When the Eagles were at their peak in the Andy Reid era, the special teams units were one of the big reasons behind that success. David Akers was among the best kickers in the league. Brian Mitchell and Brian Westbrook were dynamic returners. Ike Reese and Quintin Mikell were key leaders on the coverage units. Mike Bartrum was one of the best long snappers in the league.
The Eagles could count on solid, reliable special teams play, but also got some big plays from the units. Everyone remembers the onside kick to open the Pickle Juice game against Dallas on opening day of the 2000 season. There was a fake punt against the Texans in 2002 that Brian Dawkins turned into a 57-yard touchdown. Akers and Koy Detmer combined on a few fake field goals over the years. I don't think anyone will forget Westbrook's punt return against the Giants in 2003 that won the game for the Eagles, 14-10. The offense was anemic that day, gaining just 134 yards. The team won because the defense kept the game close and the special teams provided a big play.
Special teams play has been highly inconsistent in recent years. Chip Kelly wants that to change.
Kelly isn't relying on miracle cures. He expects some returning players to get better, but is also bringing in some outside help. The team traded for
Draft picks could also help out. Marcus Smith is a big and athletic. He plays well in space. Smith could be very good at covering kicks and punts. Both
Obviously, you can't talk about special teams without discussing kicker
Kickoffs were another issue. Henery was 15th in the league in the number of touchbacks, but that stat isn't as good as it sounds. Because the Eagles scored a lot of touchdowns and had more kickoffs, Henery's number of touchbacks was somewhat inflated. He was 20th in the league in touchback percentage.
Many people expected the Eagles to bring in a serious challenger to Henery. The team signed undrafted free agent
Special teams coach Dave Fipp has talked about Henery's need to improve. The Eagles obviously feel like Henery can do that or they would have moved on from him or brought in a veteran challenger. Fipp has had a whole offseason to work with Henery on honing his technique on field goals and kickoffs. We'll have to wait and see what kind of a difference this makes. I do think Henery knows he must have a better season.
Beyond improvement from Henery, the Eagles must get better in other areas. The return game hasn't been enough of a positive factor in several years. Sproles could be the answer on punts and kickoffs. His long kickoff return in the Wild Card meeting with the Eagles was arguably the play of the game. Chip Kelly's offense proved to be dynamic last year despite having the 25th best kickoff return unit and 27th best punt return unit. Imagine how much better the offense can be if you can give it better field position.
The Eagles will use a variety of skill players to challenge Sproles for the return jobs.
One special teams unit that thrived in 2013 was the punting game. Veteran
The Eagles only allowed 8 yards per punt return, which was 11th in the league. Maragos was a key member of Seattle's special teams, that allowed just 3.9 yards per return. That is dominant punt coverage. So even where the Eagles are good, they can still get better.
Think back to some of the Eagles losses last year. There was a missed field goal in the Chargers loss. There was a missed field goal and a 57-yard kickoff return in the loss to the Chiefs. The blowout loss to Denver included two special teams miscues. Trindon Holliday returned a kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown. Jones had a punt blocked and Steven Johnson returned that for a touchdown. You can't expect to beat Peyton Manning when you give him 14 special teams points. Special teams struggled in the playoff loss to the Saints.
If the Eagles are to become a championship contender, they must perform better on special teams. This means doing the basics (blocking, tackling) better as well as making some big plays. If the Eagles are going to beat teams like the Broncos and Saints, they must at least have a draw in the kicking game. They cannot afford to be giving away points and field position.
Kelly has devoted a lot of practice time to special teams. He targeted players in free agency and the draft who could come in and help. The Eagles don't just want to get better. They are making moves so they can get better. Soon enough we'll find out if they made the right moves.