April eager to boost Eagles' special teams

Bobby April calls out to special-teams players at training camp.
Bobby April calls out to special-teams players at training camp.
Posted: August 03, 2010

BETHLEHEM - When the Eagles hired Bobby April as their special-teams coordinator, they made an investment.

April is the NFL's most prominent special-teams "name." You don't bring him in - he doesn't agree to come - unless there is going to be a practice emphasis on special teams, and a roster emphasis on backups who have elite special-teams skills.

You can see that extra time being logged right now at Lehigh, and you can also see guys suddenly appearing on the scene, such as wideout Kelley Washington and recycled linebacker Tracy White, who are primarily special-teams stars.

Under Andy Reid, the Eagles have always professed a great commitment to special teams, but there have been times when that wasn't as true as they wanted it to be. Everybody remembers Rory Segrest as a first-year coordinator, and the 2007 opener at Green Bay the Birds lost because they thought they could turn anybody into a returner. Less notorious is the 2002 axing of special-teams ace Rod Smart in the final cutdown to protect Quinton Caver, a second-round linebacker the year before who flat-out couldn't play, on special teams or anywhere else. Finally, after several really bad games, the team cut Caver and brought in a special teams-savvy linebacker, Keith Adams, just in time to keep then-coordinator John Harbaugh from slitting his wrists.

Watching April, 57, hustle around the field, issuing commands and compliments - "That's the way to do it, Quintin Demps! No wonder you're a legend with the [UTEP] Miners!" - you get the sense it really won't be like that this year.

Yesterday, when asked about his pull, April gave the smart answer for any subordinate, particularly one who recently came aboard.

"Well, I would like to think that my opinion matters a lot," April said. "[But] I was told something a long time ago by my high school coach. He said that if you go into coaching, you will be a great assistant coach if you can always look through the eyes of the head coach. And that will make you a better head coach when you're a head coach. I've always tried to do that. I'm not saying I've always succeeded, but I know that sometimes you lose a guy because maybe it's just better for the overall organization. It might hurt your particular area, and sometimes that happens, because there is only so many ways you can slice up that pie . . . Certainly, I'd like to keep the best special-teams players, and I voice my opinion in keeping them, but in reality, if I can look through the eyes of the head coach, and if we're the No. 1 special teams in the league and we don't go to the playoffs, that's not necessarily good for Andy Reid. So, whatever we have to do."

Last year, under Ted Daisher, the Eagles were very good at returning punts, because of DeSean Jackson, and pretty good at returning kicks until Ellis Hobbs went down with a neck injury Nov. 8. Covering kickoffs was a yearlong adventure, often accompanied by a yellow penalty flag. The Birds' "teams" units were really young, and they made young mistakes.

The 2009 Birds ranked first in the NFL in punt returns, 13.5 yards per return. Opponents averaged only 5.9 yards per return against them, the league's third-stingiest figure. Their kickoff-return average of 20.5 yards ranked 30th, but Hobbs averaged 24.1 yards per return. Opponents returned David Akers' kickoffs an average of 23.5 yards, 21st in the NFL. Punter Sav Rocca's gross of 42.4 yards ranked 16th in the league, his net of 38.3 15th (though it set a franchise record).

The "young" part figures to be even more true this season, but even in drafting rookies the Eagles seem to have had special teams in mind, just a little.

Seventh-round rookie Jamar Chaney was the fastest linebacker at the NFL scouting combine, running the 40 in 4.54 seconds. Fifth-round rookie wideout Riley Cooper is huge (6-3, 222) and feisty, a special-teams standout waiting to be shaped. Ditto fifth-round defensive end Ricky Sapp, who is 6-4, 252 but ran a 10.76 100 meters in high school.

"Our personnel department had me look at a lot of film on these guys and they did a good job. They do a good job, and so does [director of pro personnel] Louis Riddick on that stuff," April said.

It's too early to say much about what April might change. He acknowledged yesterday that there might come a time when Reid doesn't want Jackson returning punts - April recalled that happening when he had Deion Sanders in Atlanta and Rod Woodson in Pittsburgh. And April hinted again that Ken Parrish, competing with Rocca for the punting job, might be good enough to win the competition, especially if you take into account the possibility that Parrish can kick off, saving wear and tear on the leg of Akers, who turns 36 in December.

"I think his ability to kick off could be a factor," April said, after praising both punters.

April's reputation for building elite special teams wherever he goes (most recently Buffalo, which he left when the Bills wouldn't consider him for their head-coaching opening) makes players pretty receptive to his molding.

"My first meeting with him was last night. Very detailed, animated," said White, 29, whom the Eagles let go in free agency last winter but brought back over the weekend, after trading linebacker Joe Mays to Denver. "He doesn't have to worry about guys paying attention, because he's so animated and everybody wants to see what he's doing. I told Akeem [Jordan], he was sitting beside me, 'I like him.' He's a top guy; players are going to want to play for a guy like that."

"He's got some different methods," said safety Quintin Mikell, who made his reputation as a special-teams star before becoming a starter. "With him and all the experience he's got, obviously, guys automatically trust it . . . We've always had an emphasis on special teams here, but I think the way he does things . . . there's more of an emphasis. You could see last year, it hurt us in some games. Obviously, DeSean, he helped us, but there were more opportunities we left on the field because of special teams." *

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