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February 17, 2017

A deeper look at the Eagles' No. 1-ranked special teams units

Eagles NFL

The Eagles' special teams units were the best in the NFL in 2016, according to Football Outsiders, followed closely behind by the Kansas City Chiefs. They also placed first in Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin's (somewhat flawed) yearly rankings, which were published this week.

In Gosselin's rankings, the Eagles had by far the No. 1 special teams units, with the Detroit Lions and, once again, the Chiefs, following behind. In his piece, Gosselin ranked teams by the following 21 special teams metrics: 

  1. Kickoff returns
  2. Punt returns
  3. Kickoff coverage
  4. Punt coverage
  5. Kickoff starting point
  6. Opposing kickoff starting point
  7. Punting
  8. Net punting
  9. Inside the 20 punts
  10. Opponent punting
  11. Opponent net punting
  12. Field goals
  13. Field goal percentage
  14. Opponent field goal percentage
  15. Points scored
  16. Points allowed
  17. Blocked kicks
  18. Opponent blocked kicks
  19. Takeaways
  20. Giveaways
  21. Penalties

In my view, several of the above metrics should not be included:

Punting: This is based on punting average. Booting the ball as far as you can is not the name of the game in the NFL. When you out-kick your coverage, you are susceptible to long returns. A healthy mix of hang time and distance is ideal. Additionally, punting average has more to do with opportunity. A punt from around the 50 is going to have a lower average, by far, than a team punting from their own 20. They're two completely different kinds of punts. 

Punts inside the 20: I've always disliked this stat, generally speaking. If you're punting from the 50, and you land it at the 18, that's a terrible punt, and yet you would get credit for a punt inside the 20. A better stat would be "punts inside the 10," which better shows true ability to pin opponents deep.

Opponent punting: I don't see where there's any skill in the other team punting well, or poorly.

Opponent net punting: Again, how well the other team does at punting should not be considered. At least in this case, the punt return factors in to net punting average, however, punt returns are already covered in another metric. There's maybe another argument to be made that teams purposely avoiding certain dangerous punt returners might have a lower net average because they're kicking the ball out of bounds, thus sacrificing distance, but that's probably too rare to include this metric in a league-wide study.

Field goals: This is the total number of field goals, which has more to do with how often the offense (A) entered field goal range, and (B) had drives stall inside field goal range, as opposed to actual special teams efficiency.

Opponent field goal percentage: Again, how accurate opposing kickers are should not be considered in terms of how good your special teams units are. Blocked kicks could certainly bring opponent field goal percentage down to a very small degree, but again, blocked kicks are already covered elsewhere.

• I'll also note that with extra points being moved back to the 15 yard line, perhaps it's worth adding PAT percentage to the mix. 

Gosselin's piece had a Cowboys focus, in that he showed where the Cowboys finished in each metric, seeing as he writes for the Dallas Morning News. Here, we'll show where the Eagles finished in each metric, omitting the less important ones noted above and adding in PAT percentage:

Special teams metric Eagles NFL rank 
Kickoff returns 27.3 
Punt returns 12.9 
Kickoff coverage 18.7 
Punt coverage  8.1
Kickoff starting point 27.2-yard line 
Opposing kickoff starting point 22.7-yard line 
Net punting 40.7 11 
Field goal percentage  85.4%T-15 
PAT percentage 96.8% 12 
 Points scored14 
 Points allowedT-11 
 Blocked kicksT-5 
Opponent blocked kicks T-6 
Penalties 10 

In other words, the Eagles were pretty freaking good on special teams across the board in 2016. Here's your obligatory Dave Fipp gif:

* Note: I could not find data for takeaways and giveaways specifically on special teams plays.

Follow Jimmy on Twitter: @JimmyKempski

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