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Lawlor: Putting The Special In Special Teams

Posted Jul 9, 2017

A lot of star players have done great things in an Eagles uniform. Some are known simply by their first names, like Reggie and Randall. Some have a nickname like Jaws or Dawk. Almost always, we think in terms of offense or defense. One area where the Eagles are as good as any other team is their collection of dynamic return specialists over the years, some of whom are among the greatest in league history.

STEVE VAN BUREN

Van Buren is one of the best NFL players of all time. When he retired at the end of the 1951 season, he was the league's all-time leading rusher and had helped the Eagles win a pair of NFL titles. Besides being a great running back, Van Buren was a dangerous kickoff and punt returner. He ran back two punts for touchdowns and averaged 13.9 yards per punt return for his career. That would be the highest average of all time if he had enough returns to qualify. Van Buren returned three kickoffs for scores and averaged 27 yards per return for his career, the 14th-highest average of all time.

We generally think of returners as small, quick, shifty players. Van Buren was 6-0 and just over 200 pounds. He was big and used that size to his advantage. He didn't make defenders miss so much as he ran through arm tackles and then used his speed once he got into the open field. The Eagles used the fifth overall pick to draft Van Buren in 1944 and he changed the franchise forever. He was a dynamic runner and returner. And he was a champion.

TIMMY BROWN

Not all stars are high draft picks. Brown was taken by Green Bay in the 27th round of the 1959 NFL Draft (fewer teams meant more rounds than today's draft). Luckily, things didn't work out for Brown in Green Bay and the Eagles got him in 1960. He was a backup running back and return specialist for the 1960 NFL Championship team. Brown returned one punt for a touchdown in his career but really stood out as a kickoff returner. He led the league in kickoff returns, yards, and touchdowns multiple times. He was a slashing runner, with the ability to get into space and go all the way.

Brown's signature moment came in 1966 when he ran back a pair of kickoffs to help the Eagles upset the Dallas Cowboys, 24-23. The teams had met once already that year, with Dallas winning 56-7. Brown set an NFL record with the two scores and his 247 return yards helped the Eagles beat the 'Boys in the rematch.

VAI SIKAHEMA

Sikahema was a gifted punt returner who spent most of his career with the Cardinals. The Eagles signed him in 1992 to give their lagging special teams units a boost. Sikahema was the prototypical returner. He was listed at 5-9 and 181 pounds. He was more quick than fast. Sikahema was elusive and used good vision to know where the holes were going to be.

The signature moment for Sikahema came in a game at The Meadowlands in 1992. He fielded a booming punt at his own 13-yard line. Sikahema headed to the right and got by the first free defender. The Eagles blocked well and only punter Sean Landeta was left to beat. Sikahema put a move on him along the right sideline and Landeta fell to the ground, injured on the play. Sikahema then had an open road to the end zone. His celebration was even more memorable than the return. Sikahema dropped the ball and then began punching the padding around the base of the goal post, doing his best Rocky impression. That was a great moment in the blowout win over the rival Giants.

BRIAN MITCHELL

One of the most underrated free agent moves in franchise history is the signing of Mitchell prior to the 2000 season. He brought leadership and talent to the Eagles' special teams and helped coach John Harbaugh develop the unit into one of the league's best. Mitchell was a tad under 5-10 but had a thick, powerful build at 215 pounds. Most returners are elusive. Not Mitchell. He was a freight train. Mitchell got his hands on the ball and then took off upfield at full speed. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Aim for the end zone and make the defenders tackle you. Mitchell is one of the few returners you could say ran "angry."

This simple strategy worked brilliantly for Mitchell throughout his career. He finished with 13 return touchdowns, nine on punts and four on kickoffs. Four of his return touchdowns came during three memorable seasons with the Eagles. Mitchell holds the NFL record for most combined punt and kickoff return yards in a career. He has more than 4,000 yards on the next highest player so this record will be safe for a while. Mitchell is one of the greatest returners in league history.

BRIAN WESTBROOK

There is no doubt in my mind that Brian Westbrook was going to be one of the great returners of all time, but there was one small problem. He became so good on offense that the Eagles quit using him as a returner. In his rookie season of 2002, Westbrook focused on special teams. He made 12 tackles on the coverage units. He averaged more than 21 yards per kickoff return. Westbrook really stood out as a punt returner, averaging more than 15 yards per return. He took two of them back for touchdowns.

Westbrook was special because he learned from Mitchell about the value of being a north-south returner, but also had the ability to make dynamic cuts in space. A defender could have Westbrook dead to rights, only to be grasping at air after a perfectly executed juke move.

Westbrook's signature moment came in The Meadowlands (sound familiar?) in 2003. The Eagles trailed 10-7 in an ugly defensive struggle. The Eagles only had 134 yards of offense when the Giants punted to Westbrook with 1:34 left in the game.

You have to wonder why they kicked to him, but thankfully they did. Westbrook caught the ball at the 16-yard line. He had one great block and then made the first defender miss. Westbrook headed to the left and used his burst to get by someone who tried to make a diving stop. Once along the sideline, Westbrook had to outrun one more Giant and did just that. The Eagles used Westbrook's miracle to win 14-10.

DeSEAN JACKSON

Jackson is the most explosive player in Eagles history. He arrived in 2008 and instantly became a starting wide receiver. The Eagles wanted the ball in his hands so they also let him return punts. As a rookie, he only averaged 9 yards per return but did run one back for a score. In 2009, Jackson had a better feel for what he was doing. He ran two punts back for touchdowns and led the league with 15.2 yards per punt return. Jackson wasn't as elusive as others, but his speed was something tacklers just weren't ready for.

Jackson's signature moment came in 2010. This happened against the Giants at The Meadowlands (sound familiar?). The Eagles put on one of the great comebacks in NFL history. They trailed 31-10 with just 8:17 left in the game. After the Eagles tied it at 31, the Giants failed on their final possession and had to punt with 14 seconds left in the game.

The punt was short, but playable. Jackson ran up and tried to catch it. He bobbled the ball, but then scooped it off the ground. He went backward to do that and it threw off some of the angles of the defenders. Suddenly there was a running lane right up the middle of the field. Jackson had to break three arm tackles, although they weren't exactly fierce attempts. He got past those and motored down the field and then ran parallel to the goal line before finally going in for the winning score. The Eagles scored 28 unanswered points in the craziest 8:17 in NFL history.

DARREN SPROLES

The Saints were prepared to cut Sproles after the 2013 season. He didn't seem to have the same burst and they were ready to move on. At the last minute, they decided to trade him and the Eagles sent them a fifth-round pick. What a steal.

Sproles led the NFL in punt return average in 2014. He returned a pair of punts for touchdowns in both 2014 and 2015 to lead the league. For his career, Sproles has a total of nine return touchdowns, with seven on punts and two coming on kickoff returns.

Sproles uses his compact build to hide from defenders. He has enough strength to break tackles but can also put that one move on a tackler to get him free for the long gain. Sproles is 34 years old but just set a career high by averaging 13.2 yards per punt return. Sproles has already established himself as one of the great returners of all time, but he's not done yet. He'll be looking to add to his totals in 2017, and maybe beyond.

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