17 returns of 20+ yards and two of 40+. So far this season, they average 18.1 yards (29th), with 14 returns of 20+ yards and just one of 40+. That shows a gradual decline. It’s worth noting the Eagles haven’t managed a kickoff return TD since scoring two in 2016 (by J. Huff and W. Smallwood).

For punt returns, it’s harder to identify a clear trajectory. In 2019, the Eagles averaged 5.9 yards (25th), with a longest return of just 19 yards. In 2020, the team improved to average 8.8 yards (18th), with two returns of 20+ yards and one of 40+ yards. So far this season, they’re splitting the difference, averaging 7.5 yards (22nd) with three returns of 20+ yards and none of 40+.

Is there anything fans can learn from this? Perhaps only that returns haven’t been a major strength in recent years. Hiring the youngest coordinator in the NFL this offseason showed a willingness to freshen up every area of special teams. But it hasn’t made much difference to the return game yet.

Is Reagor the reason?

Let’s be honest: Fans haven’t just been booing the unproductive kickoff and punt returns – they’ve been booing the returner.

Jalen Reagor has taken 30 out of 31 punt returns for the Eagles so far this season, with Greg Ward stepping in once to contribute 12 yards. Reagor has also taken 12 of 29 kickoff returns in 2021, averaging 21.3 yards. That is better than Kenneth Gainwell (averaging 19.3 yards from six returns), Quez Watkins (17.3 yards from eight), Boston Scott (one return for 13 yards) and Greg Ward (one return for three yards), as well as John Hightower – who tried to return a kickoff from two yards deep in the end zone against the Chargers in Week 9 and only made it to the 15-yard line.

Criticism of Reagor’s kickoff and punt returns has often focused on his tendency to stutter and step backwards rather than blazing ahead into oncoming traffic. However, the longest of the two punt return TDs in the NFL this season shows Jakeem Grant adopting a similar approach for the Bears. The other punt return TD, by Brandon Powell for the Rams, is perhaps more revealing. The blocking by his teammates was simply light-years ahead of anything the Eagles have displayed so far this season.

The takeaway? As Miles Sanders recently dared to say, booing players as they line up to return kickoffs and punts may not be productive – or entirely justified. The flipside of that, however, is that booing in Philly is not the same as booing elsewhere. As this clip shows, it’s a little more complex than that.

Madden madness and misty-eyed memories

The stats paint a blurred picture of the truth about the Eagles’ kickoff and punt returns. Based on that lack of clarity, it may be slightly harsh to decry the team’s productivity in this area. While there is certainly room to improve, fans should be careful about wishing to swap places with the NY Jets. Perhaps joystick-happy gamers have let button-crunching euphoria cloud their judgment. It’s also true that frequently re-shared nostalgic clips like the DeSean Jackson miracle at the New Meadowlands in 2010 have encouraged unrealistic expectations. On the positive side, the stats suggest that the Eagles are due another miracle at any moment. Perhaps a defining twist is on its way to crown this captivating season…

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Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire

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Matty Bannond is a 36-year-old fiction writer, music writer and sports writer. He was born and raised near Manchester, UK. He now lives in Germany.

Twitter: @MattyBannond

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