In Sunday's Super Bowl, the impact of special teams in determining the outcome of a game was on display, as the Seattle Seahawks dominated that phase in addition to on offense and defense. Percy Harvin's kickoff return touchdown to open the second half emphatically sealed the victory, for all intents and purposes. The importance of special teams was on display in last year's Super Bowl, too, when the Ravens' Jacoby Jones' kickoff return touchdown to open the second half proved pivotal in the 34-31 win.
Rick Gosselin is a long-time sports columnist for the Dallas Morning News who covers the National Football League. At the end of every NFL season, he puts out his proprietary special teams rankings, which consists of him adding up the rankings for every team in each of the 22 special teams categories and producing a point system where the lower the number, the better. His method is considered the standard in the industry since there is no official cumulative stat sanctioned by the league.
The Eagles special teams units used to be an annual strength under John Harbaugh but had fallen on harder times since he left to become head coach of the Baltimore Ravens in 2008. The struggles culminated in 2012, when the Eagles special teams, under coach Bobby April, ranked near the bottom of the NFL in most categories and finished 28th overall in Gosselin's rankings with 427.5 points.
When new head coach Chip Kelly was hired in January 2013, he immediately pinpointed special teams as an area that had to drastically improve if the Eagles were to turn around their fortunes.
With so many NFL games decided by one score, Kelly preached the importance of special teams just as much as offense and defense. It was not just lip service, either. Kelly hired Dave Fipp away from the Miami Dolphins to be the special teams coordinator and was sure to devote nearly equal time to special teams practice during Training Camp. It was not just at the end of practice, either, which is how it had been in the past. Rather, Kelly would evenly intersperse special teams work with positional and offense-versus-defense drills, so as to make sure the players understood the emphasis and their focus remained sharp. Just as it was with the training methods and sports science program, every player bought in and showed a commitment to playing special teams - starters even took turns serving on coverage teams.
The Eagles special teams units, despite some fluctuations, were noticeably better throughout the 2013 season. The improved results were tangible as the Eagles ranked 19th overall with 374 points.
The Eagles still need to improve their kickoff returns (26th in the league at 21.4 yards per return) and punt returns (27th in the league at 6.6 yards per return), as neither resulted in any touchdowns nor repeated instances of highly advantageous field position. The kickoff coverage units still have room for improvement, as well, finishing 19th in the NFL at 23.6 yards per return, including two touchdowns allowed - most in the league. The punt coverage units were effective overall, ranking 11th in the NFL by allowing just 8.0 yards per return.
In a season where the Eagles turned over a new leaf and improved in every facet, the special teams under Fipp also showed marked progression and are primed for further improvement in 2014 and beyond.
|Fipp Flips The Special Teams|
|Stat||2013 Rank (Number)||2012 Rank (Number)||Improvement In Rank|
|Overall||19th - 374 Points||28th - 427.5 Points||+9|
|Punt Coverage||11th - 8.0 YPR||31st - 13.6 YPR||+20|
|Net Punting||8th - 40.5 YPP||30th - 36.9 YPP||+22|
|Punts Inside The 20||T-4th - 33||32nd - 15||+28|
|Giveaways||T-12th - 1||32nd - 4||+20|
|Penalties||T-2nd - 11||9th - 13||+7|