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Fan-Demonium: The Need To Be Special

Posted Jun 13, 2013

Fan-Demonium

Football breaks into three parts. There is offense. There is defense. There is also special teams, the part of the game we most often take for granted. Early in the Andy Reid era, special teams were a key part of the Eagles' rise from a losing team to getting to perennial Super Bowl contender. 

David Akers became the full-time kicker in 2000 and was a weapon. He hit his share of clutch kicks. Brian Mitchell signed as a free agent in 2000 and was an impact returner on both kickoffs and punts. Ike Reese was the leader on the coverage units. He had help from guys like Dameane Douglas, Sean Morey and Je'Rod Cherry. 

Those special teams units made big plays. There was the onside kick to open the 2000 season. Akers had an onside kick against the Steelers late in a game that year that helped provide a crazy comeback win. Koy Detmer, a great holder, and Akers had several great fake field goals. Brian Dawkins scored on a fake punt in 2002. John Harbaugh was the coach in charge of special teams and he did a great job of getting his group to deliver consistent results and impact plays. 

In recent years, the special teams fell off quite a bit. The Eagles' struggles in 2011 and 2012 were mostly about offense and defense, but special teams didn't offer much help, to put it mildly. When the offense is struggling to score, you hope the return units can shorten the field. When the defense is struggling to stop someone, you hope the coverage units can make a play. Try to get the ball back, but pin the other team deep, if nothing else. 

2012 was rock bottom for the Eagles' special teams units. They had four turnovers. They gave up a punt return touchdown against Dallas. Remember the first Giants game? David Wilson came close to breaking every kickoff return for a touchdown. There was a blocked punt in the Bengals game. You didn't know whether to laugh or cry when the team lined up to kick a field goal against Dallas and King Dunlap wasn't on the field to help block on the play. That led to a very embarrassing timeout. There were some highly questionable decisions on when to field punts and bring kickoffs out of the end zone. One team ran a fake punt that should have worked, but the player fell down on his own. There was even a missed extra point. Like I said, rock bottom. 

Chip Kelly hired Dave Fipp to be the new special teams coordinator. Fipp is charged with getting the group to go from being a liability to making plays and being reliable. 

Fipp was an assistant special teams coach in Miami the past two years. Fipp had the same role with the Niners from 2008-2010. Prior to 2008, Fipp was a defensive assistant coach at several college stops, including six seasons as defensive coordinator. The Eagles are his first chance to show what he can do running a special teams unit by himself in the NFL. Fipp did run the special teams for Holy Cross back in 1998 and 1999, when he first got into coaching. 

The Dallas Morning News ranks special teams units around the NFL each year. The Eagles used to be near the top. They were down at 28th in 2012. Fipp's Dolphins were fourth. Back in 2011, the Eagles were 20th. Miami was second. While the Eagles have struggled, Fipp has been part of special teams excellence down in Miami. The hope is that he'll now bring some of that to Philadelphia. 

Fipp does have some good pieces to work with. Alex Henery has the potential to be an outstanding kicker. He has only missed seven field goals in his first two years. He has made 88 percent of his kicks. Some fans question his leg strength due to the lack of long attempts, but that's not fair. Henery has a strong leg. Reid simply chose to punt or go for it more than kicking 50-yard field goals. If you go look at Akers' stats, you'll see the same thing happened with him. Henery nailed a 60-yard field goal in a recent practice. If he gets the chance, he has the leg to be a weapon from that far away. 

The punter job is wide open. Donnie Jones was signed this offseason and has been really booming the ball. His punts are very high and have excellent hang times. Jones' competition is rookie Brad Wing. While at LSU, Wing was a terrific punter. Both players have strong legs. Jones is an NFL veteran and that may give him the advantage. Wing has upside, but will need to beat out Jones this summer to win the job. 

Lawlor

Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com and was a contributor to the Eagles Almanac.

Colt Anderson was a star at covering kicks and punts in the last few years. He is back and I'm sure Fipp will love having Anderson as a gunner. Anderson knows how to fight off blocks as he runs downfield. He's able to find the ball quickly and he tackles well in space. Brandon Hughes has been a good gunner in the past. He's fighting for a roster spot, so standing out on special teams is a must for him. The Eagles traded for receiver Arrelious Benn back in March. He could be a help on the coverage units. Benn is about 220 pounds and runs well. He will hit. Don't let the fact that he's a wide receiver fool you. 

It would really help the coverage units if a linebacker would emerge. Akeem Jordan did some good things in recent years, but he's gone now. Jason Phillips was signed as a free agent with the expectation that he would stand out while covering kicks. If guys like Jamar Chaney, Casey Matthews and rookie Jake Knott want to make the team, special teams will be a huge factor. 

The Eagles had a pair of rookie returners in 2012. Damaris Johnson handled punts and Brandon Boykin handled kickoffs. The results weren't ideal. Johnson did take a punt back for a touchdown in the second Dallas game, but he also had some struggles. Early in the year, he was fielding punts at or inside the 5-yard line. That's a no-no. He did that against the Ravens and it helped them get a field goal late in the first half. Johnson fumbled against the Cardinals and that set up a touchdown for them. The Eagles struggled in that game from that point on. 

Boykin didn't make many mistakes. He just failed to get yards. Boykin was a confident, aggressive returner at Georgia. He was tentative last year. I don't know what happened. In his defense, the blocking wasn't very good. 

Too often, I would see Eagles blockers being shoved backward on returns when I would go back and study the tape. I would then watch a punt or kickoff and see players getting blocked. This is simply unacceptable. You can't demand that your kickers be perfect or returners be fast, but you can sure as heck expect the blocking/coverage units to be tough and physical. That is the foundation of all special teams. 

Fipp must find players who want to run downfield and kick some butt. What I saw last year simply can't happen again. Players must understand that special teams are not optional. This is a critical part of the game. You play well or else we'll find someone who will. 

If the Eagles can get better blocking, there is the possibility for some good returns. Johnson and Boykin are no longer rookies. Kelly and Fipp are also going to mix in some other players as they try to find returners who will get the job done. DeSean Jackson will get mixed in as a punt returner. He was a major weapon there from 2008-2010. That changed in the last couple of years. Jackson can be an impact returner. The one issue with him is going backward after initially catching the ball. I think he started doing that in 2010 and it became a bad habit. All returners should learn from Mitchell. Catch the ball and go forward. Do not go back. 

Johnson, Jackson, Boykin, Jeremy Maclin and even Felix Jones are under consideration for the punt return job. Fipp and Kelly will leave no stone un-turned. They want to find the right guy. Maclin was a great returner in college, but has struggled mightily in the NFL. Maybe a new coach can figure out what changed. 

The same type of situation is going on at kickoff returner. Johnson is getting a lot of looks. He was a great kickoff returner at Tulsa and it might be that he's a better fit there than on punts. Benn has some kickoff return experience and will get his chance. Jones was a dynamic kick returner in college and good early on in Dallas. If he can get back to his old ways, Jones could be a weapon. 

I do think the Eagles have a good mixture of competition for these jobs. It is now up to the players. Someone has to step up and win the jobs. Field position was a major problem in 2012. Too many drives started at or inside the 20-yard line. That can't happen again. 

The final part of special teams is the snapper, Jon Dorenbos. Fipp will have to study his performance and see what needs to be worked on. Coaches time the snaps and have very specific goals. Coaches also study the accuracy of the snaps. The Eagles re-signed Dorenbos back in March so you would think they feel good about him in such a crucial role. 

The Eagles have switched up how they practice for special teams. In the past, they normally waited until they were done with offense and defense. Now special teams segments take place throughout practice. I think this is a good thing. When you push special teams off to the end, it makes them feel like an afterthought. Mix them in and it places more emphasis. Also, players tend to be tired by the end of practice. You want their full attention when going over blocking and coverage schemes for the kicking game. 

Fipp has a good background and was part of a good special teams unit in Miami. The Eagles have made some smart personnel additions. Now, we have to see how the new coach and his players do on the field. This part of the team doesn't get a lot of attention, but could be the difference in the Eagles winning and losing a few games in 2013.

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