Every team needs an X-factor.
Eventually, Westbrook became the focal point of the Eagles' offense, and much too valuable to be used in the return game.
The Eagles struggled for several seasons in the punt and kick return units, filling in numerous potential candidates—Reno Mahe, J.R. Reed, Correll Buckhalter, Greg Lewis, Dexter Wynn, and Rod Hood—as returners. None of them were the answer. In fact, they managed to cost our team several games over the years, such as the 2007 season opener against the Packers, when both Greg Lewis and J.R. Reed muffed punts in the same game.
So coming off a disappointing 2007 season in which the Eagles failed to make the playoffs, while finishing near the bottom of the pack in both punt and kick return average, the Birds made a big splash in the draft.
The team landed game-breaking, electrifying receiver and return man DeSean Jackson in the second round, and speedy safety Quintin Demps out of Texas El-Paso in the fourth round. Jackson was an All-American returner at the University of Cal-Berkley, and one of the fastest players in the draft, topping out at a 4.29 40-yard dash. Demps was a playmaking kick returner who was timed at 4.39 in the NFL Scouting Combine.
These two players were immediately penciled in to be the starting returners in the punt and kick game, and didn't disappoint.
In the team's third preseason game against the defending AFC Champion, the New England Patriots, Demps and Jackson returned kicks for touchdowns on consecutive possessions in the first half. First, Demps took a kickoff from Gostkowski 101 yards for a touchdown. As time expired in the half, Jackson ran a punt back 76 yards for a score as well.
Just like that, we as Eagles fans knew we had made a steal with our returners. For the first time since Brian Mitchell was on the team from 2000-'02, the Eagles had a legitimate threat at punt returner and kick returner.
Jackson struck first, returning a punt 60 yards deep into Rams' territory in a 38-3 win against St. Louis in week one. In week five against the Redskins, Jackson took a punt 68 yards for his first career return touchdown.
The next week, Demps almost broke a kick return, running it back 63 yards to set up a touchdown. Later in the season against the Ravens, Demps caught a kick and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown, becoming the first Eagle to return a kickoff for a touchdown since Brian Mitchell in '01.
In the playoffs, Jackson had two big returns in a wild card win over the Vikings—first a 30-yarder into Minnesota territory, then a big 62-yarder, the second-longest in Eagles' playoff history.
For the year, Demps averaged 25.3 yards per kick return, helping improve a kick return unit that ranked 24th a year ago to 11th this past season. He also totaled 1,314 return yards, the second-best total by any kick returner in franchise history. With Demps and Jackson handling the return duties, the Eagles became one of only four teams in all of football to have both a kick and a punt return touchdown.
These two complement each other well. Jackson is the big-play, high-risk, high-reward returner. He's still inexperienced as an NFL returner. His east-to-west style of running won't last in the NFL, neither will the muffed punts or negative 13 yard returns. But give Jackson time. For every blunder he commits on the field, remember that he has the ability to return a punt for a touchdown at any given time during a game.
Demps isn't as flashy, but he's developed into a very consistent returner, taking back kicks for 20 to 30 yards on almost every play. He doesn't fumble the ball or run backwards, and while he probably won't break as many for touchdowns as Jackson will, he can be counted on once a game or so to return a kick up to midfield.
Together, these two combined to give the Eagles great field position in 2008, helping the offense of McNabb & Co. set a franchise record with 416 points scored.
More importantly, Demps and Jackson locked up what has been a constant weakness for the Eagles and turned it into a strength. It sure seems that Eagles fans can pencil in these two as the returners for the next five-plus years. Neither will turn into Devin Hester and score five or six return touchdowns per season, but both Jackson and Demps have Pro Bowl potential and should continue to shine in the return game.