PHILADELPHIA — Chip Kelly’s eyes followed the arcing trajectory of the ball up, and up, and up some more before it ponged off the giant video board at AT&T Stadium.
That was the best punt the Philadelphia Eagles’ coach saw Donnie Jones hit during pregame warmups Sunday night before Philadelphia’s 24-22 NFC East clinching victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
Kelly, however, was far more grateful for the second-best punt Jones got off that night, a booming 56-yarder that saved the Eagles again. One play later, Brandon Boykin picked off Kyle Orton to seal the win.
Jones’ season is a reason why the Eagles will be hosting the New Orleans Saints at 7 p.m. Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in the wild card round of the playoffs. He’s had a major bearing on a team that was once floundering at 3-5.
Jones, the 10-year NFL veteran out of Baton Rouge’s Catholic High and LSU, is enjoying his best season as a pro. Time and time again, he’s come through with big punts in clutch situations.
He’s torn up the Eagles’ record book.
Jones has set single-season team marks with 33 punts downed inside the 20 (Jeff Feagles held the previous record of 31 in 1993), and for net punting average of 40.5 yards (Sav Rocca’s 39-yard average was the previous record in 2010). His seven punts inside the 20 in a 24-21 victory over Arizona on Dec. 1 and 50.7-yard net average in a 24-16 victory over Washington established new single-game records.
At Catholic High, Jones booted a 76-yard punt that’s still talked about in Baton Rouge. He owns the LSU record with the longest punt in school history, an 86-yarder on Nov. 9, 2002, against Kentucky.
But nothing he’s previously accomplished matches this season. He said he’s matured, placing more emphasis on direction and less on distance.
Jones credits his polished direct punting to David Wing, a former Australian Rules player and father of former LSU punter Brad Wing, who competed with Jones for the Eagles’ job.
“I learned how to Australian Rules punt from (David Wing), and I owe a lot to Brad and his dad for taking the time out for teaching me that punt, and it’s been a big part of our season,” said Jones, who admits growing up to being a huge LSU fan but not really a big fan of the Saints or the NFL. “I’ve been working hard knowing every year it’s tough to make it in this league.”
Before joining the Eagles as a free agent, Jones had bounced around with four other teams, Seattle, St. Louis, Miami and Houston. Other than Miami in 2005 and ’06, Jones had spent seven of his previous nine years kicking indoors. Before this season, his best years were with the Rams, when he was selected as a Pro Bowl alternate in 2008 and again in ’09.
Being a “dome punter” is a brand Jones has worked to shake this season.
“I had a real good year in ’05 in Miami, but ’06 wasn’t my best, and obviously I’ve been indoors since,” said Jones, who still lives in Baton Rouge with his wife and two young children during the offseason. “You kind of get that (label) as the guy that’s played indoors the last six years, and he’s a dome punter. When I had an opportunity to sign here with the Eagles, you think about those things. It’s an opportunity to show that you can punt in any kind of condition.”
This year, there have been crucial times when a big punt was needed and Jones delivered. Like against Dallas on Sunday night, or on the 70-yarder that pinned Washington at its 4-yard line. He was a thorn to Arizona, nailing the Cardinals inside the 20 seven times, one shy of the NFL record.
“There’s been a lot of times when we’re punting at midfield, I try to get it as close to the goal line as possible,” Jones said. “But it’s a unit. It’s 11 guys working together, not just one individual. A big reason for my success this year has been (long snapper) Jon Dorenbos. He’s done a phenomenal job snapping the ball. Brandon Boykin has been outstanding, and it’s really been a testament to all of the guys on that unit. I’ve been really pleased how this season has gone and how we’ve been able to impact games helping the defense out. It’s about coming together as a team and doing what you can to win games.”
Kelly has certainly been pleased. Against the Cowboys, the Eagles saw their 10-point lead whittled to two. Philadelphia’s offense had been lurching. With 1:59 left to play, the Eagles went three-and-out, when quarterback Nick Foles slid for a 3-yard loss at the Philadelphia 19.
Faced with a fourth-and-seven, a short punt could have placed Dallas in field-goal range to end the Eagles’ season.
Jones answered with the 56-yarder.
“I think Donnie’s really underrated, and the thing about this team is it is a team, and that victory (on Sunday) kind of amplified it,” Kelly said. “It was offense, defense and special teams, and that punt was huge for us. I think Donnie all year long has just been outstanding, and I don’t know if he gets enough credit. But it was the second-most impressive punt I saw during the day, because I actually saw him hit the video board in pregame warmups. I didn’t think that could be done, but he did that — yeah, he hit it.”