Huff, Small­wood hop­ing to get a chance to make re­turns count

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - Bob Grotz Colum­nist

PHILADEL­PHIA >> We all know the NFL kick­off is on death row.

It’s a mat­ter of time be­fore this one-year trial with touch­backs brought out to the 25-yard line turns into an­other year, only at the 30-yard line, and so on, un­til some rocket sci­en­tist steps up at the league meet­ings and says, “here, here, we might as well just get rid of the kick­off.”

Player safety sup­pos­edly is the is­sue. League suits in­sist there’s a greater chance of in­juries, in­clud­ing con­cus­sions, with 22 bod­ies run­ning full speed at each other. (They should know. That’s what their meet­ing room must look like, only with 10 more crazy peo­ple, af­ter they unan­i­mously vote to ad­journ their no-fun meet­ings.)

If that’s the mo­ti­va­tion the NFL ought to out­law the blind­side blitz, hits to the back and tack­ling to the ground. That may be com­ing, peo­ple.

Per­son­ally, the kick­off doesn’t do a lot for me on a league-wide ba­sis ba­si­cally be­cause so many teams don’t give a fly­ingyou-know-what about it. They don’t think it’s im­por­tant. They don’t de­vote the proper re­sources to kick­off re­turn­ers, cover guys or coaches who teach the proper tech­niques. They want the touch­back. It’s a money saver.

When the Ea­gles kick off, and more im­por­tantly when they re­turn a kick­off, the artistry, the skill and the adren­a­line dur­ing the event is so off the charts you will ab­so­lutely curse your­self for be­ing one of the chumps who missed it to grab some chow or be first to the head.

What Wen­dell Small­wood and Josh Huff have done in coach Dave Fipp’s schemes tak­ing kick­offs to the house in con­sec­u­tive weeks is mind blow­ing con­sid­er­ing their craft is ap­proach­ing ex­tinc­tion.

Two weeks ago Small­wood rolled 86 yards for a score mo­ments af­ter it looked like the Ea­gles would be routed by the Red­skins. They still lost, but in so do­ing at least put a tem­po­rary stop to that not safe for work Hail to the Red­skins song.

Last week Huff ex­ploded 98 yards to put Sam Brad­ford and the pre­vi­ously un­beaten Vik­ings in the rearview mir­ror for good. He also turned Vik­ings kicker Blair Walsh into an in­struc­tional video of how not to man-up when you have the lead and an op­po­nent is com­ing straight at you.

It was the first time the Ea­gles re­turned kick­offs for touch­downs in back-to­back games. And this week the duo would like noth­ing bet­ter than to make it three games in a row.

The Ea­gles are the only NFL team to score on the kick­off re­turn this sea­son. They’re av­er­ag­ing a league-best 38.7 yards on kick­off re­turns. Huff is lead­ing the NFL with an av­er­age of 38.0 yards per re­turn among play­ers with five or more chances.

In a sys­tem where it’s a lot safer tak­ing the ball at the 25, Small­wood is av­er­ag­ing 46.3 yards on three kick­off re­turns.

“We were get­ting a lot of back­lash at the be­gin­ning of the sea­son for us not run­ning balls out,” Huff said. “But at the end of the day you’ve got to be re­al­is­tic. It’s like base­ball. You don’t want to swing at ev­ery pitch they throw. When you do swing you hope that you con­nect. That’s what we’ve done so far this year. We’ve been pa­tient and we’ve been able to work on things like that. Once we’ve got­ten our shot we’ve made the most of those op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

Maybe it’s us but we don’t think the Cow­boys and kicker Dan Bai­ley have the stones to kick­off to the Ea­gles Sun­day night at AT&T Sta­dium. The only way the Cow­boys would is if they had a dou­ble-digit lead with like 2 sec­onds to go and Jerry Jones or­dered it.

“I think how good our kick­off re­turn is, it kind of a put a tar­get on our back,” Small­wood said. “I think their spe­cial teams coach (Rich Bisac­cia) is prob­a­bly di­al­ing that in this week. They’ll prob­a­bly kick a lot of touch­backs this week. They have a good kicker. We just have to be ready if our chance comes and not force any­thing or run any­thing out crazy.

It can hap­pen. I hope they do kick it to us.”

We won’t know un­til game time, of course. As Huff said, pa­tience is a virtue the way the rules are now. The last thing a re­spon­si­ble kick­off re­turner wants to do is make the wrong de­ci­sion, get pum­meled in­side the 25 and in do­ing so, give a crowd of 80,000 a rea­son to think their team can win.

“Bai­ley, he’s a stron­g­legged kicker,” Huff said. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve played them three times. I haven’t re­turned a kick in Dal­las’ sta­dium since I’ve been here. So if you want to hang one up there for one of us to get it I would gladly wel­come them to do so, but if not that’s just a re­spect fac­tor. And I can’t do any­thing about that.”

Huff, Small­wood and Fipp can’t do any­thing about the rules, ei­ther. The NFL gen­er­ally does what­ever it wants, when­ever it wants un­der the guise of what­ever it takes to pro­tect the shield. How’s that work­ing out in terms of drop­ping pop­u­lar­ity, guys?

If the NFL gets rid of the kick­off, it would be a tragedy. It would be re­ward­ing the teams that don’t want to adapt.

“I un­der­stand player safety and all that,” Huff said. “I to­tally un­der­stand that. But at the same time you’re tak­ing fun away from the game. It’s al­ready the no-fun league pri­mar­ily be­cause of the cel­e­bra­tions. That’s what fans want to see, is cel­e­bra­tions. And they cut a lot of that away. And that’s part of the ex­cite­ment. And when you take that away and then you’re work­ing to take away the kick­off? In the his­tory of the NFL we’ve had great re­turn­ers. Man, to take that away from a team or to take that away from the game it will be def­i­nitely be dev­as­tat­ing.”

PAUL SANCYA — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Philadel­phia Ea­gles wide re­ceiver Josh Huff, right, cel­e­brates his touch­down with team­mate Jor­dan Matthews ear­lier this sea­son.

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