In the NFL, when we think of the value of "continuity," we usually attribute that to communication advantages on the offensive line or in the defensive secondary, or maybe the familiarity between a quarterback and his receivers. When we think of the value of "experience," we think of a veteran middle linebacker who can get the defense lined up properly, or a QB who can read defenses and make checks at the line of scrimmage.
However, we often don't attribute the value of continuity or experience to special teams. NFL rosters turn over at an extremely high rate, particularly on the back end of those 53 guy, which is where you'll typically find NFL teams' special teams players. That makes continuity and experience on special teams hard to achieve. If you have too many inexperienced players or not enough players on your special teams units who have played together in the same system, that is a difficult disadvantage to overcome.
Last year under first year special teams coordinator Dave Fipp, the Eagles had neither continuity nor experience.
"(Continuity) is huge," said Fipp. "I think the biggest thing for me moving forward is that these guys have at least a year of experience. If you look at a year ago, and again, I'm not trying to point blame or anything, but Chris Polk really hadn't played special teams very much. He was a second year guy in his first year if you look at his play count. But he didn't play much, and so he was really a rookie. Jake Knott was really a rookie. We had Najee Goode, who although he had been around Tampa Bay playing on special teams he was really a rookie. We had a lot of very inexperienced guys running around and playing, and I think special teams is a game for guys with experience. Guys with experience can excel at it. Even if they don't have the speed-size factors that you want, if they're really smart and they know those plays, they can play them and win."
In 2013, the Eagles' special teams units as a whole improved over the mess that was in place in 2012. The punt team for example, spearheaded by Donnie Jones and Brandon Boykin, did some great things. However, several aspects of the Eagles' special teams units were still quite bad, particularly the return units. In 2013, the Eagles finished 25th in the NFL with a kick return average of 21.4 yards per return.
Below is what the Eagles' kick return unit looked like Week 1 last year. There were a few small changes as the season wore on, but this personnel group was the most common look last season. The number of games each player had played prior to the 2013 season are noted below the visual aid.
• 28 - Earl Wolff - 0
• 50 - Casey Matthews - 32
• 30 - Colt Anderson - 34
• 54 - Jake Knott - 0
• 53 - Najee Goode - 3
• 42 - Kurt Coleman - 44
• 55 - Brandon Graham - 32
• 86 - Zach Ertz - 0
• 85 - James Casey - 61
• 32 - Chris Polk - 7
• 13 - Damaris Johnson - 14
• TOTAL - 227 games, or 20.6 per player
Five players had less than a full season of special teams experience, three had none, and only James Casey had more than three years of special teams experience. That is a whole lot of youth and inexperience. They also had virtually no continuity. Here is a look at the Eagles' Week 1 return units in 2012. Only one player remained on the return team in Week 1 of 2013.
• 26 - Jaiquawn Jarrett
• 50 - Casey Matthews
• 56 - Akeem Jordan
• 51 - Jamar Chaney
• 82 - Clay Harbor
• 27 - Brandon Hughes
• 72 - Cedric Thornton
• 66 - Dallas Reynolds
• 76 - Phillip Hunt
• 39 - Stanley Havili
• 22 - Brandon Boykin
This offseason, the Eagles made special teams a priority, signing proven contributors like Bryan Braman (46 career games), Chris Maragos (46 career games), and Nolan Carroll (58 career games). They also hope that Jason Phillips (29 career games) can successfully recover from a torn ACL last training camp.
With the young special teamers of 2013 having a year under their belts and an influx of veteran special teamers added to the roster, the Eagles' special teams units will have more experience and continuity. To be determined if that will lead to better results.
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