One of the Eagles best offseason moves was hiring special teams coach Bobby April when he became available. April is among the best special teams gurus in the NFL over the last decade. Plenty of people will tell you he is the best at what he does.
John Harbaugh was a terrific special teams coach for the Eagles for a long time. His successors, Rory Segrest and Ted Daisher, were not so successful. Some things did go right, but they felt more like individual talent than top flight coaching. David Akers remains one of the best kickers around. DeSean Jackson is the most explosive punt returner in the league. I don't think we can pin their success on Segrest or Daisher.
Andy Reid jumped on the chance to hire April, an old coaching buddy and friend. Everyone hailed the move as outstanding. April won over the players instantly with his positive personality and ability as a teacher. April won over fans and the media with his press conferences. You never know where his comments will go. He'll talk and talk, which is okay because he's always engaging.
Things were great for April and the Eagles until the preseason games began. We've seen a pair of poor performances. David Akers has been terrific, but the rest of the group needs a lot of work. The coverage units have been burned on punts and kickoffs. The tackling has been sloppy. There have been big running lanes. Returners Quintin Demps and Chad Hall have found tough sledding due to poor blocking. What the heck is going on? I thought we hired Bobby April to solve these problems.
There isn't one thing to point to, but rather a combination of factors. Start with the fact that we made a change. April is the fourth special teams coach in four years. He left the basic system in place, but players still have to adjust to the way he does things and the way he wants things done. Special teams players are at a disadvantage in training camp. They don't get live reps. Teams fear injuries so all the coverage and return units practice without full hitting. April is doing a lot of teaching, but his pupils have to wait for games to put his lessons into action. They make corrections during the next week of practice and then have to wait for the next game to see what got fixed and what didn't.
April is learning. He's not using his own system. He figured it would be easier for him to adjust than all the players. Also, Bobby came here from Buffalo. The Bills had one of the least physical camps in the NFL over the last few years. That meant players had pretty fresh legs for special teams practices and in the preseason games. Coming to the Eagles must have been a culture shock. We run very hard, physical practices. You know guys are dragging by the time the afternoon rolls around and April is coaching them.
One problem we have is a lack of special teams stars. You normally look for backup DBs or LBs or maybe a DE or TE to be a standout on the coverage units. Ike Reese was great for years. Quintin Mikell was outstanding before he became a starter on defense. Remember Jason Short? He was nuts, but a good special teamer. Last year Tracy White was one of our key guys. He's back, but doesn't seem to be playing as well. Joe Mays developed into a good coverage player. Now he's gone.
There are some players who can become really good for us. The problem is that most of them are rookies. I think Clay Harbor, Keenan Clayton, and Riley Cooper can all be standouts on special teams. That is 3 physical guys who can run and who aren't afraid to mix it up. You watch them now and see a mixture of potential, mistakes, and confusion. Adjusting to life in the NFL is hard, even on special teams. The speed of the game is hard for rookies to handle initially. Clayton is a fast, athletic player. You can see that his head is swimming on special teams snaps. So much happens so fast that it can be overwhelming. That will change with time.
We do need to keep in mind that guys are being shuffled in and out. There is no continuity. We're trying to get a look at as many players as possible. You never know who will win a job by making a special teams play. It could be a skill player, LB, or even a big guy.
I'm hoping that Omar Gaither emerges as a force on special teams this year. He hasn't always embraced that role and attitude/effort is a big part of special teams success. Kurt Coleman is only a rookie, but he's already shown excellent potential. He looks like a natural out there on special teams. I think he'll become a key guy for us pretty soon. Rookie Trevard Lindley has had good moments, but I'm not sure he'll even be active on game days. Dimitri Patterson is a very good gunner. He'll help our punt coverage units quite a bit. Offensive backups Eldra Buckley and Jason Avant were solid last year on special teams and should help this season as well. Moise Fokou remains a mystery man. He flashed excellent ability last year, but hasn't had a good summer. He was a penalty machine last year. Unfortunately I'm seeing the same kind of wild, overly-aggressive style of play this year.
The return units have been up and down. Chad Hall showed good potential in the first game, but was too quiet last week. He's smart and technically sound, but we need to see what he can do with the ball. He's got 2 games left to make his case. DeSean Jackson is a deadly punt returner that changes everything the moment he settles in 40 yards downfield. Teams fear him getting the ball so they plan and act accordingly. In a fantasy world it would be great to have someone else take over as the primary punt returner and then just mix in Jackson when we really needed a big play. Neither Hall nor anyone else has shown (so far) that they deserve playing time during real games.
Kickoff returner is a more muddled picture. Ellis Hobbs is one of the best in the league. Do we risk him out there since he's the starter at RCB? Returning kickoffs is more dangerous than punts. All the coverage players get going at full speed on kickoffs. No one is there to block them right from the snap. Punts can be fair caught. A lot of them are directional kicks where the returner is pinned along the sideline and can be forced out of bounds. The punt itself can go out of bounds. Kickoffs usually result in a return and a violent collision.
I hope we go with someone other than Hobbs. Our depth at CB makes me nervous. I think Quintin Demps can be a good kickoff returner. He showed a lot of promise back in 2008 and even last year in limited attempts. He averages more than 25 yards per return for his career. He has 1 TD. Demps has taken 6 kickoffs back for returns of 40 or more yards. Hobbs is the better returner, but I think Demps is the wiser choice.
I haven't mentioned Jeremy Maclin yet. He was a star on punts and kickoffs while at Missouri. Maclin looked lost last year when he was tried as a returner. I'd be okay with mixing him in, but I haven't seen anything out of him that makes me think he'd be an upgrade. I'm still shocked that he's so quickly become a good receiver, but struggled so much as a returner. That's the exact opposite of what I thought would happen.
David Akers is 8 of 8 on his field goal attempts. He's got too many attempts, but that's an offensive issue. Akers is nailing his kicks and looks in midseason form. Sav Rocca hasn't gotten a lot of work so far. He wasn't used in the opener. As for the second game, it is hard to punt when your QBs keep throwing interceptions. Again, that's an offensive issue.
Special teams remains a work in progress. We've got the raw talent to be pretty good. Bobby April has a great track record. He'll keep coaching and working until he gets his guys playing at a high level. We need some guys to step it up on the coverage units. Coleman and Gaither can be two key guys for us. Tracy White can be a big help if he makes the team. I like our returners. We just need to get them some blocking.
I don't know how soon April will get the kinks ironed out. We used to be able to count on special teams as a part of the game we'd win. That hasn't been the case in recent years. That will change. I just hope it's sooner rather than later.
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For those who want to read a lengthy review of the Bengals game, I've got it posted here. Let's hope the Eagles fare better this week. I'll be very disappointed if we struggle at Kansas City.