Eagles have a special reason for their success
Much of the Eagles' success this season is due to the stellar play of their special teams, under the direction of Dave Fipp.
TREY BURTON whisked by and Jon Dorenbos muttered, "Beast." Phone to his ear, Donnie Jones walked back and forth in animated conversation, unaware of the praise streaming from the lips of his locker neighbor and long snapper.
A media crowd was assembling around the locker of Darren Sproles. Dorenbos took note, checked off what seemed to be another half-dozen names - James Casey, Brandon Graham, Chris Polk, Josh Huff - and said, finally, "This is the best special-teams unit I've ever been on.
"Really, I've never seen this on any level I've played."
Each week, there is another game to play. Each week, the traditional compare-and-contrasts dominate our discussions - whose quarterback is better, whose line, whose weapons. For sure, there have been nods to the mind-boggling efforts put in by Dave Fipp's special-teams crew, but the idea that it might have a larger impact on the outcome than LeSean McCoy's rushing total or Tony Romo's recovered back does not get its fair share in the discussion.
Because, frankly, few of us have seen this on any level. The Eagles nearly won a game in San Francisco this season simply because of a blocked punt by Burton and punt return by Sproles. Casey's blocked punt that resulted in a touchdown a week later was, indeed the margin of victory against the St. Louis Rams.
The Eagles' special teams have breathed calm into games throughout the season with similar big plays, and the cerebral abilities of Jones in both angling and deadening punts has often allowed a suspect secondary enough wriggle room to operate.
A website called "Football Outsiders" lists the Eagles' special teams as the NFL's best, estimating a plus-9.0 average impact on a game's outcome through five measurable aspects. Dallas, ranked 13th, has a minus-1.1 impact. Meaning - if these measurements hold water - that tomorrow's outcome might have as much or more to do with Jones and Sproles than it does Romo and McCoy.
Dorenbos has been with the Eagles since 2006, since John Harbaugh was the special-teams coach and Dirk Johnson - remember him? - was the punter.
Harbaugh was special, Dorenbos said, good for him at that young age, too, when he needed guidance. But Fipp, he said, is more special - a "chess master" who has assembled a unit of "freaky" football players such as Burton, who played quarterback, tight end and wide receiver at the University of Florida.
"Dave is a technician," Dorenbos said. "And he's really good at listening to his players. What's going on out there? What do you guys think will work? It's a two-way conversation and he leads."
If this sounds familiar, it should by now. Regardless of what coach on Chip Kelly's staff is being discussed, this trait is invariably brought up by the Eagles players underneath him.
"What I really respect," Dorenbos continued, "is that so often when you come up with an idea, he'll say, 'Dude, this is really good. But here's my concern.' And he'll go 'Bap bap bap bap.'
"And you're like, 'I didn't think of that.' Fipp has a way of getting guys to want to play for him."
That spirit of collegiality, along with success, has bred a third-party identity not always present among special-teams players in the NFL, even among the more successful units.
"I've been on teams where guys who were put on special teams felt demoted," Dorenbos said. "We've taken a special pride in special teams. We're our own little clique. Here it's like, 'Dude, this is what I do. We're gonna roll and we're gonna dominate.' "
Which is great. But it wouldn't matter a lick without the personnel assembled, selected to carry out Fipp's aggressive and athletic scheme. The Eagles roster is full of ex-quarterbacks, including even their second-year tackle, Lane Johnson. And their special teams is a reflection of that: Burton played the position at Florida, Casey played quarterback, and so on.
"Not me," said Dorenbos, now 34 and in his 12th NFL season.
He's not sure how many he has left. Despite the reduced hazards that a full-time special-teams player enjoys, league-mandated annual raises will someday make him too costly to keep, he said. It's one more reason to savor this season, to, in words he uses often, "Let 'er rip."
"Honestly," he said, his smile widening to the width of his face. "It's been the most fun I've had in my career."