SPECIAL TEAMS are very special to the Eagles.
That was evident Friday afternoon when de facto general manager Howie Roseman spoke publicly for only the second time since the season began, to talk about how excited the organization is to have signed Chris Maragos and Jon Dorenbos to three-year contract extensions. These are the first Eagles in-season extensions since 2009. (Later Friday, the team announced a three-year extension for punter Donnie Jones. Kicker Caleb Sturgis got an extension through 2017 before the season began.)
"It's a big part of what we're trying to do here, is have a really strong unit, and also, the individual guys you're talking about, the leadership they bring, the class they exemplify, on and off the field, is so important for us, really," Roseman said. "As we're building this and trying to get some continuity, they were guys that we really saw (being) here going forward."
Roseman said talks progressed quickly after he approached representatives of Maragos, a 29-year-old safety who leads coverage and return units, and Dorenbos, 36, the team's reliable long snapper for the last decade.
"Our goal is to keep as many of our good players, as many of the guys who are the fiber and the backbone of this team as possible," Roseman said.
Maragos came here as a free agent in 2014, after being a special-teams cog for this weekend's opponent, Seattle, on its march to victory in Super Bowl XLVIII. Both he and Dorenbos were scheduled to become free agents this offseason.
"The biggest thing for me as I evaluated it, I always looked back and I thought about the guys I'm playing with. The relationships I've built with these guys - if I were ever to leave, I just wouldn't feel right, knowing that I'm just kind of leaving them behind," Maragos said. "We got unfinished business here that we need to take care of, and I really want to be a part of that."
Dorenbos has played 158 successive games as an Eagle, four short of Harold Carmichael's franchise record.
"I'm super-happy," Dorenbos said Friday. "Just thankful. I've been here a long time. For them to say, 'Hey look, we want to keep you around, you've still got it,' - really happy."
Since Dorenbos was entering the final year of his contract when he made the finals of America's Got Talent during the preseason, there was speculation he might be ready to move on to a career as a full-time magician.
"I've always literally taken it one day at a time, one opportunity at a time," he said. "This place is personal to me. I love it here, and I love these people. I want to be a part of winning. This team is going in the right direction, and I'm real excited."
Jones, 36, is the franchise's all-time leading punter in terms of gross, net and punts downed inside the 20, in his fourth Eagles season. Roseman praised his "consistency, reliability, accountability and professionalism."
Fans probably knew how big a priority the kick and punt units were already; in fact, before the contract extensions came up, this was going to be a story about the Birds' kickoff return unit, which is averaging an NFL-best 33.7 yards per return, 6.2 yards better than the second-best team, Miami. The Eagles are tied for third in punt returns, averaging 14.1 yards, and they lead the league in starting field position after kickoffs (29.8) and opponent starting field position after kickoffs (22.5). Thirteen of the 18 kickoffs the Birds have returned have gone 20-plus yards, the highest rate of such returns in the league.
The fulcrum for all this, obviously, the guy who supervises Maragos, Dorenbos and Jones, is special-teams coordinator Dave Fipp, one of a handful of assistants Doug Pederson kept on when Pederson succeeded Chip Kelly in January.
"I just think he's a great teacher, No. 1," Pederson said Friday, when asked what makes Fipp effective. "He keeps things simple; the schemes are relatively the same each week. The other thing that I've noticed with being around Dave, too, is he spends a lot more time doing drill work in practice, as opposed to just running kickoff return after kickoff return after kickoff return or punt. He's constantly doing drill work with the guys and teaching them fundamentals, and I think that's a big part of why he's had success there on our teams."
Bryan Braman, another special-teams stalwart, said Fipp sets a tone.
"Keeping the energy level high, being the same person every day he comes to work," Braman said. "Really just getting us fired up, making sure we're paying attention, interacting with each other, open conversations and stuff, communication we need to get our job done."
Earlier this week, Fipp was asked what makes for effective kickoff returns.
"A big part of our philosophy is to do what we do and do it really well," he said. "At the same time, every week there's a little bit different challenge, maybe match guys up a little bit differently, you have to block a play just a little bit differently, but we like to stay within ourselves and do what we do best, continue to get better at it."
Players mentioned that Fipp switches them around within the formation, seeking favorable matchups based on what he has seen on film of other teams' special-teams personnel.
"There's times where we'll play a certain player on the left side, the right side, or the front line, right tackle, left tackle, depending on who their people are," Fipp said. "There's times where we'll double one player instead of another player on the other team. It changes a little each week, but from a technique standpoint, we do the same thing over and over again, try to get better and better at it."
Kenjon Barner's three kickoff returns against Atlanta last week included a 52-yarder. Josh Huff, since dismissed from the team, and Wendell Smallwood scored on kickoff returns this season. The Eagles are the only team with two scoring returns.
"He knows the game," Barner said, when asked about Fipp. "He knows the opponent. He knows exactly what to do to capitalize on the things that they may not be the best at . . . Just a great coach, period."
Tight end Zach Ertz (hamstring) and wide receiver Jordan Matthews (back spasms) practiced Friday and said they expect to play in Seattle, but Doug Pederson said the Eagles would take practice squad WR Paul Turner on the trip just in case, since the team is carrying only four wideouts on the 53-man roster . . . Special-teams player/safety Terrence Brooks will miss the game with a hamstring injury . . .
The contract extensions with Jon Dorenbos, Chris Maragos and Donnie Jones brought up the subject of defensive tackle Bennie Logan, the most prominent Eagle scheduled to become a free agent in 2017. Howie Roseman, who stressed Friday his continuing effort to build continuity, praised Logan's leadership, skill and character. "We'd love to keep Bennie in Philly," he said. Roseman declined to say whether that is in the works. "Certainly, we have a tremendous amount of respect and appreciation for Bennie, and would love to keep him in Philly" . . .
The Falcons' Keanu Neal was fined $24,309 for that unpenalized hit Sunday on Jordan Matthews . . . Kicker Caleb Sturgis' brother, Nathan, plays soccer for the Seattle Sounders.