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The Eagles last year finished with one the NFL’s worst average starting field positions. Only five other teams routinely started their drives with poorer field position than the Eagles had. They also fielded the league’s fifth-worst kick-return average and second-worst punt coverage team.
They made a compelling argument to preface the term “special” in "special teams" with “nothing.”
So the question was plainly rhetorical when new special teams coordinator Dave Fipp was asked Thursday about his primary objective for this year’s return groups.
“I don’t want to be last, if that’s what you’re asking,” Fipp said. “I’d much rather be first.”
Fipp, who comes over after two years as an assistant special teams coach for the Dolphins, has a mission statement. He wants his four phases to be “sound, smart and relentless.”
To have this, of course, he needs players who possess those characteristics. Though he likes what he sees so far, Fipp won’t know if he has the horses until the pads come out this summer.
There are enough new faces on the roster for optimism that the Eagles can move past the disaster of the past two seasons under Bobby April, who came here as a reputed mastermind and barely left with his pride intact.
But there are also holdovers, including return specialist Damaris Johnson, once-explosive punt returner DeSean Jackson, third-year kicker Alex Henery and several linebackers, running backs, tight ends and receivers who contributed to last year’s nightmare.
Fipp has watched all the tape from the prior seasons but isn’t holding the breakdowns and lethargic efforts against anyone.
“I’m not going to talk about the past. I know that we have work to do,” he said. “That’s on film. You can see that. I’m sure there’s a number of different reasons for that, but it really doesn’t matter.
“At the end of the day, honestly … I love this time of the year. You can coach players, make players better. I think in this business you can develop players. It’s a short period of time that you have, but to me you can definitely make football players better football players.
“I think if you give these guys skills and techniques that help make them better they will embrace and see it and they will love what you’re doing. I think that we’ve had that response from the guys.”
Fipp can’t rid the roster of who he pleases and replace them with players who fit his mold. Like all special teams coordinators, he’s at the mercy of the 53-man roster and the final personnel decisions made by head coach Chip Kelly, defensive coordinator Billy Davis and the front office.
It’s been suggested -- by Kelly, among others -- that the defensive scheme change from 4-3 to 3-4 can benefit special teams, with the roster more likely to be loaded at outside linebacker than defensive end.
Outside linebackers tend to be more fluid and athletic, skills that translate better to the return and coverage units. Kelly’s plan to go heavy on tight ends and scrap the fullback is another potential boost for Fipp’s crew.
Fipp agreed that “roster makeup is huge” in determining the look and success of his special teams but downplayed the significance of 3-4 personnel over 4-3.
“The 3-4/4-3 question I hear a bunch and it’s started to come up more in the past year or two and it’s become a hot topic,” he said. “I will say this: At the end of the day there’s advantages to both and disadvantages to both.
“My response to that question is really, ultimately, what it comes down to is: Is that third or fourth outside linebacker better than that [rotational] pass rush defensive end? Both of the guys might be the exact same body type.
“At the end of the day I could also say the Tampa 2 is a pretty good system to be in if you want to play good special teams because their linebackers are like DBs, their corners are physical corners who play Cover 2 and so they’re great tacklers, physical body types and that makes a hard matchup. It would be nice if it’s a blanket statement, but at the end of the day it comes down to, ‘Who are the players?’”
Fipp, whose connection to Kelly dates back to a two-years stint as special teams coordinator at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. while Kelly coached about 100 miles to the northeast at New Hampshire, spent the past two seasons as second-in-command to Dolphins special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi.
The Dolphins had their issues in coverage but fared far better than the Eagles did at the field position game. Miami ranked sixth in punt return and third in kickoff return. It was their second straight year with a top-10 punt return team.
In 2011, Miami’s special teams ranked second overall, according to data compiled and analyzed by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News. They became the league’s only team to rank in the top five over the past two seasons last year when they finished fourth. In the same rankings, the Eagles placed 28th this past season.
Early in the Andy Reid era, the Eagles annually produced one of the league’s best special teams units, but the trend spiraled downward after coordinator John Harbaugh left in 2008 to become the Ravens head coach.
Fipp is banking on the dog days of spring minicamps to sow the seeds of a new regime that isn’t talked about for being a colossal failure.
“This time of the year is unbelievable,” he said. “I love it because it’s about getting better and you’re helping players become better football players and I think they appreciate that, and you don’t have the pressure and stress of getting ready for an opponent and scheme and all those other things. You can really focus on fundamentals, which to me is all about coaching and teaching.”