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Kenjon Barner’s phone rang Wednesday as the Eagles running back and punt returner was getting dressed for practice.
It was Darren Sproles.
Sproles, who is back home in suburban San Diego recuperating from the torn ACL and broken forearm that ended his season seven weeks ago, has called Barner regularly since his injury to offer him punt-return advice. Barner, who is third in the league in punt-return average since replacing Sproles, relishes the calls.
“He called me before I even got here and said some things to me,’’ Barner said. “He called me before my second game [against Arizona]. He was fresh out of surgery. Literally. He had just gotten out of surgery.
“He’ll call and say, ‘Hey, this punter is going to do this this week,’ or ‘This is how he likes to kick and you have to look out for this.’
“He’s been absolutely huge for me. As far as getting me ready to go out there and return punts, there’s no one outside of [special-teams coordinator Dave] Fipp who’s had a bigger impact on me.’’
Offensive tackle Jason Peters (knee), linebacker Jordan Hicks (Achilles), and safety and special-teams captain Chris Maragos (knee), who, like Sproles, are on injured reserve, also have been providing valuable input.
Peters has regularly texted his left-tackle replacement, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, with advice about opponents and technique. He also leaves voice messages on right tackle Lane Johnson’s cell phone at halftime of games with suggestions for him and the rest of the line.
“I’ll come in and check my phone at halftime, and he’ll have some advice for me,’’ Johnson said. “ You’re really not going to find a better coach. He’s played so long and so well and knows these guys inside and out. He helps just with his knowledge.’’
While Sproles and Peters have been using their iPhones and iPads to provide assistance as they recover at home from their injuries, Hicks and Maragos are at the NovaCare Complex every day, participating in meetings, offering advice, and encouraging their teammates when they’re not rehabbing.
“Jordan’s played a key role,’’ linebackers coach Ken Flajole said. “He’s in our meetings taking notes like he’s going to play. He studies the tape and sees things, and when he gets back into the locker room, he passes on some tips to people. He’ll say, ‘Hey, this is what I saw in this formation and maybe we can cheat our alignment here.’
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“He wants to be a part of it. I kidded him a while back. I said, ‘Are you driving your wife nuts now?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I need to get out of the house. She wants me here [at the practice facility]. I need to be here.’ I said, ‘Well, then come on. We got a spot for you.’ ’’
Take it from a guy who has covered the NFL for 35 years: This isn’t how it usually is with guys on injured reserve. When players get hurt, they generally are overcome with a sense of uselessness and self-pity.
They’re on the outside looking in, and it’s tough to deal with. They stay away from the locker room because they feel they have nothing to contribute. But that’s not what’s happening at NovaCare.
“Guys on IR usually are out of sight, out of mind,’’ Barner said. “They’re not here. You don’t hear from them.
“But with Darren and the other guys, it’s the complete opposite. I hear from that dude literally almost every week, sometimes even twice a week.
“He’s been in the league 13 years. He doesn’t have to do that. He’s done plenty in this league — more than most will ever dream of doing. For him to be the kind of guy he is, the unselfish guy that he is, always giving of himself, always being there for me, I have nothing but high praise and positive things to say about that.’’
Hicks has helped fellow linebacker Nigel Bradham get adjusted to the role of defensive play-caller. Bradham knows Jim Schwartz’s defense as well as Hicks, but he’s never had to relay calls to the secondary in hurry-up situations. Hicks has helped him with that.
“He showed me the best way to relay the calls,’’ Bradham said. “Gave me tips on stuff like that, which has been huge. That stuff goes unnoticed. But if you make a mistake there, you can easily give up a touchdown because you didn’t have a guy in the right place.
“Jordan helped me figure out ways to signal that to the DBs. Because I’m not just communicating with the D-line. I’m also communicating with the DBs who are spread out wide. He gave me tips and pointers on how to give them the call and certain signals I can use to get them the call.
“Jordan has stayed true to who he is. Why get away [because he’s hurt]? We’re family. He feels like we need him, and we do.’’
Bradham said he has been impressed by the way all four injured veterans have tried to stay involved and help the team.
“They’re true leaders, man,’’ he said. “It tells you a lot about their character. A lot of guys, if they can’t practice, they feel they can’t contribute.
“These guys, they might not be playing, but they’re like, I can play through you. I can help motivate and encourage you and give you pointers that can help you on game day.
“That’s what separates those kind of guys from others.’’
Barner said the Eagles are the exception rather than the rule. Selflessness like this is not the norm in the NFL.
“It’s not like this everywhere,’’ he said. “A lot of teams will say, ‘Yeah, we’ve got great guys in our locker room.’ But that’s a front for most teams. I haven’t been around a group like this where literally everybody is giving of themselves to the rest of the team.
“It’s not just the guys who are hurt. You’ve got Malcolm Jenkins out there after practice helping the [running] backs with pass [protection]. It goes all the way down the line, man. We have guys willing to help each other no matter what side of the ball they’re on. Just helping each other get better. And because we have guys that are willing to help each other, we’re getting better as a team.’’
The Eagles have converted 11 of 12 red-zone opportunities into touchdowns in their last four games, and are ranked first in the league in red-zone offense heading into Week 11.
They have a 72.4 touchdown percentage in the red zone (21 for 29). That’s a dramatic improvement over last season, when they finished 24th (49.1%).
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The Eagles are one of just two teams in the league – Tennessee is the other – that haven’t turned the ball over or given up a sack in the red zone. The last time the Eagles went through an entire season without a red-zone turnover was 2003.
Wentz has completed 24 of 36 passes (66.7%) in the red zone. Last year, he had a 49.4 red-zone completion percentage.
Fifteen of his NFL-high 23 touchdown passes have come in the red zone. Six receivers have red-zone touchdown catches. Four have at least two, headed by tight end Zach Ertz’s career-high six.
“Anytime you get down there, you never want to have penalties or turnovers or sacks,’’ Wentz said. “We’ve had a few penalties, but no turnovers or sacks.
“You have to play on time down there. It’s either [get it to] your guy or nobody. We’ve been fortunate to make a lot of those plays.’’
Said offensive coordinator Frank Reich: “Carson is playing phenomenal down in that area. A lot of it is the quarterback play in that area, and a lot of it is [Doug Pederson’s] play-calling.
“Doug deserves a lot of credit for that, especially down there, of having the sense of the right play to call.’’
Figuring the Eagles
–The Eagles are second in the league in scoring behind the Rams and have scored 283 points in their first nine games, which puts them on a 503-point pace. That would break the club record for points in a season (474) set in 2014. They are averaging 31.4 points per game right now. The club record for highest scoring average in a season is 31.3 by the 1948 team, which won the first of the franchise’s three NFL titles.
–Carson Wentz completed just 2 of 11 passes against the Broncos with 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs, 2 WRs). But both completions went for touchdowns (to tight end Trey Burton and running back Corey Clement). For the season, Wentz has a 114.5 passer rating with 12 personnel groupings (62.6 completion percentage, 7.7 yards per attempt, 8 TDs, 1 INT, 8 sacks). His passer rating with 12 personnel last year was just 64.7 (57.1 completion percentage, 5.6 yards per attempt, 4 TDs, 7 INTs, 8 sacks). Wentz also has a better passer rating with 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) this year (95.7) than last year (82.4). His completion percentage with 11 personnel is down (from 64.1 to 58.3), but his yards-per-attempt average is significantly up (from 6.5 to 8.1). So is his touchdown production (8 last year, 10 already this year). He had six interceptions with 11 personnel last year. He has just three this year.