The Eagles' special teams units last season, on the whole, were a below average group. However, they did have a few standout contributors, most notably punter Donnie Jones and gunner Brandon Boykin. When asked if Jones and Boykin were among the best in the NFL at pinning opponents deep in their own territory, special teams coordinator Dave Fipp shifted praise to the punt team as a group.
"I think it's a total team effort," said Fipp. "It's easy to say it's the punter, it's easy to say it's the guy downing it, but it starts with the snap, and then it starts with protection, and then there's the punt, and then there are the releases on the outside, and then there's the finish. We all get caught up in the punt and the finish because it's the easiest thing to see, but I think it's a team effort. This game is a team effort. I think Brandon did a nice job for us a year ago and he still has room to improve. We're excited about him. He's been very effective."
On the one hand, Fipp is correct that it all starts with some of the things most fans take for granted, like the snap, and protection. The disgusting mess that was the 2012 Philadelphia Eagles often couldn't get those fundamental details right, and it killed them in all three phases of the game. For example, the punt they had blocked against the Bengals basically epitomized their season. First, Clay Harbor runs onto the field late, then the snap is a little off target, and the protection by Marvin McNutt is hideous. We never even get to see the punt or the finish.
However, from an outsider's view, NFL teams are almost expected to get those smaller details right. The punt and the finish are the two aspects of the punting game with the highest degree of difficulty, and they are the biggest differentiators from one team to the next.
In 2012, the Eagles were brutal when they punted near FG range. On their 12 closest punts within FG range, which were all at least at the Eagles' 48 yard line or closer, the opponent's average starting field position was the 17.8 yard line. Four of those punts went for touchbacks, three of them were actually outside the 20, and only one measly punt pinned their opponent inside the 10 (it was at the 9). That is atrocious.
In 2013, the Eagles pinned their opponents inside the 10 yard line a total of 11 times, which are all listed in the chart below. Also noted are the number of points their opponents scored on their ensuing drives (the two -2's were safeties), as well as how many points the Eagles scored when they got the ball back on their next drive.
The moral of the story here -- It's hard to drive the length of the field and score points, and there's a good chance your offense will be in a position to capitalize when it gets the ball back.
Last season, Donnie Jones and Brandon Boykin affected the outcome of games with their special teams play. One example was the first game of the season, in Washington DC. There were four punts in which Jones and Boykin teamed up to force the Redskins to try to drive the length of the field.
Jones' first punt of the season was a beauty. This is perfect placement, and Boykin was in perfect position to make the catch. In this case, however, the Redskins' dopey returner did the work for him, and called for a fair catch inside the five yard line.
Two plays later, this happened:
In the second quarter, the Eagles were punting from their own 42. Because the line of scrimmage was 58 yards to the end zone, this is a situation where you're looking to put a lot of hang time on the punt, as opposed to directional punting toward the sideline, and Jones knocked the snot out of the ball. This punt had 4.9 seconds of hang time and is perfectly placed just outside the five. The Skins' returner once again did the Eagles a favor by fielding it at the six, and #45 was flagged for blocking Boykin in the back. The Skins had to start their drive at the six yard line.
The Redskins' ensuing drive... 4 plays and a punt.
In the fourth quarter, Jones did it on his own. If you'll notice, Boykin is in position to make a play on the ball, but it rolls out of bounds at the six.
Result of the Redskins' ensuing drive... Turnover on downs.
And finally, an easy one. With the Eagles punting from the Skins' 42, up by 13, and less than four minutes to go, Jones doesn't get greedy. He hangs one up that's fielded at the 11, where Boykin is in position if the Skins' returner were to have let it go.
The Redskins actually drove the field and scored on this drive when Patrick Chung did his best impression of Patrick Chung.
However, the Skins burned up a lot of clock in the process.
If you subscribe to the NFL's "Red Zone Channel" on Sunday afternoons in which they constantly cut to games where a team is in position to score, you know they will often apologize if they "have to" show a punt because there's no other "action" occurring around the league. That kills me. The punting game is one of the more underrated aspects of football, and it's something the Eagles did well last season.
The Eagles' special teams units have a long way to go, but Donnie Jones and Brandon Boykin might just be the best punter-gunner short field punting tandem in the NFL. Is there an ESPY for that?
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