Dave Fipp is the best special teams coordinator in the National Football League for many reasons, one of which is that he prepares for everything. And in the case of the new rules in the league regarding special teams, specifically the kickoff, Fipp knows he has to be more prepared than he's ever been to handle such an unknown commodity.
"The changes," Fipp is saying at the NovaCare Complex after practice last week, "are significant. The kickoff and kickoff return plays are not the same. We're all going to have to adapt. All 32 special teams coaches are facing the same thing."
In case you missed it, the league's efforts to make the game safer for the players extends deep into special teams. The kickoff game, already an endangered species in the NFL, will be closely evaluated this season as the league looks to reduce concussions. The rate of concussions on kickoffs is far higher than on non-kickoff plays says the league through its many studies, so some new rules are going into place effective immediately.
- For the kicking team, there are no running starts permitted any longer. In the past, players were able to start at the 30-yard line and get a running start to the 35-yard line as the ball was kicked. Not anymore. The idea is to reduce the speed of the collision with the return team's blockers. The return team could have more big-play opportunities with the coverage team not down the field as fast as previously.
- For the return team, eight players must line up outside the 40-yard line instead of lining up closer to their goal line. Fipp says this rule will require smaller players on the field to sprint back toward their goal line and flip back to turn and face the coverage teams and block.
- There are only three players deep on the return side, and they will have to cover a lot of ground. Smaller, faster players will be needed here, too. Also, there are no "wedge" or double-team blocks permitted. Already limited to a two-man wedge block since 2009, the return team now cannot engage in any wedge blocks.
- There is no blocking within the first 15 yards of the kickoff. Players running down on kickoff coverage have a less likely chance of being blindsided now that they'll have a better idea of how the blocking scheme looks as they are running down the field.
- The return team no longer needs to catch the football and kneel in the end zone. If a ball touches the ground in the end zone, it's an automatic touchback and the offense starts at the 25-yard line.
What does it all mean?
"It's going to be a faster play. I think there's going to make for more action," Fipp said. "At the end of the day, I think it's going to be an exciting play. I don't know for sure whether there will be more returns or less. Time will tell on that.
"What we've decided to do is just run a million different things. Each week we've installed three or four different returns and we go to the practice field and run them and see what we like and don't like and then keep coming up with more ideas and seeing how they look. We just learn more and more things the more we do it."
Compounding the challenge for Fipp and special teams coordinators around the league is that rosters aren't set until just before the regular season begins, which impacts personnel packages in the kickoff game so there is going to be some not-so-subtle scrambling happening in those first few weeks of the season. Teams aren't going to have answers going in, only ideas.
"It's going to be fun and challenging," Fipp said. "We're all in the same situation, and we all know we have a lot of work ahead of us."
It helps Fipp that the Eagles devote so much time to special teams, and that preparation in practice has clearly paid off in games. Last year's Super Bowl-winning team changed out the long snapper, as Rick Lovato replaced Jon Dorenbos, and then turned to placekicker Jake Elliott when Caleb Sturgis was injured in Week 1. The Eagles also lost punt return dynamo Darren Sproles, and in came Kenjon Barner to win a Special Teams Player of the Week Award for his performance in the victory over Arizona.
The Eagles re-signed Sproles when the draft ended, and Fipp couldn't be happier about that.
"I love it. He's one of the truly great punt returners this game has ever had," Fipp said. "I'm obviously thrilled to have him back. At the same time, we've got a bunch of young guys at a bunch of competitive positions on this roster that I'm really excited about."
One of those young players is Cameron Johnston, the lone punter on the current roster. Fipp says Johnston, who was here last summer through the preseason, has made promising improvement.
"I thought he had a great preseason a year ago. He really worked hard throughout the course of the season. That was evident when he came back here," Fipp said. "He's done a great job. At the end of the day, Cam knows that it's a competitive situation just like all these players know. There may not be another player here right now, but we're obviously looking at every single punter that's out there. Some teams have two right now. At the end of the day, we're going to make the best decision for the Philadelphia Eagles.
"I'm thrilled to death about Cam. He's really come a long ways and I think he's got a chance to be a really good player."