Special teams may be considered the third phase of football, but under new coordinator Dave Fipp it, too, is in the process of a facelift much like the offense and the defense.
The beauty of special teams is that in one play a team must transition from one phase to another. On a punt play, a team must pass protect until the kick is away then it shifts into covering on defense. The Eagles want to use special teams as another tool in setting the tone this season. Last year, the Eagles were in the middle of the pack when it came to punt returns ranking 13th in the league, but were 28th in kickoff returns. On the other hand, the coverage units struggled in 2012. The kickoff coverage unit was 21st in the NFL, while the punt coverage group ranked next-to-last.
"On every play someone is in control, it's either you or your opponent. As much as you can dictate the tempo, you want to do that no matter what side of the ball you're on and that's what we'll try to do on special teams," Fipp said.
To improve that standing, head coach Chip Kelly is dedicating portions of practice for Fipp's crew to fine tune the special teams units.
"That's a huge part in being successful in anything is the backing and support from the people above you," Fipp said. "Coach Kelly does a terrific job of that. He's always done a great job on the personnel side of things acquiring talent, that helps us out also. It's really been a great team effort. I'm fortunate to be a part of it."
As critical as the composition of the entire unit is, the focus on the return units center around the returners. The coaches have discussed expanding DeSean Jackson's role as a punt returner in 2013. A former Pro Bowl selection as a return specialist, Jackson had just one return in 2012 and has not scored a touchdown since the Miracle at the New Meadowlands in 2010. Fipp said that Jackson is in the mix, but his spot is not locked in stone.
"DeSean's been outstanding, but really we've asked a bunch of guys to go back there and return punts. The depth chart won't be decided in the spring here. It's going to be decided in the fall," Fipp said.
"He's been outstanding. I'm excited to work with him. At the end of the day, coaching comes down to your relationship with the players and respect. I think we have a healthy amount of respect for one another. He comes to work every day and does a great job. He's an explosive returner. We all know that, but we've got a bunch of guys on this roster who are explosive and we're looking forward to seeing what they can all do."
In addition to Jackson, Damaris Johnson, Felix Jones, Jeremy Maclin, Nick Miller and Russell Shepard have been in the punt return mix. Johnson did have a 98-yard punt return for a score as a rookie in 2012. Johnson is also in the mix for kickoff return duty with incumbent Brandon Boykin, Jones and Maclin.
"We've got a lot of potential at that position and we'll see what happens in the preseason," Fipp said. "We're going to give everybody a shot."
In his first year as a coordinator, Fipp has plenty of reasons to be optimistic. As the players have bought into the philosophies on offense and defense, they are also on board with the changes Fipp has brought to special teams.
"It's been unbelievable for me. Coach Kelly's systems, philosophies with every practice - the music, all of that stuff, the energy - has been outstanding. And then the players I get to work with are unbelievable," Fipp said. "They are a good group of guys. They bring a lot of energy every day. They work hard and they've really gotten a lot better. We're excited."
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