By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun
PHILADELPHIA—Going back to his college days at Kansas State and in his pro career with the New Orleans and San Diego Chargers, Darren Sproles has always been capable of coming up with the big game-changing play to help his team win.
“That’s the advantage of having (Sproles) on your team,” said Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, who played with him Sproles in New Orleans. “At any point in time, he can be that guy to spark and blow the game open. When we needed a play, he gives us an explosive run. We need another thing, he gives a good return.”
After a mistake-filled first half in which the Eagles found themselves in a 17-0 hole in the season-opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sproles electrifying 49-yard touchdown run on a fourth and one play on the Birds first possession of the second half was the jump start the Birds needed to get back in the game.
“Yeah, we started slow, but I think that was the turning point.” Sproles said. “That got us going. We knew they were getting tired, so we tried to hurry up on them. They were not even set and left a big hole in the middle of the field. ”
Energized by Sproles’ big run, the Eagles owned the second half and came away with a 34-17 win over Jacksonville in front of a packed house of 69, 596 fans at Lincoln Financial Field on a hot Sunday afternoon.
“We got down 17 and we felt like we had to go for it on fourth down,” said head coach Chip Kelly. “You don’t think you’re going to get a touchdown out of that. You’re hoping to just convert, keep the chains moving, we’re trying to get some momentum to jump back on our side. …That was a huge jump start for us.”
Sproles game-changing play was also a by-product of the Eagles fast-pace no-huddle offense which caught a visibly-tired Jaguars defense off-guard without the right personnel package. The Birds took advantage to get back in the game and eventually win it.
“It absolutely caught them off guard,” said Eagles center Jason Kelce. “They didn’t have a safety back there. Once we broke through the hole, it was smooth sailing.”
After the Eagles forced Jacksonville to punt on its possession after the Birds first touchdown, Sproles made another big play when he returned Bryan Anger’s punt from the Eagles 38 to the Jacksonville 40 for a 22-yard return.
For the game, Sproles had 147 all-purpose yards—71 rushing on 11 carries, four receptions for 14 yards and 62 yards on punt returns. Eagles’ offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said what Sproles did on offense and special teams is the reason why the Eagles signed him as a free-agent last spring.
“Those are the things he’s done for years and years,” Shurmur said. “His presence was felt in the kicking game and as a running back. We’ve said all year that he’s a running back and we’re going to play him at running back. He was running the very same plays that LeSean (McCoy) would run if he was in there. We saw the impact that he had on the game.”
Five plays after Sproles return, Eagles quarterback Nick Foles hit tight end Zach Ertz to bring the Birds to within 17-14 with 7:19 left in the third quarter.
Sproles’ big plays also pumped up an Eagles defense that gave up a couple of big plays in the passing game—a pair of touchdown passes from Chad Henne to wide receiver Allen Hurns. After allowing 17 points in the first half, the Eagles defense shutout Jacksonville in the second half.
“Once they got it going, everybody’s gotta feeling that we’re going in for the kill,” Jenkins said. “Now we’re starting to play our style of team play and that’s a good feeling.”
In the fourth quarter, the Birds tied the game on a 51-yard field goal by Cody Parkey and took the lead on a 68-yard touchdown pass from Foles to Jeremy Maclin. The Birds added another Parkey field goal and got a 17-yard touchdown return of a recovered fumble by defensive end Fletcher Cox.