Bobby April is used to success.
While coordinating the special teams in Buffalo, his squad was among the league leaders year in and year out in both coverage and returns. This season, April's first in Philadelphia, is still a work in progress. The return game has yet to spark and the coverage units are still vulnerable to the big play.
One of April's challenges is to inspire a young special teams unit, and to make them understand just how important this facet of NFL football really is. Remember, most of these first- and second-year players were stars on their respective college teams, and rarely played on special teams. For some, it takes some time to fully appreciate the importance of covering a kick.
"It usually takes guys some time to get acclimated to that area a little bit more," April said. "They probably got recruited because of how they played at running back and not how they played on the punt team. They probably got drafted here by how they cover one-on-one in bump coverage than how they cover a kick.
"They've never been rewarded for playing on special teams. So I think, initially, there's a lot to overcome in terms of, 'What's in it for me when I do this?' We get to win the game. A lot of people don't grow up that way."
In need of the most immediate attention are April's coverage teams. Far too often are opposing teams making big plays in the return game, and thus making the Eagles defend a short field. While the coverage units have shown glimpses of their potential – Detroit and Jacksonville started drives, on average, at their own 22.5 yard line – it's still an unfinished product.
"I think our kickoff coverage is – we have our moments – I think it's progressively getting a little bit better," April said on Thursday. "Our starting point is pretty good. I think it will stay pretty good. We want it to be excellent. If we can stay away from penalties, which is big 'if' – in the kicking team, a big 'if' – I think we'll progressively get to where we're pretty good."
Last Sunday against the 49ers, Ted Ginn had two big returns and each of them led to a touchdown. On the opening kickoff, Ginn returned the ball 44 yards. In the fourth quarter, as the 49ers mounted a comeback, Ginn took one 61 yards. While those returns certainly stand out and the return coverage has been criticized this season, the Eagles aren't ranked in the lower third of NFL teams in kickoff coverage. They are 21st with an average return allowed of 25.6 yards.
Covering a kickoff is one of the most brutal elements to professional football. Everything happens at full speed, and the hits can be vicious. It also happens to be one of the more difficult elements to teach, simply because you never go "live" in practice (can't risk the injury). April explained that speed is paramount to success in the coverage game.
"Our number one priority I'll say on kickoff coverage is to get the guys to play as hard and as fast as they can," April said. ""That's the number one thing because you cannot be good unless you do that. There are a lot of things that are essential to be good, but that's an absolute must."
This week will provide yet another challenge for the Eagles, as the 4-1 Falcons and their solid special teams come to Lincoln Financial Field.
-- Posted by Josh Goldman, 3:33 p.m., October 14