Chances are in the NFL, when the only continuity that a team has in any phase of the game from one year to the next is Casey Matthews, problems are going to emerge. For the Philadelphia Eagles’ special teams unit in 2013, the biggest problems emerged in the most critical of moments. Often it’s difficult to criticize coaches or players in the first year of a new system, and for Eagles special teams coach David Fipp the results of last year are viewed as a launching point for improvement in 2014 and beyond. Place-kicker Alex Henery and subsequent complaints aside, the rest of the Philadelphia Eagles special teams unit will be both improved in experience as well as familiarity within a particular philosophy.
When it comes to Dallas, most Eagles fans want nothing to do with anything that is associated with the city. However, one model of consistency that emerges from Dallas is that of Dallas News’ writer Rick Gosselin and his ever so popular special teams rankings. What might make Gosselin unpopular is the harsh reality that in his 2013 rankings, the Philadelphia Eagles special teams ranked ahead of only four teams : The Oakland Raiders, Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins (pending name change), and the Carolina Panthers. ESPN talking head Chris Berman has had a long fixation with the Buffalo Bills special teams unit and for good reason. While ineptitude in the other two phases of the game can dominate headlines, a consistent and efficient special teams unit can instantly put a young team in a better position to win close games.
Thus far in the 2014 off-season, the Philadelphia Eagles have made subtle improvements via free agency and through the draft. Many of the intended targets were specifically intended to improve the struggling special teams unit from a year ago. Former Seattle Seahawk Chris Maragos signed a three year deal with the Eagles back in early March, a deal that went relatively under the radar to most media pundits. Maragos played in 80% of the defending Super Bowl champions’ special teams snaps and can provide emergency depth at the safety position. Third round selection and former Oregon Duck Josh Huff has contributed on special teams throughout his college career and looks to make an impact his rookie season as a gunner on punt coverage in 2014 and potentially as a kickoff return candidate.
With punter Donnie Jones back in the fold for up to another three seasons, the first step towards building a consistent unit is set. Last season Jones set a franchise record in net punting average along with downing an astounding 40% of his total punts within the opponents 20 yard line. While reports out of OTA’s haven’t been overly critical of placekicker Alex Henery, it appears that he has a commanding lead thus far over undrafted free agent (and candidate for best nick-name ever) Carey Spear. Certainly deserving of criticism, the key focal point for Henery is not that of kickoffs, but rather consistency with field goals. Poor kickoff coverage is just as susceptible to criticism as the distance the ball traveled, and as easy as it is to deflect blame solely on Alex Henery, cornerback Cary Williams’ horse collar tackle on a return of 39 yards by recently acquired Darren Sproles is just one example of accountability throughout the entire special teams unit. In 2014, the Eagles are hoping that the players acquired in the off-season paired with the experience from a season ago will contribute towards something far more special than what 2013 provided.