Nothing special about this group in 2012

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Dave Fipp, Eagles' special-teams coach, has work cut out for him.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Dave Fipp, Eagles' special-teams coach, has work cut out for him.
Posted: June 02, 2013

DAVE FIPP has looked at all of the gruesome tape and digested all of the ugly numbers.

He knows all too well that Bill Davis isn't the only new Eagles coordinator taking over a unit that qualified for federal disaster relief last season.

So is Fipp, the new boss of a special-teams group that pooped its pants every bit as badly as a defense that gave up a franchise-record 33 touchdown passes during last season's 4-12 debacle.

How bad were the Eagles' special teams? Let me count the ways:

* They finished 28th overall in Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin's annual rankings of the league's special teams.

* They were 28th in kickoff return average (21.0). Only seven of their 60 kickoff returns gained 30 or more yards.

* They finished 13th in punt return average (10.3), thanks mainly to rookie Damaris Johnson's 98-yard touchdown return in the second Dallas game. Remove that from the equation and the Eagles' average drops to 7.7. Only five of their 29 other punt returns gained 14 or more yards.

* They finished 31st in punt coverage (13.6), giving up 13 returns of 14 yards or more.

* They finished 21st in kickoff coverage (24.7), allowing 13 returns of 30 or more yards, including five of 40-plus yards.

* Punter Mat McBriar was last in the league in net average (36.5). He put a league-low 13 of 55 attempts inside the 20.

* The only special-teams bright spot was kicker Alex Henery, who converted 27 of 31 field goal attempts on the heels of an impressive 24-for-27 rookie season. But even Henery's season had a blemish. He finished 19th in touchback percentage (39.9 percent).

Understandably, Fipp, 37, who is running his first special-teams show after spending the last 5 years as a special-teams assistant with Miami (2011-12) and San Francisco (2008-10), isn't terribly interested in dredging up the past.

"I know we have work to do," he said. "I'm not going to talk about the past. That's on film. Everybody can see that. I'm sure there are a number of reasons for that, but it doesn't matter.

"We're going to make improvement. That's our job. We want to be sound, smart and relentless."

For what it's worth, and Chip Kelly obviously think it's worth a lot or he wouldn't have hired Fipp, the Dolphins' special teams were pretty damn good during the 2 years Fipp worked under coordinator Darren Rizzi.

They finished second in Gosselin's 2011 rankings and fourth last year. Marcus Thigpen was fourth in the league in both kickoff returns (27.4) and punt returns (12.2) last season.

Punter Brandon Fields was first in gross average and sixth in net average. Kicker Dan Carpenter nailed 19 of 22 field goal attempts from 40-plus yards.

The lack of productivity by the Eagles' special teams, along with the defense's inability to force turnovers - they had a league-low 13 takeaways, only six in the final 12 games - made life difficult for a turnover-plagued offense that forever seemed to be dealing with a long field.

The Eagles finished 27th in average field position (25.2). That's the lowest they've been ranked in at least 2 decades. Only 19 of their 185 possessions started at their 40-yard line or better, including only 12 in the final 12 games. One hundred twelve of their 185 possessions, or 60 percent, started at no better than their 25.

The ripple effect: the worst turnover rate in the NFL - one giveaway every 29.1 plays - and only two touchdown drives of less than 60 yards the entire season. And both of those came in their Week 2 win over the eventual Super Bowl-champion Ravens.

As with the defense, there would appear to be nowhere to go but up for the Eagles' special teams.

"I love this time of year," Fipp said. "You get to coach players and make them better. You have to do it in a short period of time, but you definitely can make football players better football players. If you give them skills and techniques that help make them better, they will embrace it and love what you're doing. We've had that response from these guys."

In theory at least, the switch from a 4-3 defensive scheme to a 3-4 hybrid should help improve the Eagles' special teams since it will increase the number of linebackers who will be activated on game days. Linebackers typically make the best special-teams players because of the blend of speed, power and tackling ability they bring to the table.

"If you run a 3-4 system, what it really comes down to [for special teams] is who are the third and fourth outside linebackers on game day," Fipp said.

"I can sit here and give you a [special-teams] argument for every [defensive] system. At the end of the day, though, it comes down to who are those players and how are they going to match up against our opponents."

The Eagles' added four potential special-teams contributors in the draft in second-round tight end Zach Ertz, fifth-round safety Earl Wolff, seventh-round cornerback Jordan Poyer and seventh-round outside linebacker Joe Kruger.

They also let McBriar walk and signed free-agent punter Donnie Jones, a former Pro Bowler with a 45.6-yard career average.

If the Eagles hope to solve the field position problem this season and make life a little easier for their offense, they must find a way to get better production from their return game.

Cornerback Brandon Boykin, the Eagles' primary kickoff returner last year, finished 22nd in kickoff return average (23.0).

The Eagles will look at several kick returners in training camp and the preseason, including newcomer Arrelious Benn, a 6-2, 220-pound wide receiver who was acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay, and running back Bryce Brown, along with Boykin.

The Eagles have had several players fielding punts in OTAs, including Johnson and wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson.

Jackson obviously is the best of the bunch. He has a 10.5-yard career average with four touchdowns. But he's been used sparingly as a returner since leading the league in punt returns in '09, mainly because of fear of injury and tiring him out.

He returned only one punt last season, 17 the year before and 20 the year before that.

Given the physical demands of Kelly's uptempo offense, it seems unlikely he'll use Jackson a lot on punt returns this season, unless he plans to reducing his offensive snaps, which is doubtful.

"Obviously, DeSean has a great background [as a punt returner]," Fipp said. "It's well-documented. Everybody's seen the explosive plays, myself included. I've been on the other side of them.

"He's a great returner. He has a bunch to offer. But as to what his exact role will be on game day, it's hard for me to tell you at this point. Ask me again in three months."


Email: pdomo@aol.com

On Twitter: @Pdomo

Blog: eagletarian.com

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