Paul Domowitch, Daily News Sports Columnist
Posted: Saturday, November 3, 2012, 12:43 AM
How bad have the Eagles' special teams been this season? This bad:
They head into Monday night's game against the Saints ranked 30th in the league in punt-return average (5.6). They've had only three returns of more than 7 yards, the longest just 13.
They are 26th in kick-return average (20.2) with a season-long of 31 yards. They have only four returns of 28 yards or more.
They are 28th in punt coverage (12.3) and have given up eight returns of 14 yards or more, including three of 21-plus yards.
They are 25th in kickoff coverage (27.0) and have allowed eight returns of 36 yards or more, including four of 45-plus yards.
They are 23rd in net punting average (38.7) and 26th in touchback percentage on kickoffs (35.5).
Nowhere to go but up, right?
"I do think we are getting better," special-teams coordinator Bobby April said Friday. "The increments of improvement may not be as fast as we would like. But I definitely think we are getting better. Guys are playing better fundamentally. Our production is better.
"Our last three performances have been our best. After Game 4, we weren't very good at all. But the last three games, we've gotten progressively better. Each game has been a step up. And certainly better than the first four. So I see progress."
Take out the 44-yard kickoff return they gave up to the Steelers' Chris Rainey in Week 5 and the 48-yard punt return they gave up to the Lions' Stefan Logan in Week 7, and, yeah, I guess there's been a little bit of progress the last three games.
Alex Henery has seven touchbacks in his last 11 kickoffs after having only four in his first 20. Punter Mat McBriar had a 44.3-yard net average Sunday against the Falcons. Kick returner Brandon Boykin has had three returns of 28 or more yards in the last two games.
But as April, who loves a good war metaphor, said, "We've got a big job. We've still got a lot of hill to take."
April is considered one of the league's better special-teams coaches. So why have his units been so poor this season?
Ike Reese thinks the answer is simple.
"To me, they just don't have enough talent at the backup positions," said Reese, a WIP talk-show host and former Eagles Pro Bowl special-teams ace. "To have a good core of special-teams guys, you need three or four linebackers in there. You need three or four safeties or corners in there that are just good athletes, that are guys who can make tackles in open space, that can get down the field fast and play physical. They just don't have enough of those guys."
"Colt Anderson and Akeem Jordan, that's pretty much all they have, as far as guys who consistently show up each week and make plays. Brian Rolle didn't work out. Jamar Chaney wasn't even activated last week. These are guys, linebackers that they drafted not to be starters, but to be backup players and core special-teams players. That's what they don't have anymore. They just don't have that."
April insists he has enough talent on his special teams. Although, even if he didn't believe that, he wasn't going to acknowledge it to me. Telling your head coach and general manager that they didn't draft very well isn't the best way to keep your job.
"I think the guys are good enough," April said. "There's no complaints about the talent. I like our players. I've just got to get them to play better. And I think they are playing better. I think they are improving."
Back when Reese was a special-teams stud for the Eagles, they had players who took pride in playing on special teams. He's not sure this team has enough of those kind of guys.
The Eagles have a relatively young roster. Twenty of their 53 players are either rookies or second-year players. Many of them probably view special teams the way kids view orders from their mother to clean up their room. It's not something they really want to do.
"You need guys that are going to go out there and take ownership of it," Reese said. "Guys that are going to make that unit theirs. You have to have guys who want to go out there and play on that unit. You have to have guys that believe that's not a throwaway down, not a throwaway unit, not a demotion.
"When I played, we had a bunch of guys who loved going out there and playing on that unit. We wanted to go out there and put our imprint on the game, whether it was with a big return or a blocked punt or a fake punt or an onside kick or a big hit. This team, I'm just not sure they have enough guys who take pride in playing that phase of the game."
As a longtime special-teams coach, April knows more than everybody the difficulty in getting guys to buy in to playing on special teams.
"Guys aren't rewarded for playing on special teams, and when you're not rewarded for something, you don't see any sense in doing it," he said. "They didn't get a scholarship in college to play special teams.
They didn't get drafted to play special teams, or at least they didn't think that's why they got drafted. And in some cases, they've been told they're too good to play special teams.
"I don't know exactly what's in the minds of our players. I can only tell by their actions. But I think their actions say they're committed to doing well."
Said Reese: "Too many of these young guys come in thinking they're entitled. They view special teams the way they did in college, when it was filled with walk-ons and backup players. These guys were stars in college. A lot of them don't understand what it takes to be an impact special-teams player.
"It settled in for me my second or third year that this is how I'm going to make my living in this league. Eventually, that led to me getting playing time on the field on third down as a linebacker. But these guys today, I don't know."
Figuring the Eagles
The Eagles have 30 turnovers in their last 10 road games. They're 5-5 in those 10 games.
Eagles receivers have only 13 dropped passes in the first seven games. That's the sixth fewest in the league. The five teams with fewer drops: Baltimore (nine), Minnesota (11), San Diego (11), Carolina (11) and Cincinnati (11). Tight end Brent Celek has six of the Eagles' 13 drops.
The breakdown of the other seven drops: Jeremy Maclin, three; LeSean McCoy, two; Stanley Havili, one; and Bryce Brown, one. DeSean Jackson, who has a team-high 34 receptions, doesn't have any drops yet.
In their first two games, the Eagles targeted tight ends Brent Celek and Clay Harbor 27 times. In the five games since, they've been targeted a total of 33 times.
The Eagles are seventh in the league in penalties per game, with a 7.0 average. The Ravens lead the league with 8.1 per game, followed by the Cowboys (7.8), Redskins (7.7) and Rams (7.6). The Eagles are tied for fifth in penalty yards per game with 62. The four ahead of them: the Ravens and Lions (71), the Redskins (69) and the Packers (63).
Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has been the most penalized Eagle through seven games. He's been flagged seven times, two of which were declined. Other Eagles with at least three penalties: cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (five, one declined), offensive tackle Demetress Bell (five, none declined), defensive end Jason Babin (five, one declined), guard Evan Mathis (four, none declined), defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (four, none declined), defensive end Trent Cole (three, one declined) and offensive tackle Todd Herremans (three, one declined).
The Eagles lead the NFC East in offensive holding penalties. They've been flagged 13 times. The Cowboys and Redskins have 12 each and the Giants have 11. The Eagles have the fewest false-start penalties in the division, with six. The Cowboys have a division-high 16, followed by the Redskins with 12 and the Giants with 7.
If I were Jason Babin, I'd be a lot more worried right now about why Tyson Clabo handled me so easily on Sunday rather than questioning the loyalty of Eagles fans and whining about the mean, awful things they were yelling during the loss to the Falcons. He should consider himself lucky that nobody threw a battery at him.
Andy Reid's tenuous job security will make it more difficult to rally his troops this time around than after previous bad starts.
So, Reid and Marty Mornhinweg has have told Mike Vick to be aggressive, aggressive, aggressive and not be afraid of making a mistake. Why do I see a three-turnover game from Vick Monday night?
The 6-2 49ers should be well-rested when they return from their bye. When they host the Rams on Nov. 11, they'll have played only one game in 23 days. Another nice job of scheduling by Howard Katz.
Tweeting with Big Red
Note to the guy who put the "For Sale" sign in our front yard: not funny.
Not that I hope we get more bad weather, but I kind of enjoyed not talking to the media for 3 days.
Lamonte thinks he can get me a TV gig if I get fired. Hey, I'm better looking than John Clayton.
FROM THE LIP
"I'd rather be compared to an Aaron Rodgers or a guy like that. Someone who has won Super Bowls." - Redskins QB Robert Griffin III about comparisons between himself and the Panthers' Cam Newton
"I think he's the best rookie quarterback in the NFL right now. I think he's better than RGIII. I think he's going to be one of those elite guys like Tom Brady when it's all said and done. His leadership right now in the huddle is just phenomenal." - Dolphins C Mike Pouncey on QB Ryan Tannehill
"I don't think there ever was a question there. I think it's just a lot of gobble gobble turkey. Just gobble gobble turkey from jive turkey gobblers. That paints a pretty good picture of it."
- 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh when asked whether Alex Smith's 18-for-19 performance against the Cardinals put to rest questions about the QB's confidence
"There's been a lot of talk, and we're not even sure where it's come from, about us not getting along and things like that, but that's just people talking. We get along great. I think we're doing some great things on offense. We're learning every day, every week about each other and about other guys on the team and him, and I think that it's been a good relationship and we're just continuing to grow." - Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger on his relationship with offensive coordinator Todd Haley
BY THE NUMBERS
Peyton Manning notched his 37th career game with three or more touchdown passes and no interceptions in the Broncos' 34-14 win over the Saints. That's 35 more games than Michael Vick. In fact, Vick has thrown three or more TD passes in a game only five times in his career.
The Falcons' Matt Ryan is 15-0 when he's thrown at least three touchdown passes, including 4-0 this year. Ryan also is 28-0 when he's had a 100-plus passer rating.
The Patriots have registered at least 350 net yards in 17 straight games, surpassing the old record of 16 by the 1999-2000 Rams.
Since 2000, 29 teams that had a .500 or losing record after eight games have made the playoffs. Five of those 29 teams advanced to the conference championship game, including the '01 Patriots, who went on to win Super Bowl XXXVI.
Andrew Luck, whose Colts are 4-3, has the highest winning percentage (.571) through the eighth week of the season of any rookie quarterback who was the first selection in the draft.
That's saying thumbthing
THUMBS UPL To Dolphins coach Joe Philbin. After watching HBO's "Hard Knocks" this summer, I wasn't sure whether the Dolphins would win a game this season. Philbin's a terrific guy with a sharp offensive mind, but he seemed to be in way over his head as a head coach. So much for first impressions. After dropping three of their first four games, the Dolphins have won three in a row, including a 30-9 blowout of the Jets last week, and they are a half-game out of first in the AFC East with a 4-3 record.
THUMBS DOWN: To Eagles coach Andy Reid for insulting our intelligence by claiming that he never considered making a quarterback switch this week. What do we look like, Red, idiots? After the loss to the Lions, when you were asked whether you were thinking of benching Michael Vick and going to Nick Foles, all you had to say was, "No." Instead, you said, "I'm not going to sit here and make decisions right now. I'm going to go back and look at it and analyze it." Even Vick acknowledged you were thinking of making a change. Then, 3 days later, you had a team spokesman send out a text saying Vick would start Monday night against the Saints. Huh? If you weren't considering a change, then why in the hell would you need to send a text letting us know who your starting quarterback was? This whole 8-8-is-unacceptable thing is turning you into a mess.
1. Falcons 7-0 (1 last week)
2. Texans 6-1 (2)
3. 49ers 6-2 (3)
4. Ravens 5-2 (4)
5. Bears 6-1 (5)
6. Giants 6-2 (6)
7. Patriots 5-3 (7)
8. Packers 5-5 (8)
9. Broncos 4-3 (10)
10. Vikings 5-3 (13)
11. Bucs 3-4 (12)
12. Dolphins 4-3 (17)
13. Seahawks 4-4 (9)
14. Chargers 4-4 (19)
15. Steelers 4-4 (20)
16. Cardinals 4-4 (11)
17. Eagles 3-4 (14)
18. Saints 2-5 (15)
19. Redskins 3-5 (16)
21. Cowboys 3-4 (21)
23. Lions 3-4 (24)
24. Colts 4-3 (27)
26. Bills 3-4 (26)
27. Browns 2-6 (30)
28. Raiders 3-4 (29)
29. Titans 3-5 (25)
30. Panthers 1-6 (28)
31. Jaguars 1-6 (32)
32. Chiefs 1-7 (31
Contact Paul Domowitch at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PDomo. Read the Daily News' Eagles blog at www.eagletarian.com
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