The emphasis head coach Chip Kelly places on special teams is evident throughout the course of a practice. Sessions are dedicated to special teams early and often during practice, not just at the end when players are physically and mentally drained. During these special teams sessions, players are doing drills such as the punt returners will hold tennis balls to force them to use their bodies to catch the ball.
Kelly may be a first-year head coach in the NFL, but he understands the thin margin between winning and losing. He cited a stat on Sunday that each team will have four games decided by three points or fewer over the course of a season. Looking at the Eagles, the number certainly holds true. Over the past three seasons, the Eagles have had 12 games (four per year) decided by three points or fewer.
As Kelly seeks any edge possible, he looks to special teams, commonly referred to as the third phase, as a potential difference-maker.
"I think if you just look at one phase of the game as just an afterthought, you know, as we talk about it, is, 'if you accept it, expect it,'" Kelly said unearthing another Chipism. "If you accept your guys kind of going through special teams mediocre because as a staff it's not a big emphasis for you, when you go out on Sundays and don't play well in the kicking game, you have nobody to blame by yourself. We're going to put a huge emphasis on it.
"When you play in this league, the talent level is so close, and margin of victory is so close, that anything we have a chance to affect the outcome of the game and special teams is a huge part of that, we're going to spend time on it."
Kelly hired special teams coordinator Dave Fipp, who spent the past two seasons in Miami helping overhaul the Fins special teams units. Three years ago, Miami ranked 24th in the NFL in special teams. With Fipp as an assistant special teams coach, the Dolphins finished second and fourth, respectively, over the past two seasons, according to Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin's compilation which is considered the standard in the NFL.
A unique area where Kelly wants to improve the special teams is decision-making. Kelly stresses the fundamentals of the game and when it comes to ultimately determining the punt returner it may be decided by the thought process of when to catch the ball instead of the actual return factor.
"Part of being great in special teams is I think anything from the catch on is a bonus. But you've got to catch a ball. There are so many hidden yards when the returner doesn't catch the ball, and all of a sudden now the other team gets an extra 15 yards because of the roll, where if we had just kept the ball off the ground, we're going to be 15 yards better than we were," Kelly said. "So a lot of being a great punt returner is being a great decision-maker. Can you go get it? There are times in games where I believe at the college level we've won games because our returners just fair caught six punts, and didn't let the ball roll."
Fair catches don't sound exciting, but winning does. And if gaining a few extra yards over the course of the game with a fair catch help keep the Eagles on the plus side in those games decided by three points, fans will be cheer that on.
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