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Before joining the Eagles, Dave Fipp was an assistant special teams coach for three years with the San Francisco 49ers. (AP)
Ask different players, you’ll get different answers. Why do the Eagles look so impressive on special teams this preseason? Some credit the scheme. Some say it’s the heavy emphasis at practice. Some say it’s players making the maturity jump from Year 1 to Year 2.
All of them, though, credit new coordinator Dave Fipp for making special teams not seem like such a drag.
“Coach Fipp, he’s an energetic guy. You can see him out there running with you, catching the ball. It’s just exciting,” said second-year return specialist Damaris Johnson, who’s averaging 21.3 yards per punt return this preseason. “I think sometimes guys are like, 'Oh, special teams’ and this and that. I think now guys are really excited about actually being there, because he brings so much energy to the team.”
Fipp joined Chip Kelly’s inaugural staff after three seasons as an assistant special teams coach for San Francisco and two more with Miami, which fielded one of the NFL’s best special teams units over the past two years.
In the halls of the NovaCare Complex and in interviews, he maintains a low profile. On the practice fields, he’s all over the place, a skinny blur pinballing around position groups to make sure the message he preaches is being carried out.
Fipp expects three basic tenets of his special teams: play sound, play smart, and play relentlessly. So far, his message has sunk in.
The Eagles are 10th in kick return average (27.8 yards per return), the same category in which they placed 26th last season. They’re averaging 15.5 yards per punt return this preseason, good for sixth overall and second among teams with at least eight returns. Last year, they placed 12th (10.3).
“Fipp’s doing an awesome job,” wideout Riley Cooper said. “He’s doing a killer job, he really is. There’s a big emphasis on special teams this year and everybody knows how important it is.
“Real high energy, high tempo type of a guy. High motor. The returners have always been great, but when you’ve got a scheme and players buy into it, that’s the biggest thing.”
Nothing new for Fipp. His high motor appealed to the tempo-obsessed Kelly, who first encountered Fipp when he was coaching at New Hampshire while Fipp coached safeties and special teams at nearby Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
“I’m going to do it my way and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability,” Fipp said. “I love the job that I have. At the end of the day, I’m going to coach how I coach. I think I’ve always coached in a fairly energetic way. I love this game. I’m passionate about it. I love special teams. So I’m just trying to be myself. If they like it, they like it. If they don’t, they don’t. But it’s not like a conscious decision. I’m just being me.”
Helping the cause is Kelly’s emphasis on special teams at practice. Several of the coach’s frenetic-paced periods of practice are dedicated to special teams, and the entire team and coaching staff are involved instead of just returners, bottom-roster types and the coordinator.
Players have said there’s no longer a feeling of isolation on special teams. Under the past regime, special teams periods were often reserved for after full-team practice, alienating those on the return and coverage units from the rest of their teammates.
“Everyone is involved in special teams, obviously except QBs,” safety Kurt Coleman said. “So I think the emphasis is, we’re all part of this. Everyone has to have their hands in this, whether it’s giving a good look or if you’re actually starting with special teams.
“You’ve got to be able to perform, you’ve got to be able to block, you’ve got to be able to set at the right depths and you’ve got to be able to protect for your punts. Everybody has a crucial role on this team.”
Coleman also mentioned a change in practice intensity, indirectly correlating the improvement to Fipp’s perpetual energy compared to his predecessor, the professorial Bobby April, who was known to quote classical novels and historical figures.
“I would say the last two years, we haven’t really gone full-go,” Coleman said. “We’re full covering. We’re giving almost live looks in practice. Everyone has seen it, and it’s not for the first time in games. We’re really giving it great looks. It’s a big emphasis. Special teams can change the game.
“What Fipp has said is 25 percent of all games are decided by three points or less. So if we can create that leverage, that’s three or four games a year we’re going to be able to win.”
The Eagles have returned nine kicks going into Thursday’s preseason finale. Two have been taken back more than 40 yards. Only Seattle and Buffalo have more on fewer attempts.
Johnson, who averaged 11.2 yards per punt return as a rookie, has almost doubled that average this preseason. He has kick and punt returns of more than 60 yards. Brandon Boykin, who averaged 23 yards per kick return as a rookie, has returned two kicks this preseason for 71 yards, one that went 41 yards.
Fipp is big on fundamentals and techniques, teaching his blockers various approaches against opponents of various sizes and skill sets. His players are made aware of all the league return averages, in return and coverage, and expectations are set based on those averages.
“We have a standard of play we believe in playing up to,” he said. “I won’t get into the specifics of that standard, but at the end of the day we have a standard of play and we expect ourselves to play up to our standard. That standard is a high standard and it’s a way of teaching the players how special teams impacts the whole team. At the end of the day, it’s our pride. Did we play up to our standard or not?”