With the first waves of free agency passing by and the upcoming draft getting closer, there is a lot of talk about what needs the Eagles still have to address as they prepare for the 2008 season. Those who think that the defense needs to improve are calling for more help in the secondary and extra depth on the defensive line. Other people think that Philadelphia’s most pressing needs are a playmaking wide receiver or a left tackle for the future. While an argument can be made for adding pieces to either side of the ball, it is hard to deny that one area the Eagles need vast improvement in is their special teams.
The season opening loss to the Packers at Lambeau Field was a perfect example of how poor play on special teams can really hurt a club. In that contest, Greg Lewis fumbled a punt in the first quarter that was recovered by the Packer’s Tracy White for a touchdown, and later, J.R. Reed muffed a punt return that set up Green Bay’s game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter.
Here is a look at how the Eagles performed in each aspect of special teams during the 2007 season.
The Return Game
After the miscues in that game, Reno Mahe took over as the punt return man and he was hardly a threat to take one to the house at any point. Mahe has average size at 5-foot-10, 212 pounds, but he lacks break-away speed is not very shifty when running with the ball. On the year, he returned 31 punts for a total of 249 yards and averaged 8.0 yards per punt, ranking him 17th in the league in that category. His longest return of the year went for 32 yards.
(Getty Images/Chris McGrath)
The kick return team was also less than spectacular all season, and whether it was Correll Buckhalter or Reed running kicks back, they hardly ever got the offense in good field position to start a drive. Reed returned 31 kickoffs for 701 yards, and his 22.6-yard average ranked him 30th in the league, while Buckhalter was not far off with 37 returns for 798 yards and a 21.6-yard return average (36th in the NFL).
Not only were the Eagles ineffective in their own return game, but they also struggled to cover kickoffs and punts. They allowed 11.4-yards-per-punt-return (28th in the league) and got one taken back for a touchdown by Ted Ginn Jr. of the Dolphins in week 11. Their kickoff coverage was slightly better, as they allowed 22.3-yards-per-kickoff-return and ranked 14th in the NFL in that category.
In the kicking game, 33-year-old David Akers had another disappointing season and connected on fewer than 80% of his field goal attempts for the third straight year. While he used to be a consistent and reliable kicker a few years ago, he has seen his accuracy and leg power both drop recently. Akers connected on 24 of his 32 field goal attempts in 2007, and his 75% success rate ranked him tied for 27th in the league. The nine-year veteran out of Louisville hit just two-out-of-ten attempts from 40 yards or more.
Going into the season, the Eagles had an intriguing story with their new punter, 34-year-old Sav Rocca, being the oldest rookie in NFL history. Rocca was heralded as a former Aussie-rules football star, and at 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, he looked more like a linebacker than a punter. While he towered over most other players on the field, Rocca was inconsistent as the team’s new punter. His 42-yard average per punt was 19th best in the NFL and while he had the ability to kick far (his season long was a booming 65-yarder), he also shanked a few punts here and there. Rocca also assumed the duty as the Eagle’s holder on placekicks, and while he mishandled two snaps against the Jets in week six, he settled into the role by midseason and looked more comfortable as the year went on.
After an all-around disappointing season for the special teams, the Eagles should look to find a player who can make an impact in the return game, whether they sign a proven free agent or look for somebody in the draft. Not since the days of Brian Mitchell has Philadelphia had a return man who constantly gave the offense good field position and was also a threat to take it to the house.
Also, it might be time to start thinking about life after David Akers. He was a great kicker in the early 2000's but his performance has slipped lately and he is not reliable from far out, which limits the offense's ability to put points on the board.
Final Grade: D-
Andrew Pluta can be reached at email@example.com