ARLINGTON, Texas — No kicker? No problem.
Without the concussed Jake Elliott, the Eagles exploded in the second half to rout to the Cowboys, 37-9, and used the lack of a kicker to their advantage as they converted three of four two-point conversions.
But someone had to kick off.
Kamu Grugier-Hill didn’t score a touchdown Sunday night. The Eagles linebacker didn’t play a single snap on defense, although the special-teams standout did make an excellent tackle on punt coverage.
But Grugier-Hill was one of the heroes, however unlikely, in the comeback victory. And his lasting impact on the outcome came courtesy of his right foot. With Elliott sidelined in the first quarter, Grugier-Hill handled four second-half kickoffs and was more than adequate.
“I never did kick off before. I was a punter in high school, though,” Grugier-Hill said. “I played soccer my whole life, so I felt like I could do it.”
Grugier-Hill said that he had practiced a kickoff only once his life before Sunday — a few weeks back when special-teams coach Dave Fipp asked him to give it a try after previous emergency kicker Chris Maragos suffered a season-ending knee injury. His next attempt, however, was dubious.
After Elliott left midway through the first quarter, Grugier-Hill eventually walked over to the kicking net and teed up the football.
“Donnie [Jones] was like, ‘Hey, do you want me to move the net up?’ And I was like, ‘No, no, I got it,'” Grugier-Hill said. “First kick, I kick it right into the stands. I’m like, ‘This is going to be a little rough.'”
Grugier-Hill flashed plenty of leg when it counted, though, often reaching close to the goal line and once even sailing the ball into the end zone for a touchback. The Eagles gave up a few more yards than they prefer on the kickoffs, but the returns were far shorter than the 61-yard bolt that opened the game and led to Elliott’s head injury.
Grugier-Hill’s first kick landed at the 1-yard line and was returned to the Dallas 26. The second was for a touchback. The third was short and was fielded at the 20 — the Eagles had been backed up by a penalty — and was taken back to the 40. And his last kickoff went to the 2-yard line and was returned 32 yards to the Dallas 34.
The Eagles averted disaster. There were myriad other ways it could have gone with Elliott out.
Doug Pederson, to his credit, is a gambler, so he already had a collection of two-point conversion plays in his playbook. The Eagles coach may have called each one in the second half, but aside from a Zach Ertz fumble just before the goal line, all four were executed successfully.
The first try was the most important. The Eagles, down 9-7, took the opening kickoff of the second half 75 yards on eight plays and netted a touchdown when Corey Clement rushed from 11 yards out.
Rather than have Grugier-Hill kick the extra point from 32 yards, or have Jones give it a try with a new holder, Pederson went for two. Carson Wentz threw a screen to Corey Clement, the running back powered into the end zone, and the Eagles were up, 15-9.
That was just the start of an offensive avalanche Dallas could not stop. A series later, the Eagles marched 90 yards on just five plays. Wentz hit Torrey Smith for an 11-yard touchdown and went to Alshon Jeffery — after eluding two defenders — for a second straight successful two-point conversion.
Another touchdown — this time after Wentz and Jeffery hooked up from 17 yards out on fourth down — resulted in the lone failed conversion. Ertz caught Wentz’s pass off a naked bootleg, but he fumbled the ball just short of the goal line.
The Eagles converted on their final try after Nigel Bradham returned a Derek Barnett forced fumble for a score. Wentz hit tight end Trey Burton and the Eagles had their final score of one of the more spectacular second halves in Eagles-Cowboys history.
For Elliott and the Eagles, it was an inauspicious start. Rather than have him boom his kickoff into the end zone or out of it, as he can do, Fipp had his kicker kick short of the goal line and the ball was fielded by Ryan Switzer at the 2.
The strategy of forcing a return has worked in the Eagles’ favor, particularly against the Cardinals last month. But in this instance, it didn’t. Switzer bumped outside after an initial 10 yards, and the over-pursuing Eagles were caught out of a gap.
Malcolm Jenkins was the only non-kicker left on that side of the field, but Elliott ran over and lowered his head and tackled Switzer after a 61-yard gain. But they met helmet to helmet. Elliott was slow to get up but walked off under his own power.
And continued to play. He kicked an extra point and another kickoff, and nothing seemed awry. But after safety Rodney McLeod intercepted Dak Prescott deep in Cowboys territory, and the Eagles failed to convert the turnover into a touchdown, Elliott attempted a 34-yard field goal.
His kick was wide right. Not long after, he was spotted walking to the visitors’ locker room at AT&T Stadium. Other than the fact that Elliott wasn’t there, the Eagles’ sideline looked very much the same. No one was practicing kicks in case he couldn’t return. Fipp wasn’t running around in a panic.
The offense didn’t exactly give the Eagles any reason to start warming up a potential kicker. Wentz and his unit had five straight three-and-outs to close out the first half. But early in the second quarter, Kamu-Grugier walked over to the kicking net and began stretching his right leg.
He teed up the football, took several steps back, galloped forward, planted his foot on the ball, and sailed it past the net and straight into the stands.
Grugier-Hill needed only to make sure his kicks landed in the 53 1/3 yards between the sidelines. And he did just fine.
“I expected everybody to expect me to do bad anyway,” Grugier-Hill, “so I pretty much had nothing to lose.”
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