Eagles Wake-Up Call: ‘You Always Walk the Plank’

Philadelphia Eagles secondary coach Todd Bowles.Jerry Glanville taught us that NFL stands for “Not For Long,” and everyone who signs up for the lifestyle knows it.

If you’re a coach, you’re going to get fired. If you’re lucky you’ll get another gig in another city, and you’ll move your family there and hope the stay is long enough to grow some roots. But it probably won’t be.

Given the transient nature of the profession, it is understandable that a coach would insulate himself and zero in only on the Sunday in front of him until he is told that there will be no more Sundays with his current team.

“I have no idea. I have no idea. I hope it’s good,” said special teams coach Bobby April, when asked what the future holds for him in Philadelphia. “I like living in the neighborhood over here on 20th Street. It’s a good place, plus the city’s a great place and the organization’s great. But I don’t know. I have no idea. I couldn’t tell you.”

Of course, most who follow the situation could tell April that his chances of staying on the Eagles coaching staff beyond this season are remote. Same for Marty Mornhinweg and Todd Bowles and their leader Andy Reid. All of these men have to recognize the reality of the situation, but they seem programmed in such a way where the valve that allows that type of thinking is turned off.

“I haven’t gone there. Sometimes, the end is the beginning of something new. However, I don’t think any of us have gone there,” said Mornhinweg. “We are trying to get – my responsibility is these players and making sure that we’re getting better every day. That is our whole focus here. This is what we do for a living and one of the only things I have ever done except for working at the gas station there in South San Jose in high school. This is what we do. It’s not very hard, I think, to keep our focus on this next ballgame and the game plan, making sure that we get better every day. This is an important time for many of our players, some veterans and some young guys. Very, very important for them this week. I take that part very, very seriously there.”

While the rest of us have moved straight past the Giants and onto the bigger issues at hand, players and coaches find real value in every game they play, regardless of whether it has playoff implications or not. A chance to teach, a chance to play, a chance to put quality work on tape. A chance to absorb some knowledge to help you in your next stop.

“I’ve learned a ton of football from Reid. I’ve learned a ton about treating people, about management,” said Bowles. “I’ve learned a ton from my players. I’ve learned different personalities. I’ve learned different schemes. I’ve learned different parts of the game, as far as people and how to use them and different pieces.”

Nobody has faced more questions about the inevitable end than Reid, who has fought hard to keep those thoughts out.

“It looks to me like he is thinking about nothing else other than this next ballgame. I’m saying he’s a rock. He pretty much motors through anything,” said Mornhinweg.

Reid will have to motor through a good deal more in the coming weeks. Like many of his assistants, he in all likelihood will be forced to relocate and start over. But in a coach’s mind that’s never far from your reality, so why not focus your energy on the task at hand while you’re still here?

“You always walk the plank as a coach,” said April. “No one’s infallible.”

WHAT YOU MISSED

Sheil takes a deeper look at Mike McCoy.

In the latest Twitter Mailbag, we throw some cold water on the idea that Michael Vick is dying to play for Chip Kelly.

Kapadia breaks out the All-22 tape to dissect Nick Foles‘ final performance of the 2012 season.

The Eagles were shut out in the Pro Bowl voting. Many believe that Evan Mathis deserved to make the team.

DeMeco Ryans explains why the label that he can’t play in a 3-4 is false advertising.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

Don Banks of SI.com has a “Black Monday Primer” and gives  some names that the Eagles could target:

If Kelly doesn’t materialize in green, some within the league expect Lurie to take a page out of his past and try to identify the next Andy Reid: A young position coach or coordinator with obvious upside potential. Denver’s McCoy, Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter or Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell might make the radar screen in Philly. And don’t overlook one of the league’s better special teams coaches, like San Francisco’s Brad Seely, Dallas’ Joe DeCamillis, San Diego’s Rich Bisaccia or Atlanta’s Keith Armstrong. Remember, the Eagles had John Harbaugh on their staff for years, and the former Philly special teams coach has led the Ravens to five playoff berths in his first five years on the job.

Alex Marvez of FoxSports lists 12 potential head coaching candidates, one of which is Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer:

The man knows defense. Cincinnati ranks second in the NFL in sacks with 47 and has 92 over the past two seasons. That total is only eight less than what the Bengals produced in their previous four seasons combined. Zimmer has achieved defensive success largely through the development of draft picks — led by Geno Atkins, whose 12.5 sacks lead all NFL defensive tackles by a wide margin.

COMING UP

Barring something unforeseen, Reid’s last practice as head coach of the Eagles.

Special Teams Fails the Eagles (Again)

With the game tied at 17 in the fourth quarter and the Eagles facing a fourth down from their own 29, Mat McBriar jogged on to the field and set up to punt.

The Eagles had 13 minutes and 52 seconds to decide what the conversation would be in this city Monday morning. Would people be talking about a 4-5 team that was just one game back of the Giants in the loss column? Or a 3-6 team that had lost five in a row and would be searching for a new coach in the coming weeks?

Bobby April’s special-teams unit provided the answer.

McBriar’s punt went 49 yards to the Dallas 22, where Dwayne Harris fielded it. He made a move to his left and was gone, down the far sideline for a 78-yard touchdown. No missed tackles. That would have required someone to be close enough to get a hand on him.

Cowboys 24, Eagles 17.

“I’ve just got to get the guys prepared,” said special-teams coach Bobby April, looking deflated in the locker room after the game. “I feel bad that I let the team down. I let the head coach down. It’s my responsibility to make those plays. Didn’t do it. They beat us, they whooped us. They whooped us in a couple one-on-one deals, and obviously [Cowboys special-teams coach] Joe DeCamillis whooped me.”

Colt Anderson, the Eagles’ best special-teams player, gave credit to Dallas as well.

“They had a nice wall set up,” Anderson said. “We didn’t have anybody out there, and the returner made a couple guys miss. He set it up nicely. It was out the gate. They had a good scheme. Give credit to them.”

Since the beginning of the 2011 season, the Eagles have lost seven games decided by one possession. While Michael Vick, Marty Mornhinweg, Juan Castillo and others have taken plenty of blame, special teams probably hasn’t received its fair share. April’s group has rarely affected the game in a positive way – either in the return game or with the coverage units. This was not a one-week thing. Entering the game, Eagles special-teams were ranked 25th by Football Outsiders.

“We just can’t give up plays like that, and we’ve got to get some plays like that ourselves,” Anderson said.

Aside from coverage, there seemed to be some disagreement about whether McBriar’s punt went where it was supposed to go.

“Yeah, I hit a pretty good ball,” McBriar said. “It was sort of towards where we were trying to get it to. They’re trying to make a play just as we are. Sometimes, it works out that way.”

April didn’t seem to agree completely.

“It was probably a little too deep,” April said. “I’d have to look at the hang/distance ratio. It was a returnable ball. You’d like those things to be high and short, in general. Then the punter can take them out of it. But I’m not blaming Mat. He hit the ball. That could have given us good field position.”

Entering Sunday, opposing offenses had started drives at their own 30.48-yard-line against the Eagles. Only three teams in the NFL were worse. Part of that has to do with turnovers by the offense. And part of it has to do with coverage units that have been shaky all year.

Aside from the punt return, the Eagles had a missed extra point, and Andy Reid was forced to use a timeout when it appeared that the field-goal unit was a player short (King Dunlap).

There have been mistakes and negative plays all year, but Sunday’s return was the biggest. And now, the conversation shifts to what this team, and this coaching staff, will look like in 2013.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.
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Eagles Wake-Up Call: Did April Think He’d Be Fired?

It’s natural to wonder what was going through Bobby April’s head when he heard the news that Juan Castillo had been fired.

When Andy Reid announced Castillo’s dismissal, he said he was evaluating all aspects of his football team during the bye week. Presumably, that included special teams, a unit that ranks among the worst in the league.

While we often talk about football in three different phases, they’re all connected. Because the Eagles lead the NFC with 17 giveaways, and their coverage units have been so poor, opponents are starting drives, on average, at their own 31.58-yard-line, the second-worst mark in the league. In other words, the defense is constantly in a hole.

“If a defensive coach gets let go, I’ve got a great responsibility in that because we play a lot of defensive plays,” April said. “When the other team has the ball in their hands, it’s my responsibility to make the players on our team limit their ability to push it toward our goal line, and we haven’t really done that in our coverage. So I feel a great responsibility for how the defense plays. I certainly don’t feel good about that.”

Did he think he might be the next to be let go?

“I really wasn’t thinking about that,” April said. “I was thinking about any and every way I could help get our team better.”

April has spent 21 years as an NFL assistant. Not that he’s used to it, but coaches coming and going is nothing new to him.

“You know going in that you walk the plank, so to speak, everyday,” he said. “… It’s just part of the job really. It’s like Hyman Roth told Michael Corleone. This is the business we choose. And so you know that.”

After the Godfather reference, a reporter followed-up and said Reid whacked Fredo.

“Andy whacked Fredo. He didn’t really want to, but he had to,” April said.

Going forward, April took responsibility and said the Eagles’ special-teams talent isn’t the issue. He just needs to do a better job of getting them prepared.

“I think our guys are good enough,” April said. “I know they’re good enough. I like the way they play emotionally. I like everything about them. I’ve just got to do a better job of getting them more fundamentally sound than the other guy.”

WHAT YOU MISSED

The Eagles could be starting three backups on the offensive line Sunday. Danny Watkins sat out practice Wednesday because of an ankle injury. Rookie Dennis Kelly will take his place if Watkins can’t go.

In his weekly mailbag, T-Mac talks Jason Peters, safety depth and more.

Asante Samuel says the Eagles didn’t want to trade him to the Falcons. He also thinks the Birds’ problems this year are related to him not being on the team.

Todd Bowles shared some thoughts on improving the Eagles’ pass rush and making the defense unpredictable.

Not every player has been critical of Juan Castillo. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie stuck up for his old defensive coordinator.

The first of my two-part Eagles-Falcons cheat sheet: Ten things to know about how the Birds’ defense matches up with Atlanta’s offense.

Is there anyone McManus doesn’t know? He caught up with Hurricane Schwartz to get an early weather report for Sunday. Now if Tim shows up to the game in a bow-tie…

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

SI.com’s Don Banks has the Eagles 13th in his power rankings:

We all know Andy Reid’s Eagles are 13-0 coming off byes in his tenure, but this was no ordinary vacation. There was little rest and positively no relaxation in Philly, with defensive coordinator Juan Castillo fired, Todd Bowles promoted and intrigue continuing to swirl around Michael Vick, Nick Foles and the starting quarterback question. And to top it off, the Eagles are at home Sunday against the 6-0 Falcons, Vick’s former team. Enough storylines for you? I thought so.

Derek Sarley over at Iggles Blog takes a look at some of the changes we might see under Bowles:

The pass rush itself isn’t the problem.  So what he needs to figure out how to do is beat max protect with scheme up front and take away the easy, quick throws in the back.  I’m looking forward to seeing what he has in store on both counts.

COMING UP

The Eagles will practice once more at Novacare, and we’ll get the final injury update for Sunday.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.

Special Teams Are Killing the Eagles

Five of the Eagles’ six games so far have been decided by a field goal or less.

It’s really an amazing number when you think about it. That’s why you’ll hear many argue that the Eagles could very well be a 1-5 team right now, while others make the case that they’re only a handful of plays away from 5-1.

The truth is, both parties are right. But the Eagles are 3-3 after six, and given all the bounces, calls, etc., that’s probably just about where they should be.

Given the way the offense has struggled, it’s likely that they are going to play a lot more close games the rest of the way.

And that’s why it’s time to start paying more attention to how special teams are simply killing the Eagles. The Birds are not coming close to winning the field-position battle on a week-to-week basis.

Let’s start with the return units because this is where the Eagles made changes in the offseason. DeSean Jackson, who was ineffective as a punt returner last year, was replaced by Damaris Johnson. Johnson was inactive last week, and Mardy Gilyard combined with Jackson to take over.

Dion Lewis, who was ineffective as a kick returner in 2011, was replaced by fourth-round pick Brandon Boykin.

Through six games, the results on both fronts are ugly.

On kickoffs, the Eagles are averaging 20.8 yards per return. That’s 26th in the league and no improvement at all from last year when they averaged 20.9 yards. Their long, which came last week against the Lions, is 31 yards. The Eagles are the only team in the NFL without one return of at least 35 yards in the past two seasons.

As for punt returns, the Eagles are one of two teams that have not had a return longer than 13 yards. Football Outsiders ranks the Eagles’ punt-return unit 29th in the league.

And then there are the coverage teams. The Eagles are giving up 12.4 yards per punt return, sixth-worst in the league. They started the season with Chas Henry and then moved on to Mat McBriar. Overall, the Eagles’ punt/punt coverage unit ranks 28th, per Football Outsiders.

The kickoff coverage unit has been bad as well. The Eagles are allowing 28.3 yards per return, fifth-worst.

All of these numbers translate to poor field position – both on offense and defense. Offensively, the Eagles are averaging 17.2 points per game, second-worst in the NFL. While turnovers are killing them (17, second-most in the league), field position isn’t helping. According to Football Outsiders, the offense’s average starting field position is its own 23.47-yard-line. That’s fourth-worst in the NFL.

Defensively, the Eagles are allowing 20.8 points per game, which ranks 13th. But that doesn’t tell the whole story when you consider that opponents are starting drives at their own 31.58 yard line, the second-worst mark in the league. To be fair, turnovers are a big factor here too, but the as the numbers above indicate, the coverage units are not getting the job done either.

According to Football Outsiders’ rankings, Bobby April’s unit ranked 12th in 2010 and 17th in 2011. This year, the Eagles are 27th. That’s not a good trend.

You can blame April. Or you can blame Andy Reid and Howie Roseman for the roster. To be honest, I’d have to do a little more research to figure out which side of the fence I’m on, and the reality is both parties are probably responsible.

But when discussing areas that need major improvement in the final 10 games, it’s clear that special teams has to be near the top of the list.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.

Will Eagles Turn To DeSean To Return Punts?

In the offseason, the Eagles made moves to address their return game, but so far, the results have been unimpressive.

Let’s start with punts. Damaris Johnson has been the man through five games, although his opportunities have been limited. Johnson’s called nine fair catches (tied for most in the league) and returned another eight. His longest return has gone for just 13 yards.

So is it time for DeSean Jackson to get a shot?

“He’s always ready to go. I mean, he’s like a pinch-hitter. He’s ready to go. We just have to call his number,” special-teams coach Bobby April said. “Most of our punt returns have not been traditionally field punts. They’ve been up closer to the 50-yard line where you have to worry about a lot of things and you have to spread yourself a little bit thin. It’s tough to make just an all-out concentration on the punt return in that phase of the game.”

Jackson scored four touchdowns on punt returns from 2008 to 2010, but in 2011, he was terrible. According to Football Outsiders, the Eagles had the 27th-ranked punt return unit in the NFL. Of course, Jackson has admitted that his contract situation contributed to struggles in all aspects of his game last year. With a new deal in hand, he’s been very good as a receiver in 2012.

“You never know,” April said. “You may get your wish this week. You may get it in two weeks, you never know. But he’s always ready to go.”

The sense I get is that Johnson will continue to return punts. And Jackson is an option in certain situations. For example, in a tie game with 16 seconds on the clock, you might see him back there. But otherwise, it’s going to be Johnson. Either way, April said it’s not usually his call.

“In the times that we’ve done it and we’ve put him in, usually it’s Coach [Andy] Reid that will tell me he wants him in,” April said.

Meanwhile, the Eagles haven’t been much better on kickoff returns with Brandon Boykin. They’re averaging 19.6 yards per return, which ranks 30th. And the Birds are one of three teams (the Patriots and Cowboys the others) without a kickoff return of at least 30 yards. April seemed to think the problem has more to do with the blocking than Boykin.

“I think the blocking and our timing and our setting the formation properly has been more a factor than his innate ability,” April said. “I do think we’re improving by increments. There needs to be greater increments of improvement. But I do think there is improvement. I do think the arrow is pointing in the right direction.”

If the return game is ever going to get on track, this would be the week. Football Outsiders has the Lions’ special-teams unit ranked dead-last in the league (the Eagles are 28th). Detroit has the worst kickoff coverage unit and the second-to-worst punt coverage unit. A couple weeks ago, the Lions became the first team since at least 1940 to allow a punt return for a touchdown and a kickoff return for a touchdown in consecutive weeks, according to Elias.

“My defense of those two guys [Boykin and Johnson], statistically, is not very strong,” April said. “But we have a lot of faith in them. I have a lot of faith in them. … I think these guys’ talent will shine.”

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.

Eagles Special Teams a Major Factor Vs. Cardinals

Philadelphia Eagles punter Chas Henry.Had the Eagles lost Sunday’s game against the Ravens, Bobby April’s special-teams unit would have fielded its share of the blame this week.

Looking ahead to the matchup against the Cardinals, special teams very well could determine the difference between a win and a loss.

Let’s start with the punter. A week after making the Eagles look smart for choosing him over Mat McBriar, second-year player Chas Henry had major issues against the Ravens.

Here’s what his five punts looked like:

No. 1: A 56-yarder that Jacoby Jones caught at the Ravens’ 7 and returned 18 yards to the 25.

No. 2: A 32-yarder that was downed by the Eagles and gave Baltimore possession at its own 43.

No. 3: A 38-yarder that was returned 10 yards and gave the Ravens possession at the Eagles’ 38. This one was particularly costly, as the Ravens ran one play before kicking a 56-yard field goal at the end of the half.

No. 4: A 40-yarder that was returned 6 yards and gave Baltimore possession at its own 41.

No. 5: A 30-yarder that was fair caught at the Ravens’ 22.

Like I said, not a good day. But what was the issue? After all, Henry has never looked better than he did Week 1 against the Browns.

“He doesn’t drop the ball consistently,” April said. “He’s got a little bit of a technical flaw where he has a habit of either throwing his little finger in or his thumb out, and it causes the drop of the ball not to be correct. It’s something that he constantly works on, and it’s just something in there that he’s got to get out of. And for our team, he’s got to get out of it yesterday.

“It’s just something that rises up. It’s a thing that comes into play. I’m not sure why it comes into play and what makes it come into play on some punts, and what makes it not come in to play on other punts, but it’s something that he has to work at.”

The Eagles’ punt coverage unit faces a huge challenge Sunday going against arguably the league’s most dangerous return man in Patrick Peterson. Peterson returned four punts for touchdowns last season, tying an NFL record.

“He’s really talented because he’s so big,” April said. “It would be like if we had DeMeco Ryans back there returning punts. And he’s fast, so what happens, he breaks a lot of tackles where a lot of guys would go down. The coverage would stop him, but he runs through it, and he barely gets dinged.”

April, of course, is exaggerating a bit. Peterson measured at 6-0, 219 last season, while Ryans is at 6-1, 247, but you get the point.

So far this season, Akeem Jordan leads the Eagles with four special-teams tackles. Curtis Marsh and Casey Matthews each have three. Brandon Hughes has been the first man down in coverage on six occasions, tops on the team. Brian Rolle, Jordan and Colt Anderson have each gotten there four times. That’s particularly impressive for Anderson, who didn’t play in the first game.

One other area to keep an eye on is the Eagles’ field-goal unit. Alex Henery has made two of three attempts this year – hitting on a 23-yarder and a 42-yarder, while missing a 45-yard attempt in Week 1. The Cardinals have the best field-goal block team in the league. Last year, they blocked five of them. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac, they’ve blocked 11 field goals in the past three seasons. The average team has less than one field goal block per season.

The unit is led by Calais Campbell, the 6-foot-8 defensive end, who blocked three field goals last year.

“They believe that they’re going to get it,” April said. “You can tell by the way they play. They believe they’re going to get it. So that’s their greatest thing. Certainly he’s [Campbell] a factor in there, but the other real factor is Patrick Peterson. He comes off that edge. Man, he is really a good player.”

Peterson had the other two field-goal blocks for the Cardinals in 2011. And April said Adrian Wilson is a factor too.

The Eagles’ first two games were each decided by a point. If that’s the case again Sunday, special teams could make the difference.

April Impressed With Damaris Johnson

Philadelphia Eagles undrafted free agent Damaris Johnson.When asked who undrafted free agent Damaris Johnson reminded him of, Eagles special-teams coach Bobby April needed a few seconds to remember the name.

But then it came to him: Eric Guliford.

Guliford, listed at 5-8, was in the league from 1993 to 1998 and spent two seasons (’97 and ’98) with the Saints when April was their special-teams coach.

“Eric is not like Damaris because he’s not nearly as fast or nearly as quick, but he gets to every ball. They don’t hit the ground, they don’t roll, he makes good decisions,” April said. “Reminds me of him more than any of the other ones for that reason. He’s got a break on that ball, and he’s there in position. It almost doesn’t matter where it’s kicked.”

The Eagles clearly want to get better results from their punt return unit (ranked 27th, per Football Outsiders last year) and their kickoff return unit (24th). In addition to Johnson, they drafted Brandon Boykin in the fourth round.

“That punt return especially is critical because the judgements they make are going to affect the offense and the defense,” April said.

“I could definitely see coach [Andy Reid] keeping a guy because of that status.”

As of right now, April confirmed that Johnson is the No. 1 punt returner and Boykin is the No. 1 kickoff returner. Boykin is a lock to make the team because he’s competing with Joselio Hanson for the slot cornerback spot.

Johnson, meanwhile, has shown flashes offensively, but if he’s going to make the team and contribute as a rookie, chances are it will be primarily as a returner.

The preseason games will be critical for Johnson, but he’s got a good shot to make the final 53-man roster.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.

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