Johnson has to be smarter on punt returns
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Damaris Johnson was supposed to be a finished product as a punt returner and a long-term project as a receiver.
Instead, the undrafted rookie has struggled with his decision making while fielding punts and actually looked surprisingly comfortable in the receiving game.
The problem is the Eagles really need Johnson right now in the punt return game more than anything. And he’s made a series of poor decisions that have alarmed his coaches.
He called for one fair catch at the 7-yard-line and another at the 9-yard-line against the Browns. He fielded a punt at the 3 against the Ravens -- and only made it out to the 6-yard-line – and fair caught another at the 9. Then he had another fair catch at the 9 against Arizona and committed a costly fumble on another punt return that led to Arizona’s first touchdown.
“He’s just losing awareness of where he’s at,” special teams coach Bobby April said. “A lot of times what happens ... while they’re playing the ball they are drifting back losing consciousness of everything except the ball because obviously they’ve got to make that catch. I think that’s what’s happening. He’s just kind of losing awareness of where he’s at.
“He shouldn’t -- or you would think he wouldn’t -- but he has. We have to correct it.”
In all, Johnson is averaging just 5.3 yards on six punt returns, the second-worst average this year among 30 returners with at least four attempts.
“You learn by going out there and making mistakes and learning from them,” Johnson said at his locker Friday. “It’s experience. I’m going into my fourth game, and I’m trying to get a little bit better each game, and I feel like I’m more prepared going into this game than I have been.
“I think I’m there. I’ve made some good decisions, definitely done some things wrong, but it’s just a process. The more experience I get, the better I’ll get.”
Despite playing just three years at Tulsa, Johnson became the all-time NCAA total yardage record holder. He averaged 12.1 yards on 47 punt returns in college, with one touchdown.
Johnson has yet to approach those numbers. In fact, his longest punt return so far is 12 yards – below his average in college.
April said he believes the lack of big returns is more a product of long punts and good coverage than anything Johnson is doing wrong.
“I think his blocking is adequate,” April said. “I don’t think it is necessarily good, but I don’t think it’s terrible. He’s caught the ball when people have closed on him pretty good, but that’s more a result of the hang time than it is a result of us being bad. It’s tough to take that away.”
Right now, April’s concern is Johnson’s judgment, not his ability.
“Sometimes those things depending on the punt,” he said. “But he’s got to just judge the ball where he’s at a little bit better.”
Johnson has done a nice job as an extra receiver. He ranks third so far this year among all NFL rookies with 107 receiving yards, including 84 against the Cards with Jeremy Maclin out.
But his main job right now is to make big plays in the punt return game, and so far that has not gone well.
“He’s got to learn, so the way you learn is you go out and you do it, and if you get enough chances, prove yourself right,” head coach Andy Reid said. “But you’ve got to make sure you prove yourself right. You’ve got to learn from your mistakes and get better.”
April said the Eagles are not considering making a change. He said there’s been no talk about using DeSean Jackson, who led the NFL with a 15.2 average in 2009 and has four career punt returns for touchdowns -- 14th-most in NFL history.
Jackson’s punt return average dropped from 15.2 in 2009 to 11.6 in 2010 to 6.7 last year, sixth-worst in the league among those with 12 or more returns.
The Eagles face the Giants on Sunday night at the Linc with first place in the NFC East on the line, and the Eagles could certainly use some help with field position against the high-octane Giants offense.
“I just have to go out there and play the game,” Johnson said. “It’s my job to go out there and make the right decision.”
What other options are there?
Rookie cornerback Brandon Boykin didn’t do a lot of punt returning at Georgia but did average 12.1 yards on 14 returns. Mardy Gilyard has done some, as well.
Chad Hall? Jeremy Bloom? Reno Mahe?
No, looks like the job belongs to Johnson for now.
“We think Damaris is good,” April said. “He’s made a couple mistakes, but we’ve already paid for those. So we paid our tuition, we got our education, and I think he’s going to be good. I think he’s going to be fine.
“Can we afford for him to continue making the same mistakes? Of course not.”E-mail Reuben Frank at email@example.com