The Eagles had taken a one-point lead with less than five minutes remaining in their wildcard round playoff game against the New Orleans Saints back on Jan. 4 at the Linc. All things seemed possible for the surprise NFC East champions.
It took only a few seconds for Darren Sproles to turn a sunny situation cloudy. The Saints' undersized running back/receiver/returner took the Alex Henery kickoff 2 yards deep in the end zone and scooted 39 yards with it, to the Saints' 37. Cary Williams' horsecollar tackle might have saved a touchdown but it tacked on 15 yards, and the Saints, needing only a field goal to win, had the ball at the Eagles' 48. (Had Sproles scored, the Eagles would have gotten the ball back with a lot of time left.)
Drew Brees bled the clock all the way down against a helpless defense, and New Orleans kicked a 32-yard field goal on the final play to end the Eagles' season, Saints 26, Eagles 24.
Eagles coach Chip Kelly said Wednesday he brought in free agent safety Malcolm Jenkins from the Saints in part because of what he saw on tape preparing for that game. The Saints, meanwhile, replaced Jenkins with the higher-priced safety Eagles fans wanted, free agent Jairus Byrd. And Thursday, the Saints-Eagles connection deepened, when the Eagles sent a fifth-round draft pick to New Orleans for Sproles.
Kelly Thursday called Sproles "an unbelievable offensive weapon," in a statement released by the team. "He can do it all, run, catch, plus he's a proven winner. And on top of that, he can bring all of those dynamic skills to the return game, as well. There's no question we were all excited once we found out we were going to be able to trade for him."
General manager Howie Roseman called Sproles "a player that we have admired for many years," and said: "He's a proven performer at a high level."
Sproles, who turns 31 in June, isn't the force he was a few seasons ago, but he still figures to be something opponents have to account for in Kelly's innovative system. At 5-6, 190, Sproles is a lot like Brian Westbrook once was, a darting runner who can be split wide and function as a potent receiving threat. And then there are the returns, where the Eagles have struggled.
In 2011, Sproles set an NFL record for all-purpose yards, with 2,696. That was his first year with the Saints, after signing as a free agent from San Diego, where he was the returner on the Chargers' 50th anniversary all-star team. Nobody else in NFL history recorded 2,200 all-purpose yards four years in a row, as Sproles did from 2008-2011. But it's worth noting that this isn't 2011, and the Saints were quite willing to part with Sproles, who has tweeted that he found out via Twitter this week that New Orleans was going to trade him instead of cutting him and letting him seek his own destination. He did catch 71 passes last season, for 604 yards and two touchdowns.
Later Thursday morning, the Birds added depth in the defensive backfield by signing free agent corner Nolan Carroll from Miami. Roseman touted Carroll's skill as a special teams gunner, and his "size, speed and press ability" in pass coverage.
Roseman said Carroll, 6-1, 205, "will add depth to a cornerback group we already feel good about. You can never have enough big, long corners on a football team."