Most discussion of the Eagles’ loss at Arizona Sunday has focused on how good Jalen Hurts looked. The struggles of the Eagles’ depleted secondary, which allowed three touchdown passes and Kyler Murray’s career-high 406 passing yards, have taken up the bandwidth not dominated by Hurts.
But if the Eagles’ special teams hadn’t produced a memorable disaster Sunday, the team might be 5-8-1 heading into this week’s contest at the 5-9 Dallas Cowboys, and the Eagles’ playoff hopes wouldn’t depend on anyone but themselves.
They’d be a half-game behind 6-8 Washington, with the Football Team coming to Philly Jan. 3 in the regular-season finale. As it is, the Eagles not only have to win Sunday to stay alive, they also need the 4-10 Carolina Panthers to beat Washington.
Hence, the anguish in Dave Fipp’s voice Tuesday when the Eagles’ special teams coordinator took questions in his weekly news conference.
“At the end of the day, obviously, I didn’t have our players prepared well enough to play the game. It certainly wasn’t my best day out there. I’m disappointed in the results. Obviously, I expect better,” Fipp said.
Arizona blocked a first-quarter punt and scored two plays later. Punter Cam Johnston then had to leave the game with a concussion, affecting field position the rest of the way, with kicker Jake Elliott making his NFL punting debut. Since Johnston is the holder, the Eagles then had to go for it on fourth down in situations where they might have tried field goals, in a 33-26 loss. And they flubbed an extra-point attempt when backup holder Zach Ertz couldn’t field Rick Lovato’s low snap.
Adding to the embarrassment was a 26-yard pass by Cardinals punter Andy Lee on fourth-and-2 from the Arizona 33, which didn’t end up costing the Eagles points because their defense stopped a subsequent fourth-down effort.
Fipp said given the distance, he had his return group guarding against a run, not a pass. The blocked punt was just bad execution, he said.
“On the blocked punt, obviously we allowed a free rusher in the ‘A’ gap. We can’t do that. I think there’s a number of guys who could have helped out on the play. I’m not going to get into all the specifics,” Fipp said.
On replay, it looked as if Dallas Goedert helped out on a double-team block and left Ezekiel Turner unblocked. Turner zipped past protector Marcus Epps and was onto Johnston before Epps or Johnston could blink. It was the first blocked punt of Johnston’s three-year, 193-punt career with the Eagles.
Fipp said the Cards didn’t overload the line. “They had our left gunner doubled on the outside, so they really only had seven guys in the box. We had eight guys to protect it. The bottom line is that we didn’t execute well enough there.
“Anytime there’s an execution problem … I would say that I obviously didn’t do a good enough of coaching them to get it done there. I’m not going to depart from that narrative [in explaining what happened]. I’m fine with that. I can accept it.”
Fipp has coached the Eagles’ special teams since 2013, and before this season, he was accustomed to being on the other side of situations such as Sunday’s. From 2013-19, Eagles special teams ranked second in the NFL in touchdowns – four kickoff-return TDs, four punt-return TDs, and four blocked punts returned for TDs. They also ranked second with 18 blocks – 11 blocked punts and seven blocked kicks.
It’s unlikely that Fipp has suddenly become a bad coach. Offensive schemes can grow stale, defensive schemes get outmoded, but special teams is special teams. Approaches to kicking, punting, and returning don’t change much.
What has changed is the quality of the Eagles’ roster. Their 4-9-1 record is the worst the team has compiled since Fipp got here. The Eagles tried to get younger, to go more with rookies this year, and once a cascade of injuries began, they got even younger still, as veteran special teams standouts had to step up on offense or defense. That doesn’t explain why fourth-year kicker Elliott is having his worst season (13-for-18 on field goals, 1-for-3 from 20 to 29 yards), but it does explain a lot.
Second-year linebacker T.J. Edwards led the Eagles with 25 special teams snaps at Arizona. Ex-special teams leader Alex Singleton, now a starting linebacker who played all but two defensive snaps Sunday, only logged 13 special teams snaps. Ditto safety Epps, who played every defensive snap. A rookie linebacker named Joe Bachie played 14 special teams snaps for the Eagles, in his second NFL game since the Eagles signed him from the Saints’ practice squad.
“These guys are battling their tails off,” head coach Doug Pederson said Monday. “They’re doing whatever they can to do their job. We’ve got to dial in, and focus in, and make sure that we’re coaching and doing the right things there, as well, and get all our players that are new to the roster up to speed.”
Fipp kept directing the questions away from his players, back to his own performance.
“You can’t make an excuse for injuries or any of the things that happen in the course of the game. I don’t think if you’re any good you can do that,” Fipp said. “I’ve always said that we have a high standard – I personally have a high standard for myself. Some days I’ve lived up to that.
“I don’t think I’ve ever played a perfect game or called a perfect game or prepared the guys perfectly for any game I’ve been a part of. You’re always trying to get better as a coach and improve.”
Football Outsiders this week shows the Eagles dropping from 16th to 25th in their season special teams DVOA rankings, which try to measure what teams are getting from five special teams areas. They say the Eagles rank last in the league at “hidden points,” at minus-15.5. But that stat measures mostly how lucky or unlucky a team has been in terms of what its opponents have done against it. Not the Eagles’ fault, but also, very 2020 Eagles.
The return game has been part of the special teams problems this season. The Eagles have covered kicks and punts pretty well – the NFL says they are eighth in punt-return average against, 6.4 yards, and 17th in giving up an average kickoff return of 22.4 yards. Their average punt return of 9.4 yards ranks 12th (fair catches and punts that aren’t returned aren’t factored in), and they rank 20th in kickoff returns at 21.1 yards. Lately, teams seem to be kicking short, to make sure the Eagles have to try to return, rather than blasting kicks through the end zone and conceding a start on the 25.