A detailed look at the Eagles undisciplined 2009 special teams

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It’s time for a special teams meeting.  David Akers and DeSean Jackson… You guys are excused.  Get out of here, grab a cookie, and enjoy your recess.

The rest of you… Settle in.  We’re going to be here a while. 

Our 2009 Eagles’ special teams units collected 26 penalties, which was the 2nd most in the NFL.  Needless to say, that’s unacceptable.  The stat sheet will tell you that those 26 penalties amounted to 228 yards, but in reality, because many of those penalties negated return yardage, it’s much more than that.  By contrast, the team with the fewest penalties was the Atlanta Falcons, with just 6 penalties for 50 yards.  This lack of discipline likely cost former special teams coach Ted Daisher his job, and may have also led to some of the player personnel decision the Eagles made this offseason. 

Special teams penalties are extraordinarily frustrating.  The difference between starting at your own 30 after a decent return and starting at your own 10 because of a block in the back is enormous.  That’s one area that must improve in 2010.

Part One of this look at our lack of discipline on special teams includes film I edited together of all the Eagles special teams penalties in 2009.  It’s pretty frustrating to watch, so view at your own risk.  Part Two takes a look at the Eagles acknowledgment that a problem existed, and the actions they took this offseason to correct it.  Much, much more after the jump...

Let's keep a running tally of the total yards (not just the penalty yards) that the Eagles cost themselves on special teams in 2009.  Naturally, it's difficult to determine how much of the return yardage would not have happened without the help of some of the penalties, but let's just go ahead and tally it up anyway.  Let’s get right to the tape…

WEEKS 1 (Panthers) and 2 (Saints)

-          OK, so this isn’t really a penalty on Demps.  Bad call by the officials here – Thanks for making my first example a bad example.  Still, we begin the tally – Demps 15 yards.

-          What are you doing Clemons?  Seriously?  You’re up by 28, it’s late in the 3rd quarter, and you’re getting the ball back.  And then you jump offsides and extend the Panthers drive.  Awful.  On a side note… "Unabated to the kicker?"  Clemons 5 yards, and essentially a turnover.  Team total – 20 yards.

-          Holding on #28, but the Eagles didn’t have a 28 last year.  I’m going to guess they meant 26, which would be Sean Jones.  Jones 10 yards.  Team total – 30 yards.

-          We don’t actually see what he did because Fox has no idea how to do a football telecast, but Clemons did something stupid.  Nobody argues.  Clemons 12 yards, bringing his total to 2 penalties, 17 yards, team total – 42 yards.

-          Sav Rocca crushes a 58 yard punt, which Bush returns to the 30.  But, shocker… Clemons again, this time on an illegal shift.  The Saints have the Eagles re-kick, which Rocca punts out of bounds at the 47.  Clemons 17 yards, bringing his total to 3 penalties, 34 yards, team total – 59.

-          Actually, Jackson, get back in here for a second.  What are you doing fielding a punt at the 2?  OK get out of here again.  Take your pick of penalties here.  I’ll give Weaver the yardage, but Clemons still gets a penalty, too.  Jackson returns it to the 34 (with help from the blocks in the back), but the Eagles are instead backed up to the 3.  Clemons 0 yards, bringing his total to 4 penalties, 34 yards.  Weaver 31 yards.  Team total – 90 yards.

-          Holding on Tracy White, which brings the Eagles back to the 6 instead of the 25.  White 19 yards. Team total - 109.

Also worth watching, on DeSean Jackson's punt return for a TD...

-          Take note of Clemons (between the 30 and 35 yard line) at the 0:55 mark.  How on Earth did the officials (and the announcers) miss that ridiculously blatant block in the back?  Anyway, thanks officials.  You saved Chris Clemons from his tally getting up to 5 in the first 2 games, which would be the same amount the Falcons entire special teams units had ALL SEASON.

WEEKS 3 (Chiefs), 5 (Bucs), and 7 (Redskins).  Week 4 was a bye, and amazingly, there were no special teams penalties in the Raiders debacle...


-          Jackson returns to the Chiefs 36, but a Moise Fokou block in the back brings it back to the Eagles 30.  Fokou 34 yards. Team total – 143.

-          Eldra Buckley offsides.  Inexcusable.  Re-kick, but the Eagles actually wind up getting a yard back in their favor because of a bad punt. Buckley 1 yard in his favor. Team total – 142.

-          Sean Jones offsides on a kickoff, negating a touchback.  Again, inexcusable at the pro level.  On the re-kick, the Bucs return the ball to the 36.  Jones 16 yards, bringing his total to 26 yards.  Team total – 158.

-          Chop block on Avant.  Avant 15 yards.  Team total – 173.

-          After initially messing up the call, the refs get Macho for a "low block." Macho 15 yards.  Team total – 188.

-          Demps on a hold.  Demps 7 yards, giving him 2 penalties for 22.  Team total – 195.

 

WEEKS 8 (Giants), 9 (Cowboys) and 10 (Chargers)

 

-          Hobbs returns to the 28 on a kickoff, but they get Fokou on a hold at the 20, so the Eagles start their drive at the 10.  Fokou 18 yards, bringing his total to 2 penalties and 52 yards.  Team total – 206.

-          Love watching the referee on this one.  While discussing the penalty, he drops his hat on the ground (because I guess that’s part of the refereeing procedure, then picks it back up and puts it back on his head.  Offsetting penalties, but we don’t hear who it’s on.  On the re-kick, the Eagles actually get 7 yards in their favor.  Subtract the 10 yards that would have backed the Giants up on their holding penalty had the Eagle not committed a penalty, and the Eagles lose 3 yards.  Make sense?  Good?  Good.  That was a lot of wasted time for 3 yards – Sheesh.  Team total – 209.

-          And here’s the big one… Fokou on hold negates an Ellis Hobbs kick return TD.  Very depressing.  Fokou 77 yards, and a 7 points.  Ouch.  Fokou’s total is now 3 penalties for 129 yards.  Team total – 286.

-          Holding on Trotter.  Trotter 5 yards.  Team total – 291.

-          Another killer - Jackson to the San Diego 35, but a Tracy White block in the block brings it back to the Eagles 36.  White 29 yards, bringing his total to 2 penalties, 48 yards.  Team total – 320.

-          Dmitri Patterson offside on the kickoff.  Again… unacceptable.  San Diego has a good return though so they elect to add on the 5 yards.  Patterson 5 yards.  Team total – 325.

 

WEEKS 11 (Bears) and 12 (Redskins)


-          Rocca hits a 15 yard BOMB… Ineligible man downfield on Joe Mays.  Mays 5 yards.  Team total – 330.

-          Remember this one?  Are you freaking serious, Reid?  An onsides kick to begin the game… at home… against a team that you’re far superior to?  Absolutely awful, and I don’t care what they saw on film.  You don’t try onsides kicks against crappy teams, period.  Illegal touching by Mays on the play.  Mays 5 yards, bringing his total to 2 penalties, 10 yards.  Team total – 335.

-          Are you serious, Buckley?  Buckley 15 yards.  Team total – 350.

-          Macho with a nice return to the 35, but a hold on Dmitri Patterson.  The Eagles start at the 10 instead of the 35.  Patterson 25 yards, bringing his total to 30.  Team total – 375.

 

WEEKS 14 (Giants), 15 (Niners), and 16 (Broncos)


-          Jackson to the Giants 48, but a hold on Avant brings it back to the Eagles 33.  Avant 19 yards, bringing his total to 2 penalties for 34 yards.  Team total – 394.

-          Really dumb play here by Hanson.  If you’re the gunner, you HAVE TO KNOW that you can’t be the first person to touch the ball if you’ve stepped out of bounds.  He could have easily let Patterson down the ball at the 1.  Instead, offsetting penalties leads to a re-kick, which Rocca proceeds to put into the endzone for a touchback.  Terrible.  Hanson 19 yards.  Team total – 413.

-          Easy call here on White on the block in the back.  Clear as day.  The Eagles start at the 15 instead of the 31.  White 16 yards, bringing his total to 3 penalties, 64 yards.  Team total – 429.

-          White again.  White 5 yards, 4 penalties, 69 yards on him.  Team total – 434.

-          White yet again.  This time White tries to take Alphonso Smith’s head home as a souvenir.  White 15 yards, 6 penalties now on White, 84 yards.  Team total – 449.

 

AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST... The play that probably sealed Daisher's fate...



-          This is just a circus.  The totally unorganized special teams is bad, but Reid calling a timeout when punting from the Dallas 40 was beyond dumb.  The ensuing bickering on national TV after the fact of course doesn’t help.

 

Grand Total - 449 yards just given away on special teams (with the understanding that the Eagles would not have gained a small portion of those yards without the help of the infractions).

OK, so I’ve beaten it to death.  The Eagles were bad on special teams last year.  The silver lining…

They can only get better!

But how?

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Unlike the Underpants Gnomes, it appears the Eagles have a plan in place.  Here’s what they’ve done so far…

 

Phase One – Hire the best special teams coach in the business.

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(Bobby was unavailable for comment)

Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News is somewhat of a respected special teams guru, and every season he ranks all 32 NFL teams in 22 different kicking game categories.  The Bills, under Bobby April, led Gosselin’s special teams rankings in 2004, 2005 and 2008, and finished in the top five each of the past six seasons, including third in 2009.  By contrast, the past 3 years under Daisher and Rory Segrest, the Eagles have ranked 17th, 12th, and 28th in Gosselin’s rankings.

April is known for his organized, militaristic style of teaching, which can be seen in these quotes, borrowed from a Les Bowen piece a couple weeks ago

"I coach really every guy on the team. Every guy on the team has a responsibility to my area, but it's not habitual. They don't go to the same spot every day at 9:30. I have six, actually seven phases when you put the 'hands' team in there. I have to get them all in and then, from one meeting to the next, I have to progress and then I have to come back to it a couple days later. So, there has to be a tremendous way to communicate with these guys"

"Kind of like karate, you need to learn all of the techniques before you jump into the fight.  There's three phases, really, in the process of these guys executing what you want. There's teaching, technique, and then there's testing. I think all too often, we go into the testing phase without teaching them, talking them through the technique, and literally walking them through it. There's a tremendous amount of learning that goes on, and just what to do. When they feel comfortable about what to do, you teach them how to do it."

 

Former player and current writer for the National Football Post, Matt Bowen, played under April in a few of his stops in the NFL.  Bowen wrote about April prior to his signing with the Eagles

"Do you need a special teams coach in your city?  If so, and if you are in the market for the best in the business, then you need to give Bobby April a call. April, who has just opted out of his contract in Buffalo, is essentially a free agent when it comes to coaching. And having been in two cities with him during my own career, I can attest that there isn’t anyone quite like him when it comes to coaching a special teams unit."

"Now, most special teams coaches in the NFL use comparisons to instill that sense of courage when you take on two 300-pound offensive linemen holding hands in a wedge formation on kickoffs. For April, it was always boxing — championship boxing — and the military. Our units in Buffalo were broken down by military names, such as the Seals and the Rangers — and everyone had a role."

"Plus, he is fun to play for and — like all good coaches at the NFL level — you want to impress him. You want to come to the sideline after making a big play in the kicking game and get the pat on the back from a coach like April. You want to be successful under his coaching."

 

Phase Two – Jettison the role players that were not contributing positively on special teams.

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Now, there are certainly other reasons the Eagles may have chosen to release or not resign the following players, but they all have one common theme – They didn’t contribute positively on special teams.  The players that are no longer Eagles…

Chris Clemons – Clemons was absolutely abysmal on special teams.  Four penalties in the first 2 games, and an obvious block in the back that he got away with on the DeSean Jackson punt return TD against Carolina.  For the rest of the season he only saw spot duty on special teams because he couldn't be trusted. Good riddance, and good luck with all that, Seattle.

Tracy White – I had always thought of White as an excellent special teamer and couldn’t understand why the Eagles showed no interest in resigning him.  After all, he led the team in the Eagles’ own designed special teams points system.  However, 6 penalties - not good.  White had as many special teams penalties as the entire Atlanta Falcons team.  There’s a fine line between aggressiveness and recklessness, and White crossed that line far too often.

Darren Howard – His contract and age certainly contributed to his release, but if he played and contributed positively on special teams, he might still be an Eagle.

Will Witherspoon – See Darren Howard.

Kevin Curtis – Never really played on special teams with the Eagles aside from the hands team, and with his salary/age/injuries, he’d be gone even if he did contribute on special teams.

Reggie Brown – Played on the kick return unit, but wasn’t effective.  Salary/production/you-name-it were among the reasons for his trade to Tampa.  Thanks for the extra pick in 2011 by the way, Bucs.

Brian Westbrook – Best Eagles RB of all time, didn’t play special teams for very obvious reasons.  He was released due to his health issues, declining ability and massive salary.

Sean Jones – OK, here’s the one exception to the non-contributors.  From what I’ve seen on tape, Jones was actually pretty good on special teams.  Unfortunately, he was bad as a safety, and with an overload of bodies at safety, Jones was the obvious man out.

Chris Gocong – Made very few plays as a linebacker in his 3 years in Philly, and none as a special teamer.

Alex Smith – Another non-contributor on the kick return unit.  No production as a TE.

Jeremiah Trotter – Probably didn’t belong on the team in the first place, saw some duty on special teams out of necessity, but was basically just a body.

Jason Babin – Like Trotter, just a body on special teams.

 

Phase Three – Reload.

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The Eagles' best special teams regulars in 2009 were Akeem Jordan and Joe Mays… 2 players that were young, hungry, and athletic.  They’ll all be back in camp this year, and they’ll be joined by a very large number of newly added players that share a common theme – Smart, fast, athletic, young, and experienced playing special teams in college.  A few of these guys won’t make the team, which should make for great competition in camp.  The hope is that a handful of them eventually develop into starters on the defense, but until then, they’ll be expected to perform well on special teams.  The guys that impress Bobby April the most will have the best chance to stick.

Keenan Clayton – Of the new Eagles, Clayton is the player that repeatedly is mentioned as a standout special teams player, and I’m very excited to watch him cover kicks in the preseason.  I put your picture up, Keenan - Now don't disappoint me!

Riley Cooper – Jason Avant was one of our better special teamers last year in his role, but he’s too valuable to the offense to be blocking on kick returns.  Cooper should fill that role nicely.  Florida Gator fan and writer for "Team Speed Kills," the SB Nation blog that covers the SEC, "Year2" gave some insight…

Riley Cooper played special teams every year at Florida, including last year while being the team's leading receiver. Urban Meyer has created a culture at UF where guys who double as special teams players are honored among their peers. That leads many guys, Cooper included, to request to play on special teams when possible.

 

The things that make Cooper effective on special teams are the same ones that makes him effective as a receiver. He's not afraid of contact; in fact, he may have enjoyed getting physical more than any other non-lineman, non-Tebow offensive player on the team. He's a very skilled and aggressive blocker, something that came in handy quite often on special teams. He also plays faster than his 40 time would indicate, something that allows him to get up and down the field in a hurry. He actually beat Brandon James to the end zone on James' kickoff return touchdown against Western Kentucky last season despite taking the time to block people along the way.

 

Cooper never shied away from or thought he was too good for special teams at Florida, a fact I'll bet the Eagles knew full well when drafting him. I expect him to be one of the best special teams guys on Philly in the not too distant future.

Here’s the kick return I think he’s referring to... (Keep your eye on #11 – really impressive speed).  Side note – Year2… Charleston Southern?!?!?  C’mon brother, you guys are the Florida Gators!  Can’t you schedule something a little tougher than that?


 

Brandon Graham – Volunteered to play special teams as a senior – Blocked 2 punts, and returned one of them for a TD.  The Eagles made a huge investment in Graham, but I’ll be surprised if the Eagles don’t try to find a role for him on special teams, at least as a rookie.

 

Daniel Te’o Nesheim – Big and very fast for his size, Te’o played special teams at Washington and could be a thumper on the Eagles kick coverage team.  Per Jared Blank, the Director of Player Personnel at the University of Washington...

Daniel Te'o Nesheim was a backup on the punt team.  This past year Daniel was our best d-lineman so he did not play much if any in the game on ST.  Daniel would have done anything that the coaches asked him to do that is the kind of guy he is.  We just could not afford to loose him on the line.  Daniel had 10 sacks last season and he has an oustanding motor.  He was a leader by example, and has the respect of the entire team and coaches.

 

Ricky Sapp – Sapp is known as a guy that’s extremely athletic, but I’m worried by the assertion made by figurefour of the Clemson blog, Shakin the Southland, that he may be lacking in the self-motivation department.  Hopefully, April will get the most out of him.

 

"In a nutshell, Sapp is gushing with athletic ability.  While his frame and bulk probably are not sufficient to play on the DL in the pro's, he is an extremely agile and fast player.  With proper coaching and a little more personal drive, my opinion is that Sapp has the natural abilities to be a successful linebacker at the next level.  His natural build combined with the aforementioned good footwork should be an asset on a special teams unit.

What you will get is a versatile athlete who, with a little more discipline, should be able play on a variety of assignments instantly.  Technique and drive will be the key but for this guy, it appears as though he has all the tools and just needs to become more motivated to contribute for Philly."

Trevard Lindley – Projects as a gunner in the punt game, and perhaps could be in the mix in the kickoff game.  Truzenzuzex of the Kentucky blog, A Sea of Blue, had this to say…

"Trevard was our starting cornerback for 3 years, and he did see some special teams play, but very little after he became the primary cover-corner of the Wildcats, the last two years.  He could ill afford injury, and he was banged up enough as it was.

Lindley is small, but very tough, and he is reasonably fast at around 4.5 in the 40.  Many of his best skills are wasted on special teams, because he was an elite pass defender in college with great ball skills.  Lindley is a good tackler for his size and will always put forth his best effort and throw his body around when required.  He was first team all-SEC in 2009 and considered for pre-season All-American honors in 2010, but was injured for much of the 2010 season with a bad ankle sprain.

The biggest question about Lindley will be his durability in the pro game.  He is a lean, wiry athlete and it will be interesting to see if he can develop the physicality to play on Sundays.  He was more of a finesse player in college, but he is a fearless tackler with a nose for the ball."

Clay Harbor – Played some special teams in college, and his athleticism showed up bigtime at the NFL combine.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t get any more insight on him from 3 or 4 people that follow Missouri State football, and their head coach didn’t reply to an email I sent :(.  But Harbor seems to get it - Here’s a quote by Harbor from PE.com…

"Brent Celek is a great player and I am looking forward to learning from one of the best in the business. Obviously if they draft you then they have a plan for you. I'm going to go out there and I'm going to play hard and I'm going to work hard. I can do a lot of different things; I can play fullback, slot, halfback, and I plan on doing that. Whatever the coaches want me to do, I'll do it. I'm going to make a name for myself on special teams as well. I like to hit people and I'm definitely going to run down the field and make some plays on special teams as well."

Nate Allen – Allen, like Harbor, also said the right things… even though he was drafted 37th overall…

"I'm definitely willing to come in and play right away but, I mean, wherever they need me. Wherever I'm needed, special teams, nickel, wherever I'm needed to help them win, I'm there."

Kurt Coleman – Has a reputation a very hard worker, always in the weight room, played on special teams all 4 years at OSU.

Jamar Chaney – From nfl.com…

"Chaney plays with an excellent motor and is quick to pursue with solid instincts. He runs well and shows excellent range which should make him great in combination man schemes as well as special teams at the next level."

Hank Baskett – Colts fans might disagree, but Hank can play a little on special teams.  He was one of our better special teams players with the Eagles in his time here, and he’ll need to impress April to make the team.  I considered asking the Colts blog for their thoughts on Hank as a special teamer (like I did with some of the college blogs for their thoughts on the guys we drafted), but I thought better of it.

Alex Hall – The "Uh… who?" player in the Sheldon Brown trade, Hall is a big, athletic linebacker that played on Cleveland’s top ranked special teams unit (per Gosselin) last year.

 

Lots of new faces, and our special teams units will look very different this year.  The challenge for April will be to teach these young players to be smart and disciplined, which again, is his M.O. 

My real job is in sales, and I was once recruited to interview for a job in an industry in which I had no background whatsoever.  I couldn’t figure out why they wanted to see me.  When I came in, they played coy with me and asked me what I knew about their industry.  I answered them honestly, and said "Aside from the what I tried to read in preparation for this interview... nothing," which was exactly what they were looking to hear.  Their plan was to mold new sales people from the very beginning into their own image, with the hope that they could teach them the "their way" of conducting business, instead of bringing in sales people with prior industry experience that had opinions or habits that differed from their own.  In a way, the timing of the Bobby April hire is outstanding in that regard, since we have so many young, new faces  that can learn from the best to start their professional careers.  Hopefully, the Eagles can begin a trend of being among the best in the NFL every year like they used to be under John Harbaugh.

 

And in case it isn’t obvious… Yes, I get a little too fired up about special teams.

 

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