The field position game is critical in the NFL and there is perhaps no weapon more underrated or underappreciated than the punter. That is no longer the case in Philadelphia with head coach Chip Kelly running the show. The 2013 Eagles punt teams expect to be vastly improved from 2012, when they ranked 27th in net punting average (38.8), 31st in punt return defense (13.6 yards per return) and dead last in punts downed inside the opponent's 20-yard line (15).
In fact, with Kelly's increased emphasis on special teams, he and special teams coordinator Dave Fipp made it a priority during the offseason to acquire a pedigreed punter with a history of success. After two-time All-Pro Donnie Jones' entrance into free agency, he became the Eagles' target and the two sides quickly reached an agreement on a one-year deal. Jones was encouraged by his initial meetings with Kelly and Fipp before signing and appreciates how special teams are treated by the coaching staff.
"There's a huge emphasis put on special teams here, and I think that's really important because it's a huge part of the game," Jones said. "Coach Fipp and his assistant, Coach (Matthew) Harper, they're very well prepared. ... Everything is set up for us to go on the field and have the best chance to succeed. ... We're working (special teams) hard, and hopefully it will be a big asset for us this season.
"(Chip Kelly) is in just about all of the (special teams meetings). In talking with him, especially when I signed and throughout Training Camp, he puts a big value on it, and a huge emphasis on it."
As a member of the Houston Texans last season, Jones ranked 11th in the NFL in punting average (47.2 yards per punt) and 13th in net average (40.5), with 28 of his 88 punts being downed inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Even as a vested veteran with a track record in the league, Jones was not simply handed the starting job with the Eagles. The team brought in rookie free agent punter Brad Wing to compete for the position, which forced Jones to up his game. Jones has been booming punts throughout Training Camp practices and preseason games, to the tune of a 48.3 yards-per-punt average and 43.3 net average, with two of his four punts downed inside the 20-yard line (his first punt, against the Patriots, was downed at the 1-yard line). As a result of his performance, Jones emerged victorious in the competition and is now the Eagles' unquestioned punter going into the regular season.
Jones explained that the key to his success with the collaboration of his punts and the coverage units.
"I think it's always a combination," Jones said. "Of course, you have to give the guys punts to cover, and then it's the 10 other guys going down there and making plays. Again, the emphasis that's put on that here, plus-50 punting, is a huge part of it. We have a very talented group, so I look forward to continuing to work and hopefully making the punting aspect a strength of this team this year."
Perhaps the biggest issue that contributed to the Eagles' punting woes the past few seasons was a lack of hang time on punts, which prohibited gunners and other members of the coverage team from getting down the field in time to make a play.
"We're shooting for 4.5 seconds, anything over 4.5 seconds," Jones said. "You want to have a decent punt, 40-50 yards in 4.5 seconds, but anytime you can get more - the longer it hangs, of course, the better chance your guys have of getting down there and covering it."
Jones and the punt coverage teams have been a bright spot so far in the preseason, and the Eagles will rely on them to continue their positive impact on the team's fortunes moving forward.
Make sure to follow us on Twitter @EaglesInsider