THE DECLINE of the Eagles' special teams, steep and deep, has been underdiscussed in the last few seasons. That is mostly because there is no wide receiver position on special teams, which therefore makes it unfit for conversation in this city. Despite that, it is a worthy topic.

The Eagles would not disagree with this, by the way. They might not say it out loud, but this has always been about reading their actions rather than their press statements, and their actions say pretty clearly that they knew they had a problem.

So, DeSean Jackson. Rocky Boiman. Lorenzo Booker. The tag-team of Dan Klecko and Jason Davis. Quintin Demps. It seems pretty clear that the Eagles have put more potential pieces in place here for their special teams, more guys with more specialist capabilities.

"We have a lot of guys on the roster," said Rory Segrest, the Eagles' special teams coordinator. "We have a lot of returning guys. There's no substitute for that experience. We have a lot of guys who were able to get valuable experience last year that made some corrections as the season went along. It looks like we're picking up from where we left off last season and hopefully we can continue to improve from there going into training camp."

Asked if he might name a couple of his more intriguing prospects, Segrest began with the caveat, "It's hard to tell at this point since we're just in shorts and things, but Booker has got some really good speed. Quintin Demps, same thing there. We've got a couple young linebackers who look like they can fill some roles as well. There's definitely a good talent pool to work with. It's just a matter of getting those guys game experience and making any corrections we need to get made."

Booker and Demps could return kickoffs. Jackson, the second-round draft choice, is slotted as the punt returner.

"He still hasn't taken any snaps in the NFL yet," Segrest said; again with the caveats. "He did a great job in college, he showed some definite ability and we're just excited about getting him out in a live situation and we can't wait to get him into the preseason and see what he does at this level."

We all know what happened last year - the failure of the punt-returning project named Jeremy Bloom, and then the disaster of dropped punts that cost the Eagles the opener at Green Bay, and then the recall of Reno Mahe and his unspectacular surehandedness from retirement.

That got a lot of attention, but it was only one element of the problem. It wasn't that long ago when the Eagles had excellent special teams. Rick Gosselin, the pro football writer at the Dallas Morning News, keeps track of 22 different special teams stats and stirs them up into a stew every year to come up with his annual rankings.

When the Eagles were going to conference championship games and the Super Bowl, their special teams were consistently in the top 10 of those rankings - even reaching No. 1 in one year. But the last three seasons - two under John Harbaugh and last year under Segrest - the Eagles' rankings fell to 23rd, 28th and 28th again.

It has been a decline in all phases. It has been an indictment of the talent level on the back end of the roster, and of the team's refusal to place an emphasis on skilled specialists.

All of this stuff is way above Segrest's pay grade, by the way. But it does seem as if the Eagles have given him more to work with this year. Because of the history, people will watch the punt returns most of all - but both punt returns and kickoff returns have to start flipping the field occasionally, giving the Eagles' offense an easier task.

"Obviously, we're striving to get a big return every time we go back there," Segrest said. " . . . DeSean's definitely a guy who can give us that. He's got the pull-away speed and once he gets out in the open, he can go. We're excited about him. He does a real good job fielding the ball, he's real solid there, and he's got the explosiveness to be an effective punt returner for us."

Here is a philosophical question. Let's say a team has four punt returns and that they go for a total of 36 yards. Which would be better - if the returns went for 9 yards, 9 yards, 9 yards and 9 yards, or if the returns went for 3 yards, 3 yards, 3 yards and 27 yards?

Segrest laughed at the question after his press conference yesterday. But wouldn't you much rather have the 27-yarder? The 9-9-9-9 is Reno Mahe - steady, solid, predictable. The other way is less predictable, more mercurial, but more likely to flip the field the one time the offense really needs the boost.

Simple, right?

"A lot of that has to do with where you are on the field," Segrest said. "Let's say you're on the 10-yard line and you get a 3-yard return, all of a sudden you're putting your offense in a hole. They're barely outside the 10. But if you get a 10-yard return, at least you're giving them some room to operate.

"Our goal is to get the offense at least a first down every time we touch the ball - get that 10-yard gain. Then you get yourself in a position where you might break one. We'd rather not have any 3-yard returns."

But if you had to choose?

Ah, forget it.

Just know that it has to get better, and that the Eagles might finally be realizing that. *

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