New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton waxed effusive Wednesday about Eagles running back and returner Darren Sproles, as NFL coaches often do about opponents just before they have to play them.
Payton, though, spoke from the background of having coached Sproles for three seasons, 2011 to 2013, with the Saints. Sproles missed the first meeting between the teams this season, on Nov. 18, with hamstring problems, but he has become a major cog in the offense in the last six weeks. Sproles played a season-high 56 percent of the snaps Sunday, in the wild-card win at Chicago.
“He’s one of the smartest players that we’ve ever coached here, and what I mean by that is, rarely on the field does he ever do something that surprises the quarterback,” Payton said in a conference call with Philadelphia-area reporters. “He’s got a great feel for the passing game, he’s got very good instincts as a runner, and I think his preparation – you might have a walkthrough, but it really isn’t a walkthrough for Darren, he’s going through it. Just how he approaches each day, I think, it’s rare.
“He’s had an amazing career, and he was terrific for us.”
In the Nov. 18 game, Malcolm Jenkins, another former Saint, gave Payton a one-fingered salute, after the coach called a 37-yard touchdown pass to Alvin Kamara in the fourth quarter, with the Saints up, 38-7, and Jenkins in coverage.
Payton praised Jenkins after the game, saying they had discussed the matter and that all was well. Asked about it again Wednesday, Payton called Jenkins “one of the most important parts to our Super Bowl run” in 2009, the safety’s rookie season.
“I told him after the game I love him," Payton said. "I know that the feeling’s mutual … fantastic player and just as good of a person.
Payton repeated something he said after that game: letting Jenkins walk in free agency to the Eagles in 2014 was “probably one of the bigger mistakes we’ve made.”
Payton spent part of his childhood in Delaware County, which he is asked about in every encounter with Philly media, and something he never minds discussing.
“In can remember the back-to-back Stanley Cups” in 1974 and 1975, said Payton, 55, who would have been 12 when the Flyers won their second Cup. “I could give you the lineup when the Russians walked off the ice” at the Spectrum in 1976.”
When reporters had no more questions, Payton had one for them.
“You guys remember the LCB line?” of Reggie Leach, Bobby Clarke, and Bill Barber. “Who was the lefthander [on left] wing, second line?”
When no one spoke up immediately, Payton provided the answer: “Rick MacLeish!”
The Eagles held a walkthrough Wednesday, so their practice-participation report was an estimate. Before practice, Doug Pederson said that he hoped to increase the activity level this week for special-teams linebacker D.J. Alexander (hamstring), corner Sidney Jones (hamstring), and wideout Mike Wallace (ankle), then “see where they’re at” by the end of the week.
Asked whether Nick Foles would quarterback the team the rest of the way, Pederson said: “This week. It’s a one-and-done season right now.”