For all of the comparisons made between current Eagles head coach Doug Pederson and former head coach Andy Reid in the past year, dominance on special teams has gone under the radar.
From 2000-05, under then-coordinator John Harbaugh, the Eagles' special teams unit finished in the top 10 of the league five times, according to Dallas Morning News columnist and Pro Football Hall of Fame voter Rick Gosselin's annual rankings which are the considered to be the standard by which all teams are judged. In two of those six years, the Eagles were atop the NFL leaderboard.
On Wednesday, Gosselin released his final tally for the 2016 season. Special teams coordinator Dave Fipp's crew came in first for the second time in three years (2014). The Eagles have been in the top five in all three of those campaigns.
"There's been a long legacy of playing really well on special teams here with the Eagles," Fipp said by phone on Wednesday, just moments after receiving the news that the Eagles came in first. "I think we inherited some of that legacy and it's been passed down from the guys way before us. We're just picking up the flag and carrying it further. I think there's definitely a standard and an expectation that when you're playing special teams for this organization you have to play at a high level. That really has nothing to do with me. It's set by guys who played a long time ago and then it's set from the very top of the organization, by Mr. (Jeffrey) Lurie, and it all trickles down."
The Eagles impacted the game in every way on special teams this past season. The Eagles ranked second in the NFL with a franchise-record 27.3-yard per kickoff return average, thanks to a promising rookie year from Wendell Smallwood. Philadelphia led the league with five kickoff returns of 50-plus yards, and was the only team with multiple kickoff return touchdowns. The Eagles also finished second in punt return average (12.9 yards per return) with Darren Sproles leading the way. Another benefit from the special teams unit was that the Eagles had the best field position following a kickoff on both offense (27.2-yard line) and defense (22.7-yard line) in 2016.
Kicker Caleb Sturgis also made history for the Eagles' special teams. In his first full season with the team, he connected on 35 field goals, both a career high as well as the most by any Eagle in a single season. Sturgis began Training Camp in a battle with Cody Parkey, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2014 but was placed on Injured Reserve with a groin injury the following season. Sturgis won the job and Fipp is excited about the future with him.
"I think he's a heck of a talent," Fipp said. "I felt like when we got him we were fortunate to get him. It's unfortunate the situation with Cody, how we got (Sturgis). I thought he did a great job. I think he can improve and get better. I think the biggest part of that is he thinks that and feels that way. I think he has a chance to do that, and I'm excited about the future with him."
Fipp arrived in Philadelphia in 2013 along with punter Donnie Jones, who has set numerous franchise records since his arrival. In 2014, the Eagles added Sproles, a two-time Pro Bowl selection as a return specialist; Chris Maragos, Bryan Braman, and Trey Burton. It should come as no surprise that in the last year two-time Pro Bowl long snapper Jon Dorenbos, the longest-tenured Eagle; Jones, Maragos, and Sproles have all received contract extensions.
"The most important thing is that the young guys buy into what the older guys do. The older guys really teach those guys our standard and expectations. All of those guys individually are very prideful players. It doesn't really matter what the job is, they are going to take pride in it," Fipp said.
"I've been fortunate to be a part of a group of guys who really have high standards, expectations of themselves. Because of that it's much easier for me. Those guys all want to be great players and they're self-driven. That's probably the biggest secret to the whole thing is finding guys who want to be great both individually and collectively."
The Eagles' recent success on special teams under Fipp has set the tone for what's expected out of the players from the time they arrive for the start of the offseason conditioning program in April. At the same time, though, Fipp has to hit the reset button. The core players are for the most part in place. Veterans who have been starters for a long time - tight end Brent Celek and safety Malcolm Jenkins, for example - are willing to do their part on special teams. But Fipp will have to rely upon the group of players who are on the roster bubble every year. There will be new faces - some rookies, some veterans - who will make their living on special teams in 2017. And it's up to Fipp to maintain that level of excellence.
"Last year means nothing. Rankings are nice, but at the end of the day it really means nothing. The bottom line for us is we want to contend as a team for championships and playoffs. We've got a lot of work ahead of us to get there," Fipp said. "Fortunately, we do have some great players to start with, but we've got a lot of work to do both in acquiring players and also bringing the best out of the players that we've got in this building. We're excited about the future. We're excited to get to work here."