Former Washington Redskins head coach George Allen was the first NFL coach to recognize the importance of special teams. He described football as “One-third offense, one-third defense, and one-third special teams”. Most of the focus is applied to the first two-thirds obviously, but attention will shift when there is a glaring weakness in the latter. Football can be a war of attrition, and the hidden yardage of the field position battle can be vital to a teams success. Special teams are a big part of that battle, and the 2014 Philadelphia Eagles can benefit from improved play from most of it’s units.
The Eagles ranked in the bottom half of the league in most major special teams categories last year:
27th in yards per punt return. 26th in yards per kick return. 22nd in field goal percentage. 21st in yards per punt. 23rd in touchback percentage.
This has to be a major concern for Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. As explosive as his offense was in 2013, having a better return game can lead to shorter fields and even more scoring opportunities. Also, getting better coverage on the kicking units will ease the strain on a defense that is trying to find it’s identity. Luckily Eagles special teams coach Dave Fipp is no stranger to overseeing drastic improvement in a short time frame. In his prior capacity as the Miami Dolphins special teams coach, he commanded a unit that went from 24th to 2nd. His direction and leadership will be important as the attitude and accountability for these units take shape.
The Eagles front office must have realized the need to improve in these areas, as they quickly addressed some of these issues in free agency. The signings of outside linebacker Bryan Braman, and safety Chris Maragos were not big name signings, but could pay huge dividends in the fight to improve the coverage units. Eagles kicker Alex Henery does not have a strong leg, and struggles to consistently force touchbacks on kickoffs. So having special teams aces will help reduce the risk of long returns and great field position for the opponent. Philadelphia gave up two kickoff return touchdowns last year, which lead the league.
Also, the addition of halfback Darren Sproles can have an affect on the Eagles return units. Even though he struggled last year as the primary returner for the New Orleans Saints, he traditionally is a threat that must be accounted for. If the Eagles don’t add a returner in the draft, look for Sproles, cornerback Brandon Boykin, and utility man Brad Smith to handle a majority of the returns.
The biggest move to aid in improving the special teams may have been the re-signing of Eagles punter Donnie Jones. The veteran was one of the few bright spots from the 2013 campaign. Jones tied for 7th in the NFL in net punting average, and deftly placed 33 punts inside the opponents 20 yard line. He also only had 5 touchbacks all season. That is the kind of skill, focus, and precision that will be required from all the participants of every special teams unit. These units are key elements to winning games, and not just side shows. Dedication to dominating the opponent in all three phases of the game will help the Philadelphia Eagles get where they want to be.