Chip Kelly and the Eagles did better last year than anyone but the biggest Eagles homer imagined.
One big disappointment, though, was special teams performance. This is puzzling because, by all accounts, Kelly put a lot more effort into STs last year than Andy Reid ever did. He added some players (such as Jason Phillips) to the roster primarily for their special teams skills, got more starters to contribute and made STs a big part of his practices.
And yet the results were uneven at best. Punt coverage was generally excellent (aside from Detroit’s TD runback in the Snow Bowl), but kicking, kick returns and kickoff coverage were poor.
Let’s break this down a bit. It’s annoying how people discuss “special teams” as if there is one group of 11 guys who do the same things on every play. There’s a big difference between trying to block a field goal attempt, on the one hand, and punt coverage, where you start out blocking against an all-out rush of big guys and end up trying to tackle an incredibly fast, short guy in the open field.
If you really break it down, there are at least eight different special teams units — punt kick and return, kickoff and KO return, field goal kicking and defense, and extra point kicking and defense. You could say there are as many as 12 by including both sides of two-point conversion and safeties, though obviously there’s a lot of overlap between all these squads.
Oddly enough, punt coverage — the most complicated — was the Eagles’ strength, with free agent punter Donnie Jones becoming a star, and slot CB Brandon Boykin emerging as a great gunner (on top of six interceptions — second in the NFL to Richard Sherman — despite playing only in the nickel package on defense). The Eagles had the NFL’s fifth lowest percentage of punts returned last year. New free agent CB Nolan Carroll was Miami’s gunner last year and should make that unit even stronger.
The problems were in the return game, in kickoff coverage, and at kicker — Kelly’s chronic weakness, which cost him some of his rare losses at Oregon and arguably a second NCG game. It may seem odd that punt coverage and kickoff coverage, seemingly so similar, are the biggest divergence in the Eagles’ results, but to a large degree it’s the difference between Jones (a stud) and Alex Henery (aka “NoodleLeg”).
Henery’s weakness was directly involved in three of the Birds’ seven losses, including the narrow playoff loss to New Orleans (he missed a 48-yard field goal at the start of the second quarter, and his kickoff after Philadelphia took the lead with five minutes left barely got to the end zone, allowing Darren Sproles to run it back 39 yards). New Orleans won by two after that return set up the game-winning field goal, as you’ll remember.
You might say, “Well, you can’t just go out and find a good NFL kicker any time, you know. They’re rare.” Except that New Orleans did exactly that, signing Shayne Graham — a kicker who’d bumped all around the league for years, and hadn’t played all year — 17 days before the playoffs began. And Graham kicked the winning field goal as time expired.
I have trouble understanding why Kelly always seems to have a bad kicker. He doesn’t seem like the type to consider them beneath him, or unmanly, or anything like that. And yet, after five years of his otherwise-great teams suffering through bad kickers, with no improvement on the horizon, it’s getting harder and harder to say this is all bad luck or a coincidence.
Another surprising weakness was in the return game. The Eagles are loaded with fast, elusive players who are great in space — so why can’t any of them return kicks well? Aside from DeSean Jackson taking one punt to the house against Arizona — a play called back for, and maybe made possible by, a hold — the Eagles were strikingly weak last year. They finished 27th in the league for punt returns and 26th for kickoff returns.
Jackson’s walkoff punt return TD against the Giants in 2010 was named the best play in NFL history, but last year he averaged only 5.1 yards a return. Damaris Johnson was only slightly better at 8.3 yards on punts and 25.9 on kickoffs. With a long kickoff return of 33 on the season, no team fears him and it’s hard to see how he deserves a roster slot at this point (Brad Smith was actually a bit better on his four returns last year, at 26.5 yards; Boykin was a bit worse at 22.8 YPR, but had a long of 41).
Johnson seems to be fading out of the league, but with consistent weakness among several talented and fast runners, you have to suspect that the blocking schemes are as much to blame as the individual runners. Whatever the reason is, return weakness meant that Kelly’s impressive offense should actually have done better, since the team had further to go before scoring (and field goals were a problem). On average, offensive drives began at the 27.7-yard line. That’s middle of the pack, but it’s boosted by the Eagles’ strength at takeaways. After kickoffs, they started at the 21.8-yard line — 20th in the league.
Henery’s low touchback percentage obviously hurt kickoff coverage, but weak tackling played a big part, as well. With those two factors combined, the Eagles were 27th in the NFL for opponents’ starting position after kickoffs, at 23.26. They are the only team in the NFL that gave up two (or more) kick return touchdowns. Sproles’s return set up New Orleans’ winning field goal, and was made worse because Cary Williams’ horse-collar tackle — probably necessary to stop a touchdown — gave the Saints another 15 yards.
Coverage problems were a big part of the loss against Minnesota. Even in a dome, the team couldn’t count on Henery to kick touchbacks, and Coach Kelly changed the entire kickoff strategy to minimize the risk of Cordarrelle Patterson running back a TD. You can argue that Kelly’s strategy worked pretty well — Minnesota’s starting field position wasn’t much better than usual on most drives, and in fact Patterson did not run one back.
But Minnesota scored in bunches on a defense that had held down much better teams, and the simple fact that the whole game plan had to change to accommodate Henery’s weakness is just unacceptable. It’s not like he’s a brilliant RB who fumbles a bit too often. There is no upside to his game. He’s simply subpar.
The coaching staff has already made a number of moves during the off-season to improve this weakness. Unfortunately, upgrading the kicker isn’t likely to be one of them. Carey “Murderleg” Spears might deserve a spot on special teams because of his hell-bent-for-election tackling, but he has been notably worse than Henery during the OTA kicking ‘competition.’
Two of the team’s most promising ST pickups last year — Phillips and Travis Long — missed the season while recovering from ACL tears. The team aggressively sought special teams free agents, as well, notably Chris Maragos (a leader on Seattle’s squad) and Bryan Braman, the agreeably insane helmetless tackler from Houston. Having seen Sproles’s damage up close last year, the Eagles signed him, too, which should help the return unit. And Carroll is another great gunner, as noted above.
Rookies Marcus Smith, Jordan Matthews, Josh Huff and Jaylen Watkins should all contribute, as well. You can’t say the Eagles aren’t making moves to improve the unit. They’ve invested a lot of roster slots and practice time to improving these crucial plays.
These efforts should pay off this year. If they don’t, special teams coach Dave Fipp may be on the hot seat. He looks great on paper and has a frighteningly intense gaze, but he’s the one responsible for schemes and for putting it all together. If the results don’t materialize after two years of intense effort and investment, the Eagles might have to look at hiring someone else for 2015.
Main photo by Chuck Stanley