July 2, 2024   6 MIN READ

Extra Special

After Breakout '23, Birds Special Teams Looks To Maintain Success


Typically an afterthought barring a game-altering swing, special teams is once again positioned to be a strong suit for the Eagles going into 2024.

Special teams coordinator Michael Clay, who in May took part in the NFL’s Coach Accelerator program and carries a soaring stock, returns for his fourth season.

Clay, 32, originally joined the NFL coaching ranks in 2014, serving as a defensive quality control coach under Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. He was retained in Philadelphia the following season, this time as an assistant special teams coach.

Clay then spent five years as an assistant coach with the San Francisco 49ers before returning to the Eagles as coordinator in 2021, under newly appointed head coach Nick Sirianni.

In 2022, the Super Bowl season, Clay presided over a beleaguered unit marred with gaffes, as well as situational and executional lapses.

Michael Clay

GETTY IMAGES: Special teams coordinator Michael Clay looks to keep building his group after a successful 2023 season.

Clay and his unit fell under intense scrutiny on the heels of Super Bowl LVII, in light of the Kadarius Toney 65-yard punt return in the waning moments of the fourth-quarter that enabled a 38-35 Chiefs comeback win over the Eagles.

Outside criticism swelled, some calling for Clay’s job without seeing the bigger picture.

The Eagles, who maintained unwavering support for Clay throughout the season, ultimately matched actions with words, retaining him in the same capacity.

Perceptions soon changed, as Clay rebounded in 2023, producing one the NFL’s premier special teams units.

For perspective, Clay oversaw a unit that finished first in DVOA – Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, a stat that measures a team’s performance vs. the league average – and fifth overall, per Pro Football Focus.

The unit also climbed from 31st to 10th on special teams expert/historian Rick Gosselin’s grading scale.

Eagles kicker Jake Elliott set franchise records in field goal percentage (93.8) and field goals of 50-plus yards (7). Punt returner Britain Covey finished first in the NFL in punt return yardage (417) and second in average (14.4).

Clay’s rebound perhaps best illustrates the importance of patience with young coaches, and the potential harm in believing in a short-sighted approach.

Similar to players, start-up costs need to be accounted for and coaches must be afforded patience and time to work through growing pains.

What the public sees doesn’t always align with the internal ideology.

With eyes on the rapid-rising Clay, the 30,000-foot view of his 2024 unit is promising.

Fueled by continuity and upward trajectory, pieces are in place to build off 2023’s success.

Elliott, along with long-snapper Rick Lovato and punter Braden Mann, were all signed to extensions in March, ensuring the snap-to-kick operation remains intact.

“It’s always nice to have those three guys back, the continuity,” Clay said in May. “They did an unbelievable job last year. It all starts with Rick, then Braden did a terrific job coming in after week 2 blending in and finding his groove.

“Jake is Jake. The last three years I’ve been here, he’s been an outstanding player. It’s always my job to try to push these guys to take it to another level to help this team out.

“Having those three together again and the continuity makes it easier and makes the whole team feel pretty confident knowing, when they go out there, they’ve shown that they can produce at a high level. So very exciting and well-earned out of those three to get those extensions.”

In addition to having his specialists in place, Clay also has the luxury of having Covey as a highly intelligible, sure-handed punt returner who offers short-area quickness, vision and the ability to flip field position on any rep.

Few prepare or obsesses over their role as much as Covey does. Decisive and alert, Covey will have an opportunity to replicate his breakthrough sophomore campaign.

Another wrinkle added to the equation is the new kickoff rule, accentuating the value of coverage specialists, creating jobs and conjuring strategy, while also skewing things in favor of a more exhilarating and impactful returns.

A newcomer – in this case cornerback Isaiah Rodgers, or perhaps even rookie running back Will Shipley – could provide an immediate boost.

Ben VanSumeren

GETTY IMAGES: If he makes the 53, second-year LB Ben VanSumeren could be an instrumental piece of the Eagles’ special teams.

Complicating matters for Clay is sure to be identifying his core contributors and leaders, of which the Eagles have no shortage.

The Eagles arguably lost their nucleus before the start of last season, when linebacker Shaun Bradley and cornerback Zech McPhearson both went down with season-ending injuries.

McPhearson, a standout gunner and unit leader on the Super Bowl roster, says he’s 100 percent healthy. But the 26-year-old cornerback, who offers positional value due to his inside-outside versatility, must emerge from a crowded room to earn a roster spot.

It’s hard to imagine key members of Clay’s 2023 unit, namely cornerback Kelee Ringo (305 snaps) and edge rusher Nolan Smith (245), factoring prominently if they’re seeing more playing time on defense.

That’s where players such as cornerback Josh Jobe, who filled in admirably in the absence of McPhearson, and second-year linebacker Ben VanSumeren potentially fit into the picture.

Jobe, who led the unit in snaps (323) and landed on the Pro Bowl ballot, isn’t being discussed enough and could stick as a result of his third phase value.

The same applies to VanSumeren, though he seemingly faces a cleaner path to the 53-man roster.

When whittling down the roster, especially in light of the new kickoff rule, teams often make final decisions based on special teams. And Clay usually points to Jobe first, with VanSumeren mentioned in the same breath.

“Like I usually tell everyone, I lean on everybody,” Clay said. “If you look back to last year, we leaned on rookies, undrafted rookies, veteran guys, guys coming off practice squad.

“It’s my job as a coach, as a coordinator here, to make sure all 90 guys are ready and willing to play special teams. So, I’ll lean on everyone.

“They’ll take it on their own to be leaders, and I don’t have to really worry about that because I think this is a very good unit in terms of holding each other accountable and pushing each other to a new level.”

Andrew DiCecco (@AndrewDiCecco) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.

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