When Eagles coach Nick Sirianni met with the media several days after the Super Bowl loss, he talked about losing his offensive and defensive coordinators a few days before.
Someone asked Sirianni if special teams coordinator Michael Clay would be back.
- “Yes, he will,” Sirianni said, surprising more than a few people. “I thought we did a nice job as far as just improving. We had some rocky beginnings in special teams, and I thought we did a nice job improving those special teams as the year went along.
- “A lot of credit to Coach Clay. Obviously, a lot of credit to the players that stepped up and made plays to do so.
- “Again, we talked about the punt and the punt return by Kansas City; hats off to them. We didn’t do a good enough job on that play.”
Sirianni was asked that question because special teams was the unit that lagged behind the excellent play of the offense and defense. Football is a field position sport. Scoring points and allowing points often are directly related to where a team gets the ball. Thus, the importance of special teams.
PUNT RETURN ISSUES
The special teams’ failure to stop Chiefs’ punt return in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl looked like it could be Clay’s demise with the Eagles.
- “Nothing is ever decided on one play,” Sirianni said. “So, I have a great deal of confidence in Coach Clay and the job that he did over these last two years, and how we’ve improved, and he’s improved.
- “He’s improved greatly. Our special teams has improved greatly and he’ll be back.
With the Eagles trailing, 28-27, with 10:33 to play, Arryn Siposs punted from his own 32-yard line. The punt only went 38 yards to the Chiefs’ 30. But the punt was a line drive — not a high, booming kick that would give the Eagles time to get downfield and defend.
Kansas City’s Karadius Toney fielded the punt and ran left. He cut back to the right where he had blockers. Toney rambled to the Eagles’ 4-yard line. The Chiefs scored three plays later to increase their lead to 35-27. Toney had only returned 10 punts in the regular season, averaging 6.1 yards.
- “Arryn didn’t get the punt that he wanted there. So, there was a low hang time,” Sirianni said.
- “The guy did a good job; Toney did a good job of scooping that up and not letting it hit …
- “And then we missed a couple tackles on that one. And we had guys down there, and for different reasons we missed a couple of tackles there.
- “Tackling, I know what it will sound like, but tackling is our responsibility as coaches to teach the crap out of the fundamentals there. And it’s our responsibility as players to make the tackles in there.
- “Even though a tackle may look like, well, that guy missed a tackle, it’s on all of us, right, of just making sure that we’re on it with our fundamentals with it …
- “And we missed some tackles, but we also got to do a better job of coaching the tackling fundamentals.”
Against Dallas in Week Six, another special teams blunder nearly cost the Eagles. The Birds were cruising at home. Interceptions by C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Darius Slay helped the Eagles grab a 20-0 lead. The Linc crowd was loud and partying, enjoying a comfortable margin over the Eagles’ biggest rival.
Jake Elliott’s kickoff went four yards deep in the end zone. The Cowboys’ explosive KaVontae Turpin returned the ball 63 yards. Nine plays later, Dallas had a field goal and some life right before halftime.
On Dallas’ first possession of the second half, it scored a touchdown to make it 20-10 and the Eagles were in a dogfight.
Rick Gosselin is a longtime NFL writer who has published his special teams rankings for 42 years. He ranks teams in 22 kicking-game categories.
His 2022 rankings had an oddity — the Super Bowl teams ranked 31st (Eagles) and 32nd (Chiefs). The Texans and Seahawks finished one-two.
You can dismiss Gosselin’s rankings if you choose, but when you watched the Eagles, many times the special teams just didn’t match the other units.
Elliott was outstanding, however, scoring 111 points, converting 51-of-53 extra points and 20-of-23 field goals. Siposs ranked 29th in net average (40.2) and 26th in punting average (45.6).
The Eagles’ special teams defense picked up when linebacker Christian Elliss was promoted from the practice squad on Dec. 4 against Tennessee. He provided a presence on stopping returns.
Elliss had 106 special teams snaps (23.4 percent). He made 11 special teams tackles.
Highly touted rookie linebacker Nakobe Dean played 75 percent of the special teams snaps and made 13 tackles. Elliss and Dean drew praise from Sirianni late in the season.
They might have helped save Clay’s job.