In the ultimate team sport, which football most certainly is, gaining some individual recognition is welcomed, appreciated, and can be, for many players, a wonderful boost of confidence. For second-year Eagle Zech McPhearson, being named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week is all of the above.
McPhearson recovered a third-quarter onside kick and registered two special teams tackles in Sunday's 38-35 win in Detroit and on Wednesday found out he was honored when the NFL released the weekly winners in the morning.
And, yeah, it sure felt good.
"It feels great to get that honor for all of that hard work we put in on special teams," McPhearson said on Wednesday afternoon. "Getting noticed for something like that is a complete honor. I feel good about it. It definitely gives me a little more motivation, a little more fire to keep it going and double back and get it again."
McPhearson, a fourth-round draft pick in 2021, is being counted on as a key reserve at cornerback and he's pushing every day for playing time and absorbing everything that veterans Darius Slay, James Bradberry, and Avonte Maddox can teach him. "I'm a sponge," he said. Along with that, McPhearson has become – as he was last season – a key member of Michael Clay's special teams. He's a gunner on kick coverage, working hard to defeat double-team blocking to get down the field and cover Arryn Siposs' punts.
The Eagles limited dangerous punt return man Kalif Raymond to just 15 yards on three returns, a paltry 5.0 yard-per-return average. It was a job very, very well done, and while McPhearson gained notice for his recovery of the onside kick in the third quarter, he was just as proud of the punt cover team doing its part to win the season-opening game.
"We work together and we work hard," he said. "A lot of great players in this league established themselves by playing on special teams first, and that's my goal – get the job done on special teams first and, when my number is called, make plays on defense. We all have to be in sync to make it work in coverage and we did that on Sunday. We know that special teams can win or lose you a game and you have to take it seriously.
"On Sunday, Arryn did a great job with his kicks and as a group, we were all disciplined and aggressive at the same time."
As for the onside kick recovery, the Eagles had been alerted to the aggressive nature of Dave Fipp, the Lions' (and former Eagles) special teams coordinator). Then it was a matter of being alert, staying calm in the moment, and executing what they had been taught.
It sounds so easy when you type the words – or read them. But to be on the field at a critical juncture with the game moving so fast? That's far from easy.
"We had the heads up and the antenna up that they like to do trick plays on special teams," McPhearson said. "We had the alerts on for every special teams unit to be ready for something. I had that urge that something might be up, so I did what I was taught to do: I watched the kick and the ball popped up in the air and I made the catch and then went down to the ground. I guess you could say it was an easy catch, curdle up, and I went down and didn't take a big hit, but it sure seemed like that ball was up the air for a long time."
Special teams take a, well, special kind of courage. Players are at full speed, head on a swivel, preparing for oncoming traffic from every angle. The hand-to-hand combat is fierce for gunners and the physical nature of every play is significant.
"A whole bunch of stuff is going on so it can be pretty hectic," McPhearson said. "The first thing you need to do is beat the guy in front of you, sometimes two guys. Then you need to get up to full speed and beat the punt down there and, if not, be ready to make an open-field tackle. It's a pretty tough job, but the coaches here do a great job of teaching us to be successful."
Step by step, McPhearson is making more and more of an impact. That's how many players are built in this league, by advancing in small gulps. He did his part on Sunday to help the Eagles win a game and the NFL noticed.
That's the way it should be.
"It's something to build on, for sure," he said. "I'm far from satisfied. We all have work to do to improve our game. This is a nice little boost for me, but I know what I need to get better with in terms of my technique and how I play cornerback and on special teams. Anything I can do to help the team win, that's what I'm here to do."