Things are looking up for Birds' special teams
The game of football, we often are reminded by coaches and players, has three phases: offense, defense, and, uh, what's the other one again? Oh, yeah, special teams - the department that seldom gets thoroughly examined or talked about and certainly is the most difficult to measure.
Thoroughly disgusted with his offense after Sunday's 17-3 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Eagles coach Chip Kelly offered praise for his defense and special teams. It was clear why he was happy with the defense. The 17 points represented the second-lowest total of the season for the Cowboys, a team that entered the game averaging 30.5 points per game.
Less obvious and less talked about was the work of the Eagles' special teams. When Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo listed the reasons that Dallas' offense sputtered for much of the game, he eventually got to the Eagles' special teams without directly mentioning them by name.
"We had to go the length of the field most of the day," Romo said. "They really were winning the field-position battle throughout most of it."
The Eagles' clampdown on defense was a surprise, but the work by special-teams coordinator Dave Fipp's units was perhaps a bigger one. Dwayne Harris, the Cowboys' third-year wide receiver, entered the game as the NFL's leader in both punt returns and kick returns.
Thanks in large part to the work of punter Donnie Jones as well as strong coverage, Harris managed just 23 yards on five punt returns and was forced to call two fair catches. It's never a good sign, however, when your punter is the best player on the field in a game.
Ranking special teams isn't nearly as simplistic as looking at an offense or defense, because there are so many aspects to that part of the game. FootballOutsiders.com and Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News give it a stab every year. They have vastly different formulas, but both came to the same conclusion last season: The Eagles' special teams were awful.
You won't get any argument from the Eagles, either.
"None of our special teams last year stood out, and you've got to have good special teams to win games in this league," cornerback Brandon Boykin said after practice Wednesday. "It's a huge part of being close in some games or not being close."
FootballOutsiders.com's analysis isn't too flattering for the Eagles' special teams this season, either. Part of the reason is the abysmal performance against Denver, when the Broncos returned a kickoff 105 yards for one touchdown and blocked a punt for another score.
"I think there are particular plays where you wish it was a little bit different, but I think overall we're getting good effort," Kelly said before practice Wednesday. "Sometimes the bottom of our roster has been transformed a little bit with some injuries . . . so I think Coach Fipp has been moving guys around. But I'm happy with where we are. I think, like everything, we continue to improve in that area."
Fipp gets two thumbs up from his special-teams players - "He's a great teacher," long-snapper Jon Dorenbos said - but there might be a couple of other ways to accelerate improvement.
One would be to make a change in returners. Damaris Johnson, in his second season as the team's punt returner and first as the kick returner, has not had a punt return longer than 21 yards or a kick return longer than 33 yards this season. It might be time to put Boykin, an explosive returner at Georgia, in those roles.
Boykin averaged just 23 yards on 45 kickoff returns last year, but, as we mentioned, special teams were a disaster across the board.
"Oh, yeah, there were plenty of times I had big returns and gave the offense field position and then they'd score," Boykin said. "That changed the game quick. I was able to do that a lot at Georgia, but it's a totally different game here, so you have to prepare and practice harder. I'm the backup returner . . . so I'll probably get a chance at some point."
Another way to improve special teams would be by spending more money on that area of the game. The Eagles had hoped linebacker Jason Phillips would be a solid addition in that respect, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury during training camp.
Still, the Eagles are roughly $17.6 million under the salary cap. Among the seven teams in the NFL more than $10 million under the cap, only the Cleveland Browns rank in the top half of the league in the FootballOutsiders.com special-teams ratings. They are sixth. The Eagles had the most cap space in the league last year at this time and it showed at the bottom of the roster.
The best era in special-teams play for the Eagles came when John Harbaugh ran that department. For most of Harbaugh's tenure as Baltimore's head coach, the Ravens have remained among the NFL's best on special teams. One of Andy Reid's first moves in Kansas City was to hire Dave Toub, the former Chicago Bears special-teams coach who worked under Harbaugh with the Eagles. The unbeaten Chiefs are second in the special-teams rankings this year after finishing 22d last year.