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Johnson ready to be big-time returner for Eagles

reuben frank csnphilly

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Posted 08 December 2012 - 08:08 PM

Frank

Johnson ready to be big-time returner for Eagles

December 8, 2012, 10:15 am

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Early in the season, Damaris Johnson struggled with his decision-making. When to field punts, when to fair catch punts, when to just let them bounce into the end zone.

How many times did we all cringe when he fielded a punt inside the 10? Or even the 5?

This time when he fielded one inside the 5 -- at the 2-yard-line, to be specific -- it was the smartest move he’s made all year.

With the Eagles trailing the Cowboys by 38-27 late in the fourth quarter Sunday night in Dallas, Johnson knew he had to make something special happen.

So he fielded Brian Moorman’s punt at the 2 and then raced 98 yards down the right sideline for the longest punt return in Eagles history and the third-longest in NFL history.

The Cowboys recovered Alex Henery’s onside kick and won 38-33, handing the Eagles their eighth straight loss, but Johnson’s punt return proved what we’ve all suspected. The rookie from Tulsa is explosive.

“It felt great,” Johnson said. “Just all year long, I wanted to be a player on the team and be a contributor and be a spark for the team and just make big plays. Even though I’m not in every down, I always want to try to make a big play.

“And in that moment, nobody gave up, we were still trying to score, still trying to get back in the game and win the game, and it was a big play and hopefully it gave us momentum for the rest of the year.”

The only longer punt returns in NFL history are a 103-yarder by Robert Bailey of the Rams in 1994 -- the only punt he ever returned -- and a 99-yarder last year by Patrick Peterson of the Cards. Johnson broke the franchise record of 87 yards set by Vai Sikahema against the Giants at the Meadowlands in 1992 -- when he sparred with the goalpost.

The last man Johnson had to beat was actually Moorman, a three-time NCAA Division 2 400-meter intermediate hurdles champion who happens to be one of the Cowboys’ fastest athletes.

“He was real fast,” he said. “I thought I was running slow, but you’ve got to give him credit.

“I wasn’t thinking about getting caught, I was just thinking I hope I hurry up and get there because I’m exhausted.”

It’s amazing what a single 98-yard return can do.

Johnson’s season average jumped from 8.1 to 13.9, giving him the lead among all NFC punt returners this year.

Johnson’s longest previous return was a 20-yarder against the Saints.

If Johnson can hang onto the NFC punt return lead over the next four weeks -- and second-place Randall Cobb is only at 10.1 -- he’d become the fourth Eagle to lead the NFC in punt return average in the last decade, following Brian Westbrook in 2003, Reno Mahe in 2005 and DeSean Jackson in 2009. Mahe and Jackson both led the NFL.

The 98-yard return was the longest in NFL history by an undrafted player.

“He’s got good quickness, he’s good running with the ball and he’s tough, too,” special teams coach Bobby April said. “You don’t see the ball hit the ground that often with him because he’s not afraid to run up through traffic.

“I think he’s got a really good future. I think he’s doing well now but I think he can be a really solid, exceptional returner. He’s had a great career. He had a great high school career, he had a great college career, and I think he has every opportunity to have a great [NFL] career. He’s having a really good season.”

If you look at his season, Johnson has shown steady progress. He averaged 4.9 yards per return in his first four games and was plagued by poor decision making. Then he averaged 12.1 yards in his next five games before his record-setter Sunday night.

Johnson, who ranked 34th of 38 returners in the NFL six weeks into the season, said he never doubted himself or got down on his teammates, who struggled to open up holes for him to run through.

“I knew everybody was trying,” he said. “It wasn’t like guys were going out there not trying, so you can’t look at other guys, you’ve got to look in the mirror and look at yourself. It was something I wasn’t doing right and I took it as a challenge to continue to improve throughout the year and just hoped we got a big play or a touchdown or a few touchdowns and luckily we got one.”

Johnson, who became the all-time NCAA total yardage record holder in just three years at Tulsa before getting suspended for his senior year, also has 13 receptions for 203 yards in limited duty this season as a wide receiver.

He said Sunday’s 98-yarder finally made him believe he can be a big-time NFL returner.

“I never lost my confidence,” he said. “But it’s always better when you do it and you can go back and you can say, ‘OK, this is what I did to get one, so now that I got one, I know what it feels like and what it takes to get more.’ And hopefully, I get a lot more.”

E-mail Reuben Frank at rfrank@comcastsportsnet.com