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Johnson Steps Up With Return

But until he returned a punt 98 yards against Dallas on Sunday night, Damaris Johnson had not experienced at this level what he had become accustomed to in his previous football life.

There was no question, as Johnson prepared each day for his job as a Philadelphia Eagle, that his natural ability, plus a lot of hard work, would pay off very soon. That's the belief Johnson had in this, his rookie NFL season. It's what he always believed from the time he was a dominating high school player to his record-setting days at Tulsa and even through the trying times in 2011, when off-the-field problems kept him off the field at Tulsa.

"Keep working at it, stay patient, learn every day," said Johnson in that soft-spoken voice of his. "I never lost confidence at all. But playing at the NFL level, everything is different. No matter what anybody tells you, it's harder than you think. Every punter is great at what he does and you have gunners running down the field knowing they have to bills to pay. They're giving it everything they have.

"It's a faster life with great players on every team. Every player in this league is a great player."

Johnson returned a punt 98 yards for a touchdown on Sunday night and he instantly jetted himself into the spotlight. The 98-yard return was the third-longest in NFL history and, of course, was the longest in Eagles history (eclipsing the 87-yarder from Vai Sikahema against the Giants in 1992, which he then punctuated by sparring with the goal post).

More important for Johnson, the return gave the Eagles a chance -- slim and, as it turned out, futile -- to come back and beat the Cowboys. Beyond that, it meant a lot for Johnson, who has gone through quite a bit in this up-and-down rookie season.

Undrafted after a career at Tulsa during which he established NCAA records for all-purpose yardage gained and kickoff return yards gained despite playing only three years, Johnson earned a spot on the Eagles' 53-man roster by shining in the preseason as a big-play receiver and a quick-strike threat in the punt return game.

The regular season hasn't been as smooth. Johnson has played in 10 games and has contributed 13 receptions and a couple of rushing attempts to the offense. He has been reliable as a pass catcher and quick and elusive with the ball in his hands.

As a return man, his main role, Johnson was as a rookie usually is until Sunday's great return. He was iffy with some of his decisions on when to call a fair catch and when to try to return a punt. He wasn't as instinctive after making the catch and starting his return.

And the breakaway plays, which became his trademark at Tulsa, just weren't there. Johnson's long return prior to Sunday night was 20 yards, although he has had some moments when he was very, very close to breaking a big return.

Everything fell perfectly into place on Sunday night.

Dallas punter Brian Moorman outkicked his coverage and Johnson retreated, catching the ball at the 2-yard line. He had 13 yards of free return before confronting the coverage, and then he slipped through two would-be tacklers at the 15-yard line, and then he skipped past another couple of diving Cowboys at the 18 and was in the clear at the 20-yard line. Casey Matthews kept Johnson clean as he scooted down the right sideline untouched to complete the tremendous return.

"It was a great feeling to make that play and give our team a chance to come back, but unfortunately we didn't get there, so it's hard for me to sit here and tell you about the play and what it means. We lost the game. That's what matters," said Johnson. "But on the play, I got some great blocking and it just opened up. You see all that field in front of you and it's what a return man dreams about.

"It gave me a lot of confidence. I think we have had some plays this year when I've been close. Hopefully, this will lead to a lot of big plays in the return game the rest of the season."

The Eagles think there is more to come from Johnson. Maybe not of such a spectacular nature, but big plays for sure. He has natural quickness and vision and the ability to make tacklers miss.

The speed of the game is slowing down just a bit for a player who, remember, did not play at all last year.

"It's a huge jump in tempo and skill level, and it's coming to me," said Johnson. "The only thing I can do is keep working at it, playing hard and believing in myself. I know there are going to be ups and downs. I have to keep my focus every day. That's what you do in the NFL."

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