Special teams is often the overlooked part of football. Coaches will tell you that football is one-third offense, one-third defense, and one-third kicking game. Fans tend to only notice when things go very right or very wrong, as they did with kickoff coverage against the Giants. David Wilson had acres of running room and came close to taking a couple of kickoffs all the way back. The Giants were greatly aided by field position in that game. No one was overlooking special teams after that.
The Eagles cut linebacker Brian Rolle for his atrocious kickoff coverage on Sunday night. He was in preseason mode. Unfortunately, it was the final Sunday in September. You can get away with a sloppy night of play during the summer, but not the season. The point isn't that cutting Rolle will make kickoff coverage great. It was a wake-up call to other players. Do your jobs or you'll hit the bricks too.
The Eagles added linebacker Adrian Moten to replace Rolle. Moten didn't talk about his goal to become a starter or Pro Bowl linebacker. He embraced the idea that he was here to cover kicks and punts. He was here to block for returners. Moten will live and die on special teams. Down the road, he might get a shot at defense, but his primary mission is to block and tackle in the kicking game.
The most critical need for successful special teams play is attitude. Players must want to be out there. They must go full speed and give maximum effort. You cannot succeed on special teams if you are being casual. That's exactly what Rolle did and the tape shows a guy who either got blocked too easily or failed to make tackles. Other than that he was great. Ugh.
So what is up with special teams? Bobby April is a guru. Why hasn't he had more success? There are a combination of factors. First up is April. Something isn't clicking in the way he's doing things. I don't know what that is. April has been a special teams coach in the NFL for 20 years. He knows what he is doing. His ideas are fine. You wonder about communication and motivation. What is it that isn't getting through to the players? I suppose age could be an issue. He turned 59 in the spring. Special teams is generally more of a young coach's area. That's just a guess, though. I really don't know what he's doing that isn't working.
The players absolutely have a piece of this. Let's start with the coverage units. When the Eagles were so good under John Harbaugh they had great special teamers like Ike Reese and Quintin Mikell. Those guys made plays. They were also leaders. There were also guys like Sean Morey, Jason Short, Dameane Douglas, and Je'Rod Cherry who were outstanding. Heck, Brian Westbrook was a good special teams player as a rookie (the last time he ever covered a kick).
The Eagles hoped certain players would develop into core special teams players in recent years. Jaiquawn Jarrett, Owen Schmitt, Casey Matthews, Rolle, and Clay Harbor were some of the guys who should have been great. Matthews did play well last year, which is what earned him reps on defense at the end of the season. Matthews has been okay this year, but isn't playing like a special teams demon. He should stand out.
There are some good players. Riley Cooper is highly underrated as a cover guy. Akeem Jordan is always willing to go down and bust heads on special teams. Colt Anderson was a revelation in 2010, but then got hurt last year. If he's healthy and Jordan is able to concentrate on special teams, that is a key duo. Jordan was starting on defense for a few weeks. He's battling an injury right now.
Some young Eagles show reason for hope. Stanley Havili looks like he'll be good on special teams. Schmitt was a major disappointment. Phillip Hunt is actually better on special teams than defense right now. Bryce Brown and Chris Polk are young guys that must pick up the pace. Curtis Marsh is up and down. He seems better on kickoffs than punts. I don't know that you can call Brandon Hughes young, but he's a key guy on covering punts.
I think the coverage units will come together as Anderson gets closer to 100 percent and the young guys figure things out. Moten can help a lot if he'll do his job and if his presence serves as a reminder to other players about the importance of doing a good job on special teams if they want to keep their job with the Eagles.
The return game is much more of a mystery to me. Many people beg for DeSean Jackson to return to the punt returner spot. They point to all the touchdowns. The problem is that Jackson regressed as a returner. Last year he averaged just 6.7 yards per return. He had one long return. Take that out and he was down at four yards per return. He had a costly fumble against the Bears that hurt the Eagles in that loss. The guy from 2008 and 2009 was great. He was still dangerous in 2010, but more erratic. Last year he became a weakness.
Jackson was greatly affected by his contract situation. That is cleared up now and he's doing a great job at wide receiver. He might be worth taking a shot at punt returner, but I understand the Eagles hesitance. They see him as an impact receiver. Why risk extra touches as a returner if you can find a young player to replace him. That's where Damaris Johnson comes in.
Johnson is off to a slow start. His fumble in Arizona really changed the game. The Eagles still believe in the young man so they see this as an investment. Give him time to work things out and he'll develop into a dangerous returner by the end of the season. While I understand the logic, I also understand critics who want him out and Jackson in. I'd like to give Johnson another few weeks. He showed great potential this summer. Adjusting to the speed of the regular season can take some time. I think it is worth the risk to see if he can grow into the job.
As for kickoff returner, last year the Eagles simply had no talent. They drafted Brandon Boykin in part because of his ability as a kickoff return weapon. So far, the results are not impressive. There are no fumbles or major mistakes, but Boykin averages just 21 yards a return. That numbers needs to be closer to 30 yards per return.
Boykin hasn't had good blocking and that has affected him, but he is also part of the problem. Watch his returns and you see a player that is trying to read his blocks and the defense and find his way upfield. I'd like to see him just explode. Maybe you run into a tackle. So what? Explode and you have a better chance to break a long return because defenders don't have time to converge on you. They are out wide and working their way in. As a returner moves through traffic and looks for running room, it allows the cover guys to find him and get there. I would show him tape after tape of Brian Mitchell and say "Do this." Mitchell ran hard and he ran straight. Simple, but so very effective.
Boykin was a great kickoff returner at Georgia. There is no question in my mind that he'll be good in the NFL. His blockers must do a better job, but a lot is on him. He must improve. Quit looking for room and just run. Go full speed and make your own running lane.
I do think the actual kicking game is going well. Alex Henery is 32 of 36 in his career. One of those misses came on a super long attempt prior to halftime of the Atlanta game last year. His kickoffs are pretty good. He could have helped with a couple of touchbacks on Sunday night, but he's generally good enough in that area.
Chas Henry had a strong leg, but wasn't able to control his punts the way you must in the NFL. Matt McBriar had a strong Eagles debut. We'll just have to keep an eye on him. He's a quality veteran and should do a good job. He doesn't just need length. McBriar needs hang time and good directional punts.
If at the end of the year:
* The coverage units are still struggling in a big way...
* Damaris Johnson and Brandon Boykin continue to make the same mistakes over and over again...
* The Eagles aren't making special plays on special teams (blocks, trick plays, etc.)...
Well, then, maybe Bobby April is the key problem. I don't think that is the case, but the NFL is a results oriented world and he hasn't delivered in his time with the Eagles. April needs his units to get better this year. He can't afford to point to the future.
The problem for April is that he's got a lot of young talent to work with. You never know when things are going to click for them. Could be Week 5, Week 15, or 2013. I hope for his sake and the Eagles that the young guys grow up in a hurry and start making some plays. Special teams needs to get back to being a strength and not a weakness.