Special teams were a major problem for the Eagles the past two seasons. Only the field goal team consistently produced favorable results in that span, with Alex Henery converting 51 of 58 attempts. Field position has been a constant struggle, so has making big, momentum-changing plays.
The last time the Eagles returned a kickoff for a touchdown was 2008, and in 2012 the kickoff return unit ranked 28th in the NFL with a 21.0 yards-per-return average, despite being tied for the second-most attempts with 60. The kickoff coverage unit did not fare much better, allowing 24.7 yards-per-return (12th-worst in the NFL), though no touchdowns. The punt-return team ranked a respectable 13th in yards-per-return at 10.3 (which included Damaris Johnson's record 98-yard punt return touchdown against Dallas), but the punt coverage unit was dreadful by allowing 13.6 yards-per-return, second-worst in the league. The net punting average of 38.8 yards was near the bottom of the league (27th), while the amount of punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line, 15, ranked last.
Expect things to be very different in 2013 and beyond.
New head coach Chip Kelly brought with him a genuine emphasis on special teams, which he views as being just as contributory as offense and defense to a team's success. As such, a significant amount of time is devoted to special teams during practice, and not just at the end of the session when players are tired and their focus has waned.
"When you have a head coach who cares that much about special teams, players are going to care a little more about special teams," said former special teams MVP Colt Anderson. "It's a third of the game, and that's when big plays happen is in special teams. Football is about momentum, and when we can create a big play on special teams, it's going to help our team win."
To oversee the resurrection of the special teams, Kelly hired Dave Fipp, who had most recently served as assistant special teams coach for the Miami Dolphins, which boasted one of the league's best units in 2012. Fipp exudes a passion and energy that rubs off on his players and gets them excited to do the less glamorous work necessary to win football games.
"Fipp brings a lot of energy out there," safety Kurt Coleman said. "You see him, when we're covering, he's running right down there. He's an athlete. He brings it out of us, he really does, with his emotion, with his coaching style, and just what he does for us off the field. He's done a great job of getting us prepared, and really making sure that this is what's going to win us games."
"I think (Fipp's) just brought a whole different energy," Anderson said. "Guys' approach to the game feels like it's just a little different this year. We're a little more passionate about special teams."
Fipp has been equally happy so far with the effort of his charges on special teams and the results that have played out on the field through the first preseason games. Every unit is vastly improved and will be vital to giving the Eagles the best chance to win games that can turn on a single special teams play.
"Yeah, it's been fun," Fipp said. "The players have responded well. It's a great group to be around, I love coaching them and making them better. They work hard and have done everything we've asked, so it's been really fun."
For an overall unit that was perhaps marginalized the past few seasons, Kelly and Fipp have done a masterful job of getting players, backups and starters alike, to buy in, to understand the importance of special teams and the effect they have on the outcomes of games.
"It wins games, bottom line," Coleman said. "You look across the league, about 25 percent of games are decided by three points or less. So if we can win a quarter of our games because of special teams, it's going to put us in a great position to get to the playoffs and then move further in the playoffs."
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