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Will Eagles be able to tame Lions?
Donnie Jones has landed 29 punts inside the 20-yard line this season. (USA Today Images)
An offseason before he would sign with the Eagles, Donnie Jones went home to Baton Rouge, La., to enlist the services of David Wing.
Wing, a native Australian and former World League punter, had already taught his son, Brad, the nose-down punting style of the Australian game, a method that gives the punter more control over accuracy.
Jones borrowed a few pointers from Wing, but only a few. Brad was punting at LSU and David knew his son would be seeking an NFL job after the season.
“He said, ‘Yeah, you know, one day Brad’s gonna be your competition, so I don’t know how long I can help you,’” Jones recalled. “Sure enough, he was on this team and we were actually competing against each other. But I’m really appreciative of that, because that’s been a huge tool for this season.”
David Wing might have reservations about that tutorial, especially after Jones outlasted Brad Wing this summer to win the Eagles’ job, but the Eagles have no regrets.
Jones, 33, is having his best season yet. He might have been the Eagles’ best weapon in their 24-21 win over the Cards, landing seven punts inside the 20-yard line to set a team record and tie for the third-most in the NFL since the league officialized the stat in 1976.
Jones, who won NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for the second time (see story), has landed 29 punts inside the 20, which is already the second-most in team history behind Jeff Feagles’ 31 in 1993.
The irony is, Jones knows he could just as easily be unemployed right now. He set Texans franchise records last year, averaging 47.2 yards per punt with a net of 40.5. Still, at the end of the season he found himself looking for work.
“I’ve moved off of that,” he said. “I don’t know why, nor do I care.”
Jones learned earlier in his career that punters don’t often get second chances or honest opportunities to prove they belong.
The Seahawks drafted him with a seventh-round pick in 2004, cut him, signed him to the practice squad, then re-signed him and played him for six games before cutting him again. He finished his rookie season on the practice squad, then got cut two days before training camp in 2005.
In his last game for Seattle, Jones averaged 32 yards on eight punts and had about 66,000 recommendations to find another line of work.
“I got booed out of the stadium and people were telling me, ‘You need to be behind a desk and you need a day job,’” said Jones, who earned a finance degree at LSU. “So I got on the phone and started calling.”
He landed in Miami, where he stuck around for two years before going to St. Louis, where he spent five seasons and went to two Pro Bowls and set all of the team’s major punting records.
Talk about perseverance. Jones ranks top-six among NFL punters all-time in gross (45.5) and net average (39.2). He’s one of just seven punters ever with a gross average of 50 yards per punt in a season.
“I think it’s just a testament to hard work and whatever opportunity you get you have to make the most of it,” he said. "I’ve been through ups and I’ve been through downs. Obviously, right now, I feel I’m playing really good and as a unit we’re playing really good. Gotta keep it up."
Jones credits some of this year’s success to the rugby-style punt he picked up from David Wing. The ability to control the punt helps most in short-field situations, when he’s near midfield and needs to pin the opposing offense deep in its own territory.
It really came in handy against Cardinals return man Patrick Peterson.
“You can limit returns with that,” Jones said, “especially when you’re playing a guy like that. Last memories I had of him was 2011, returning two on us in one season. One to beat us in overtime when I was with St. Louis, 99 yards. They came a few weeks later at home he returned another one 88 yards.”
Part of Jones felt sympathetic for Brad Wing, who’s had some workouts but still hasn’t found another NFL job. But he’s been in the same boat.
“It was awkward at first, because here’s a guy that I’ve done some stuff with, his dad teaches me how to punt, we compete against each other,” Jones said. "But I think it was good for both. I think he learned a lot from being around me.
“I really learned competition is a good thing. It really makes you appreciate having a job in this league. It’s hard every year to make it. People don’t understand how hard it really is to do.”