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Eagles’ Next Special Teams Coach Faces a Challenging Uphill Battle

Poor Field Position, Shoddy Ball Security and Lackluster Play Are Some of the Key Issues that Must Be Addressed

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COMMENTARY | When Dave Fipp joined the Miami Dolphins as assistant special teams coach in 2011, he was tasked with helping to reinvigorate a unit that ranked 24th in the NFL in 2010, according to an annual special teams assessment published Jan. 20 by Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News.

For the next two years, the 'Fins special teams finished in the top five, including second place in 2011 and fourth place in 2012 - an impressive surge, considering the young talent with which Fipp and his fellow coaches had to work.

But now the man who is widely expected to be the Eagles' new special teams coordinator faces an even greater challenge - putting the fight back into a lackluster unit that placed a woeful 28th among 32 NFL special teams in 2012, according to Gosselin's rankings.

Although the Eagles won't confirm any coaching hires until Chip Kelly's crew has been fully assembled, Fipp recently was seen at the Senior Bowl clad in Eagles attire, and Dolphins coach Joe Philbin told that Fipp is indeed leaving the 'Fins for the Eagles.

Clearly, Fipp will have his work cut out for him in a position that appears to come with scant job security. The Birds have been through five special teams coordinators in the last seven years, most recently parting ways with Bobby April, who had little future left in Philadelphia following the dismal 2012 season that led to the firing of head coach Andy Reid. April went on to land the special teams coordinator position with the Oakland Raiders, much to the surprise of many Philly fans.

On the plus side, Fipp has a pretty impressive coaching pedigree and has already experienced success in the NFL. In addition to his two years in Miami, he spent three seasons as assistant special teams coach with the San Francisco 49ers. With the Eagles, he will likely inherit several decent building blocks from a unit that has had few bright spots - most notably kicker Alex Henery, who finished the season with an 87.1 field goal percentage; rookie wide receiver Damaris Johnson, who returned a punt 98 yards for a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 2; and safety Colt Anderson, a special teams coverage ace who always seems to be around the football. In fact, Anderson was the first man downfield in coverage 34 times, according to the Eagles' 2012 season statistics.

But overall, April didn't have a ton of talent to work with during his tenure and many of his guys played with a disconcerting lack of enthusiasm, especially this past season. So, barring some inspired offseason acquisitions by general manager Howie Roseman, Fipp will have to work hard to motivate and coach up his existing players.

Here are some of the key areas that Fipp will need to focus on:

The Punter Situation.

According to Gosselin's 2012 assessment, the Eagles were dead last in landing punts inside the 20 yard line. At age 33, punter Mat McBriar is likely on the downside of his career, even though his 46.5-yard punt average in 2012 was slightly better than his career average of 45.3 yards. So the Eagles would be wise to bring in a younger punter to compete for the job, in the hopes of finding someone capable of consistently pinning opponents inside the 20. Which brings us to the next area in need of substantial improvement…

Starting Field Position.

Poor starting field position puts the quarterback at an instant disadvantage - and in 2012 it seemed like the Eagles were frequently starting off inside their own 20. According to the team's statistics, special teams averaged a mere 10.3 yards on punt returns, while their opponents averaged 13.6 yards. The Birds were also at a disadvantage on kickoff returns, averaging 21 yards per return, while their opponents averaged 24.7 yards. In comparison, the 2010 Eagles special teams only gave up an average of 9.1 yards to their opponents on punt returns and 21.8 yards on kickoff returns.

Now, three or four yards less may not seem all that huge, but in a game where inches sometimes make the difference between winning and losing, it may as well be a mile. Allowing your opponent to consistently pin you inside the 20 puts extra stress on the offense, and also potentially gives your opponent much better field position if the ensuing series results in a three-and-out and you have to punt.

Ball Security.

Obviously, this is not solely a special teams issue, but it remains an area of concern that Fipp must address. The Eagles fumbled the ball 22 times overall in 2012, including four by the special teams, earning that unit the worst giveaways rating in Gosselin's rankings. Any coach knows there are few things that will change the momentum of a game faster than a giveaway. It doesn't matter if your punt returner has an incredible 65-yard run if he's going to lose the football at the other team's 30 yard line. Fipp needs to find a way to get his players to hold onto the ball as if their livelihoods depend on it.

Energy, Effort and Enthusiasm.

Aside from a few motivated players, the Eagles' special teams is clearly lacking in the "Three E's." For some players, the perception may be that being assigned to special teams is a demotion, or some kind of punishment. They may feel slighted that they are not a starter on offense or defense. This can lead to frustration, loss of focus and lack of effort, which in turn contribute to poor mechanics such as taking bad angles and missing blocks or tackles. The end result is lackluster play and an abundance of mental mistakes on the field.

However, the mature, savvy player understands that exceptional performance on special teams not only can make him stand out in the eyes of coaches and fans, but also can provide a huge momentum boost and directly help the team win games. Fipp will need to get to the root of the issue, whatever it may be, and find a way to inspire his unit to give their best effort on every single play.

Gary Strassberg is a lifelong follower of the Philadelphia Eagles and has been a journalist for more than 20 years. He has worked for the E.W. Scripps Company, The Nielsen Company, and other media outlets. Follow Gary on Twitter: @GaryStrassberg

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