Special Teams Importance and Improvement

Surprise news from the Eagles yesterday: the team signed a punter (Jones) and cut McBriar.  For most casual fans, this move probably doesn’t register as anything other than replacing one guy most people don’t know with another.

However, it has the potential to make a big impact, and put in context with the other moves the team has made, shows a clear recognition of one of the team’s biggest weaknesses last year:  special teams.

Though it flies beneath the radar of most casual fans, special teams is indeed important, and the Eagles were terrible in this area last season.

Let’s look at some stats:

– The Eagles ranked 28th in the league in Net Yards per Successful Punt last year with 37.3.

– The 49ers and Saints were tied for 1st overall with 43.2, meaning these teams, on average, gained SIX more yards per punt than the Eagles did.  While most of the league didn’t perform nearly as well, this is an indication of just how big a role the punting game can play (6 yards per punt difference is HUGE in case anyone didn’t realize that).

– According to Football Outsiders, the Eagles ranked 24th in the league last year in overall special teams.  Only 2 teams ranked in the bottom third of the league made the playoffs (Redskins and Texans).

– According to Football Outsiders, the Eagles ranked LAST in the league in punting last year.

– The Eagles were also UNLUCKY, with the fourth largest special teams disadvantage due to factors outside the team’s control (opposing field goals, kickoff distance, punt distance).

So what?

Looking at the above stats gives us an appreciation for how weak the ST unit was last year.  That last stat is interesting because it fits what I’ve been saying/showing for a long time:

The 2012 Eagles were a mediocre team with VERY bad luck.

While the offense and defense are more important, it’s nice to see Roseman and Kelly taking improvements everywhere they can find them.  There is no guarantee that Donnie Jones will be any better than McBriar was or that the coverage will be any better either.  However, it’s likely that both areas will improve, due to the low bar set by last year’s team.

The upshot is field position.  I’ve covered this before, but the Eagles ranked last, by a long shot, in relative field position last year (-6.67 yards).  Improvements to special teams will help this measure.  Consequently, the offense will have fewer yards to travel to get in scoring range and the defense will have more yards behind them.

Field position is an aspect of the game that is tough to focus on in real-time.  6.67 yards does not sound like much, but remember that is an AVERAGE PER DRIVE.  Last year, every Eagles offensive drive started, on average, almost 7 yards farther from the end zone then the opponent’s corresponding drive.

While everyone is focusing on the defensive scheme and roster changes while getting excited about the offense, arguably the easiest area for improvement is special teams.

The signings of Jones, Benn, Chung, Phillips, etc… will go a long way in that area.  I don’t expect fans to get excited over things like kick coverage and net punting average, but improvements here will show up in the box score by making it easier for the Eagles to score and harder for opponents to do the same.




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