Jamal Agnew saw nothing but open space in front of him as he cut through an opening to his left on a kickoff return when an official’s whistle interrupted what would have been a sprint to the end zone.
Stopped in his tracks – and not by a would-be tackler on the coverage team – Agnew threw the ball down in frustration over not being able to make a big play for the Detroit Lions.
“I honestly didn’t think anybody touched me,” Agnew said this week, looking back at the play. “I just saw all that green.
“I wanted to put on a little show for the fans.”
It wasn’t in a regular-season game. In fact, it wasn’t even a preseason game.
It was a controlled scrimmage, as part of the Family Fest practice open to fans at Ford Field three weeks ago.
Agnew’s display of emotion in a scrimmage is an insight into the mindset of players who perform on special teams, and how seriously they take their roles.
Any given play – however big or small – can help turn a game. They can come on offense, defense or special teams.
View photos from Detroit Lions practice on Monday, Aug. 19, 2019.
“You’ve got to win at least two phases to win a football game, and special teams is one of those,” Agnew said. “Special teams is just as important as offense and defense to us, and that’s what Coach (Matt) Patricia stresses.
“Every phase, you’ve got one shot to make a play. Just having the special teams making a big play – gunners going down making a big hit, knocking the ball out, kickoffs, big return. Creating penalties, field position – all that stuff.
“We get a spark out of good special teams play.”
It’s not only the obvious big plays that Patricia stresses in practice. It’s also the small plays that aren’t as obvious but can result in beating an opponent to make a tackle or force a holding penalty that wipes out a gain.
“Those are things we call the details,” Patricia said. “We have to make sure we pay attention to the details, and never let little things become big things.
“It may be something as simple as a proper angle, or attack angle or approach angle – for a block or a tackle, either one. If your angle’s off slightly, then your foot’s off slightly and if the other guy’s a better athlete than you are, they have an advantage.
“It’s about one or two steps. That's the difference in this league. If a guy can get a step or two on you, they can create space enough that they can get a big play or prevent a big play.”
The Lions are blessed by having talented specialists. In addition to Agnew’s 2017 All Pro award, kicker Matt Prater and renowned long snapper Don Muhlbach have made two Pro Bowls. Sam Martin is going into his seventh season as the punter and holder.
Agnew made sparks fly on special teams as a rookie in 2017.
Agnew made first team All-Pro as a punt returner. He led the league in punt return yards (447), touchdowns (two) and average return (15.4). He also averaged 17.8 yards on 11 kickoff returns.
He was one of the bargains of the draft as a fifth-round pick out of San Diego. He also played 12 snaps on offense – two rushes for nine yards, two receptions for 18 – and 69 snaps at cornerback, his college position.
Agnew had a quiet 2018 season that was shortened to six games by a knee injury sustained in the Week 5 win over the Packers. Agnew returned late in the season but played only one more game.
For the season he averaged 27 yards on eight kickoff returns and 4.75 yards on 12 punt returns.
The Lions haven’t gotten much out of the return game in the first two preseason games. Agnew has one punt return for four yards and three kickoff returns for an average of 18 yards.
Agnew expects the return game to produce results, and he likes what new special teams coordinator John Bonamego has brought to the unit. Bonamego is a veteran NFL assistant who coached the Lions special teams in 2013-14 before departing to become head coach at Central Michigan University.
“I love what Bono’s teaching,” Agnew said. “He’s teaching these guys to be physical, play with speed, play smart. He’s always talking about ‘angles better than speed.’ Cutting people off. Putting your hands on people.
“He’s getting these guys playing hard. We’re going to get it clicking pretty soon. We’re getting the kinks out now. We’re going to get things rolling.”