Kenjon Barner saw the horror show. He watched on television as the Los Angeles Rams, who dominated the NFL on special teams in the regular season, fumbled their way through a playoff loss to Atlanta. Two mistakes, a punt that bounced off the foot of Blake Countess and a kickoff return fumbled by Pharaoh Cooper, led to 10 Falcons points.
Awful. Terrible. Telling.
In playoff football, every mistake is magnified. And for the Rams, who had Cooper, placekicker Greg Zuerlein, and punter Johnny Hekker selected to the Pro Bowl, were let down by a unit that had been winning all season.
“I felt for him,” Barner said of Cooper, who tried to back off the first-quarter punt that bounced off Countess’ foot and led to three Falcons points and then, in the second period, was rocked and had the ball jarred loose on a kickoff return that led to an Atlanta touchdown. “In this game of football, you have to have a short-term memory. One bad play happens and you have to let it go and bounce back. Just watching, it happened over and over and, I don’t know for sure, but I believe when things happen like that it starts to get to you mentally.
“It sucks that it happened, but you have to bounce back.”
As everyone talks about how the Eagles match up offensively and defensively against the Falcons, there hasn’t been a whole lot of chatter about the special teams. Every play matters in the playoffs. Every bounce counts. Every yard is contested.
Barner has had a lot to contend with after replacing Darren Sproles in the punt game – he’s also done a fine job out of the backfield offensively – and the weather is always a factor in the windswept Lincoln Financial Field. Against Dallas and Oakland, the bitterly cold weather froze the football and made it very hard for the kicking game. So Barner, playing deep, had tough calls to make on several punts. He rushed up to get in position to make catches and possibly returns, but there was risk involved.
There is always risk involved.
“That’s been my problem of late. I’ve been overly aggressive catching balls I normally wouldn’t catch,” Barner said. “With conditions what they are now, with the wind and the weather, there is a lot of movement to the ball. You definitely have to be smart. You definitely have to take into consideration all of the elements that are out there, where the ball is, what part of the field that you’re on.
“You can be aggressive, but you have to be smart.”
The weather outlook for Saturday, which Barner is monitoring closely, is favorable: Sunshine most of the day, highs in the 40s, and a kickoff temperature tumbling from there. Minimal winds. Slight chance of precipitation. <center>
That is subject to change, of course. Welcome to January in Philadelphia.
“You never know with this East Coast weather,” said Barner, laughing.
Barner earned NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors for his work against Arizona, which included a 76-yard punt return to set up a touchdown, but there haven’t been a lot of long ones since. Barner averages 8.9 yards on his 29 punt returns, with 15 fair catches. Breaking a huge one on Saturday against a veteran punter like Matt Bosher, known for his extraordinary hang time and little opportunity for return, will be challenging.
“He’s one of the best,” Barner said. “He doesn’t give guys many opportunities to return the football. Hopefully, he’ll boom them just like he did in Los Angeles on Sunday and I’ll get a chance.
“I’m just preparing as I always do. I’m focusing on being comfortable catching the football and seeing the field. I’m putting in the work just like I always do. Nothing changes. I’m preparing as I always do.”
Barner was active as a rookie when Carolina played San Francisco in the Divisional Round of the playoffs in the 2013 season so he understands the nerves and the hype and the emotions that go into the postseason.
“I was so young then I didn’t know too much about anything,” he said. “As a rookie, I got so amped up … now, you know, it’s about staying calm, cool, and collected. Let the game come to you and don’t force it and everything will be all right.”
The little things make the difference in the playoffs. Barner is hopeful that he can make the difference-making play for the Eagles, but if it’s just not there, he wants to be certain that he does everything right and combines being aggressive and being smart.
Yes, it’s a very fine line. That’s playoff football and Barner will be right in the middle of the action on Saturday, enjoying the role.