Bobby April's first order of business as the special teams coordinator of the Eagles is to review every snippet of game action from the 2009 season, and maybe even from a year or two before that, and then begin the evaluation process. April is going to find that he has quite a bit to work with as the Eagles look to take their special teams to the elite level in the NFL.
They've been there before. John Harbaugh's special teams ranked first in overall rankings in 2001 and 2003 according to Rick Gosselin's thorough grading system that he publishes annually in the Dallas Morning News. Gosselin's rankings are not yet completed for the 2009 season, but if the statistics the league releases on a weekly basis are an accurate indication, the Eagles will list somewhere in the middle. The Eagles were 14th in the NFL in receiving kickoffs and average drive start (26.2-yard line) and 21st in kickoff coverage (average opponents' drive start, 27.1-yard line). Sav Rocca's 38.3-yard net punting average ranked 14th in the league. DeSean Jackson led the NFL in punt return average with 15.2 yards per return.
Some up. Some down.
Where the Eagles really hurt themselves on special teams was in the penalty department. The team had the second-highest number of special-teams penalties called, 26 for 228 yards of losses. By comparison, Atlanta had the fewest special-teams penalties, losing only 50 yards on 6 measly penalties called.
Not that penalties called against the special teams are an indication of a Super Bowl-bound team. Atlanta, Miami, Kansas City, San Diego, Detroit and Tampa Bay were the fewest-penalized teams in the league on special teams and only San Diego made the playoffs. Green Bay, the Eagles and Baltimore were among the six-highest penalized teams on special teams.
Still, it is something to improve upon here. April's Bills, to be fair, had 22 penalties against the special teams in 2009. In 2008, it was a different story for the Bills. In a season when the Bills earned Gosselin's top ranking in his special teams statistical comparison, Buffalo's special teams were penalized 11 times, the fourth-fewest in the NFL.
"If you make a commitment to him personnel-wise and practice time-wise," said Gosselin, "you will have the league's best special teams group. If you trust Bobby to do it, he will get it done for you. He is a very upbeat guy, very energetic. His special teams don't make mistakes. He has them drilled like a machine. They are good in all aspects. When you are in the top five consistently, as Bobby has been in his career, you don't have deficiencies."
Gosselin didn't see the Eagles special teams as alarmingly bad, but he understands why Andy Reid made the change from Ted Daisher to April.
"When you have a chance to hire a guy like Bobby April, you do it. They said, 'Here is one of the best two or three guys in the business, let's go get him.' I didn't think special teams was that big of a problem last year for the Eagles, but they had a chance to get an elite guy and they went after him and got him. These kinds of coaches aren't available very often."
April really won't know what he has to work with on special teams until the 53-man roster is established after the final preseason game in the summer. He knows that David Akers remains an elite kicker with plenty of power in his left leg. Long snapper Jon Dorenbos had a virtually flawless 2009 season, as did holder Rocca. That threesome is a finely-tuned machine and Akers is in a groove -- he made 32 of 37 field goals and scored 139 points, second-most in the league and second-most in his Eagles career -- and is on his way to his fourth Pro Bowl.
Rocca's distance doesn't rank with the biggest of the big boomers in the league but when you look at kickers who play in the Northeast or in cold-weather climates, Rocca is right there. Yes, he could be more consistent and with added work on his technique, Rocca should take another step in 2010.
Jackson, of course, is a game-breaking punt return man. He is as good as they come in this league, and the early indication is that April wants to keep Jackson in that role, in addition to his responsibility within the offense.
Kickoffs are a different story. After Ellis Hobbs was injured, the kickoff return success dropped significantly and the Eagles have to look at this phase of special teams very closely. Hobbs is expected to make a full medical recovery, and if there is no Collective Bargaining Agreement, as anticipated, he would be a restricted free agent. Would he be a good fit to return?
Coverage wise, the Eagles were OK on special teams, but they didn't establish that standout stopper. Joe Mays and Tracy White were terrific. Akeem Jordan has always been good on teams. Quintin Demps made a lot of plays before suffering an ankle injury. But wouldn't it be a mark of April's impact to develop a player who is a Pro Bowl cover man?
We'll see about that. April's Eagles must play with more discipline and precision and certainly more explosiveness. No matter how the numbers ranked, it sure seemed as though the Eagles gave up too much prime real estate on special teams because of penalties. At one point early on, it really felt like just about every kick or return was marred by a yellow flag.
The Eagles devote much of their training camp practice schedule and their in-season work time to special teams. April has the practice commitment, as Gosselin said he needed. The personnel part is off to a great start with Jackson, Akers and Rocca, but the core group won't be fully known until that week before the regular season begins.
It is time to make special teams special again. The third phase of the game has gotten, it appears, the kind of boost nobody expected with April now in town.