A day later, Dave Fipp was not lamenting his plight, or rending his garments.
“To be honest with you, I thought it was fun,” the Eagles’ special teams coordinator said Friday, after experiencing the NFL’s new kickoff rules in action during Thursday night’s 31-14 preseason-opening loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. “A little bit different play, not a whole lot different. I thought both teams handled it well. I think it’s going to be a fun play.
“I’m encouraged by the changes the league’s made. I think, overall, it’s going to trend in the right direction. I think the play’s still going to be exciting. I think it’s definitely going to be safer.”
Flags flew on four of nine kickoffs, three times against the Eagles. The Steelers’ penalty was for someone being offside, as the kicker addressed the ball; players covering kicks can no longer get a running start, and must line up no more than a yard behind the kicker.
“The margin for error [now], being offside and onside on a kickoff play, is really narrow,” Fipp said.
Two of the Eagles penalties were for illegal double-team blocks. Fipp said that upon reviewing the film, the first time, an Eagles player was shoved into a Steeler who was already being blocked, the second time the contact was inadvertent, as the Eagles player was trying to maneuver to block someone else. Fipp seemed to be saying Friday that after going over those plays with the league office, he found agreement there that these were not the kinds of situations the new rules had in mind.
“I was encouraged with what the league said, I’ll just say it that way,” Fipp said. “Over the next four weeks, all that stuff will work its way out.”
Fipp understands the intent behind the rules, which include not allowing kickoff coverage teams to get a running start. The idea is to preserve the prospect of thrilling returns while limiting high-speed collisions and dangerous blind-side hits.
“I think it’s definitely limited some big players from getting big-on-little matchups,” he said.
After the game, Eagles linebacker and special teams player Corey Nelson said he thinks the new rules will create more returns, “because there’s going to be a lot more one-on-one blocks now. So now, it’s all about can you beat your guy one-on-one. And if you can, the floodgates are wide open, because there’s so much space now for the returner.”
Fipp also closely followed the work of untested punter Cam Johnston. The Eagles, facing an offseason of tight salary cap maneuvering, basically decided they could no longer afford reliable 14-year veteran Donnie Jones. Johnston, from Australia by way of Ohio State, was with the Eagles for their 2017 training camp and might have won the job then, had he not been so shaky as a neophyte holder for kicks.
Cameron Johnston is the lone punter on the Eagles’ training camp roster.
This camp, Johnston, 26, seems to be doing great with the holds. His punts, though, have been less than consistent, and observers have puzzled over the Eagles’ decision not to provide Johnston with training camp competition.
Against the Steelers, Johnston punted six times, with an average gross of 45.8 yards. His longest official punt went 57 yards, though Johnston also hit an astonishing 81-yarder that was called back because Eagles tight end Richard Rodgers ran afoul of the NFL’s new rules on lowering the helmet.
“Cam, I thought, for his first game out there, did a nice job,” Fipp said. “He did a good job holding the ball … His punting, I thought his operation was good – his catch, his get-off, the time, all that stuff. At times he’s a little bit inconsistent. He’s gotta work that out. He obviously showed some exceptional leg talent on the long ball.
“He had the three plus-50 punts [kicked from inside the 50] early in the game, and put those down in there, good position. Maybe we can be a little more aggressive on those.”
All three were downed inside the 20, but outside the 10.
“He ended up netting [43.8] with three punts inside the 20, which is hard to do, so I thought that was encouraging,” Fipp said. “I’m excited about him. I think he’s on the right track; he’s gotta continue to work, continue to grow, continue to improve, but right now I would say I’m really encouraged by what he’s doing.”
Fipp said consistency is the bane of both rookies and vets in the punting business.
“He’s a little further away than some of the best ones,” Fipp acknowledged. “But I think all the young punters who come into this league have ups and downs, it’s just whether or not you can get through it with them. And then those guys end up turning into really good players.
“I would say the encouraging thing for him is he’s shown excellent leg talent. He’s hit a number of 70-plus-yard balls in practice here, he’s hit a number of 60-plus-yard balls … That’s hard to get anybody to do, and do it with good hangtime.”
In the offseason, the Eagles initially announced Jones was retiring, then agreed to release him when he decided he wanted to see if he could sign somewhere at age 38. That hasn’t happened, and it’s natural to wonder if Jones, like backup safety Corey Graham last week, is going to suddenly show up one day and reclaim his job.
“I talk to him here or there. I think he’s pretty happy with where he is,” Fipp said of Jones. “I think if somebody paid him a lot of money and told him he could come in and punt on Sundays, he would do it. But I think the opportunity or situation would have to be just right for him.”
Scandal not in the air?
A report Friday by WIP Radio’s Howard Eskin stated that the NFL was looking into the Steelers’ use of a less-than-fully-inflated football in the second half of Thursday’s game.
The NFL’s statement on the matter was less titillating. The league said a ball “that was found to be defective was removed from play and will be sent to Wilson for review.”
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