The last great play that the Eagles made in Super Bowl LII is one that is often forgotten, and it shouldn’t be forgotten, because it was great from beginning to end.
Jake Elliott’s clutch 46-yard field goal had cut through the uprights with 1 minute, 5 seconds left in regulation, giving the Eagles that final and forever 41-33 lead over the Patriots, and now Doug Pederson and special-teams coach Dave Fipp had Elliott do a smart thing on the ensuing kickoff. Instead of booming the ball into the end zone and allowing Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense to start at their 25-yard line, Elliott sand-wedged the football 58 yards to the New England 7, forcing Dion Lewis to return the kickoff and burn clock.
The Patriots tried to outsmart the Eagles’ coverage team by having Lewis lateral the ball to Rex Burkhead, and any honest Eagles fan has to admit to experiencing a terrifying vision of a Music City Miracle/Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl-style sequence. But Bryan Braman knifed through and tackled Burkhead at the New England 9-yard line. Now Brady had to drive the Patriots 91 yards in 58 seconds, not 75 in 65. The rest, around here, is just afterglow.
It’s not surprising if the Eagles’ kickoff gambit and Braman’s tackle don’t immediately leap to mind when someone thinks back to that night in Minneapolis. We’re living in a post-Philly Special world now, and besides, special teams isn’t a topic, even among many football aficionados, that often generates much enthusiasm. But as their signing of linebacker Corey Nelson, one of the NFL’s best special-teams players, made clear, the Eagles have made it a priority this offseason. In fact, when asked at the NFL combine where the Eagles needed to improve most, Pederson mentioned special teams immediately.
“We can get better there,” he told reporters in Indianapolis, “and it’s not about scheme, anything like that – just getting better. We had a lot of young guys play, and it’s going to help us this year having those young guys back, the Mack Hollinses the Shelton Gibsons, guys like that who are going to go into Year 2. They will get better.”
They aren’t the only ones. Elliott won the Eagles some big games with his big leg, but during the regular season he missed three extra points and four of his 20 intermediate field-goal attempts (between 30 and 49 yards). And if Cameron Johnston is indeed Donnie Jones’ successor as the team’s punter, he’ll have to be excellent just to approximate the advantage in field-position that Jones’ skill in directional kicking often afforded the Eagles.
But it’s the coverage and return teams that will most require some replenishing and upgrading. Kenjon Barner, for instance, never appeared completely comfortable as a returner, and it showed in the numbers: The Eagles ranked just 16th in the league in average kickoff-return yardage (21.6) and 19th in average punt-return yardage (6.8).
Trey Burton, who earned a spot on the roster through his special-teams play before emerging as a weapon at tight end, has signed with the Bears. Chris Maragos, the unit’s captain, is 31 and played in just six games in 2017. He tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on Oct. 12 against the Panthers and missed the rest of the season, which hurt the Eagles’ coverage teams, which in turn hurt the team’s ability to affect field position. Within the context of the Eagles’ entire season, the Elliott kickoff/Braman tackle was an outlier. On average, opposing offenses took possession at their own 28.27-yard line against the Eagles, which was just the 17th-best mark in the NFL, according to the statistical firm Football Outsiders.
Nelson, who said the Eagles also told him that he will have the chance to compete for a starting linebacker spot, is supposed to help. He anticipates playing the same sort of Swiss Army knife role on special teams for the Eagles that he did for the Broncos.
“I did everything,” he said. “They moved me around because I knew multiple positions. … I was able to play almost everywhere on the field. There were some games when I would play the ‘one’ on the kickoff. That’s normally the safety. I was very versatile when it came to the special teams there.”
That’s why the Eagles brought him here. A team never does know when it will need to make an important play on special teams or what the stakes will be when it does. A championship might depend on it.