Using marqueeplayers on kicking and punting units is a risk-reward gamble plenty of teamsfind tempting
EVERY NFL coachpurports to place a premium on special teams, but few of them agree on theideal makeup of a successful unit. That's particularly true when it comes todeciding whether or not to use the team's best players. Should starters play onpunts and kickoffs, where some of the most violent collisions take place? Someclubs exclude their position starters from special teams duty as much aspossible; for others, only quarterbacks and franchise running backs and widereceivers are off-limits.
"There's anunbelievable difference in where teams fall on the spectrum," says BobbyApril, who coaches the Bills' highly regarded special teams. "Ourphilosophy is that you want guys out there who are really hungry; you want guyswho are tenacious and aggressive and get after it. A lot of starters won't giveyou that. It's not that they're not team players, but it's human nature that ifyou're not rewarded for something, you don't want to do it.
"If a startingmiddle linebacker plays poorly on special teams, there aren't a lot oframifications except that your special teams are not very good. But you're notgoing to cut him or demote him, and he knows that. So you have to decide whohas the constitution to go out there on special teams and kick ass. Somestarters will, and some starters won't."
An informal SIsurvey of coaches revealed that most NFL teams use some starting offensive anddefensive linemen on field goal and PAT units because those plays don't requiredownfield running. There's less uniformity on what some coaches call the BigFour: return and coverage units for punts and for kickoffs. Those lineups areusually made up of reserve linemen, plus starters and reserves at linebacker,defensive back and tight end. How many starters and how often they're usedvaries widely.
The preference ofthe Broncos, Browns, Bucs, Chiefs, Colts, Lions, Ravens and Steelers is toleave the special teams to backups and a select group of starters, primarilyfrom the defense. However, on the Jets, Patriots, Redskins, Titans and Vikingseveryone except quarterbacks and some high-salaried skill-position players isliable to be assigned to coverage and return teams.
"I tell thedefensive and offensive players, 'If you get tired, you're coming out of thedefense or offense, not out of special teams,'" said Jets coach EricMangini. "Those plays relate to field position, where you start or what youhave to defend. It's so important to win that battle each week."
Texans specialteams coach Joe Marciano uses a rotation at some spots to keep his playersfresh; starting linebackers Morlon Greenwood and Danny Clark, for instance,alternate assignments at guard on the punt team. "It's the guys who don'tcome off the field, like middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, that I don't use onspecial teams," says Marciano. "It's hard to get mileage out of guyslike that."
But sometimes evensuperstar players get the call. Inconsistency on coverage teams compelled theBroncos to employ All-Pro corner Champ Bailey, one of their fastest defendersand surest tacklers, as the last man back on kickoffs. The move paid off whenBailey made four touchdown-saving open-field tackles in Denver's first fourgames. Other elite players who see time on special teams include Ed Reed of theRavens, Ronde Barber of the Bucs, Sean Taylor of the Redskins and RodneyHarrison of the Patriots. Even linebacker Junior Seau, a 38-year-old futureHall of Famer, has played some kick coverage for New England.
Chargers specialteams coach Steve Crosby says that with only 45 players suiting up on Sundays,and skill-position players such as backup quarterbacks and wideoutsunavailable, it's imperative that starters participate on special teams."It's impossible to have any kind of success in the kicking game withoutusing starters at some point," he says. "What I've tried to do is limita starter to two teams. Like cornerback Quentin Jammer—he's on our kickoff andpunt-return teams, but nothing else."
Injury is theobvious concern with starters. Another factor is that clubs don't want to drawa player's focus away from his primary duty. On the other hand, some starterslobby coaches to get on special teams. "They come to me and say, 'Coach,you know if you need me, you got me,'" says Crosby. "These guys aretremendous that way. In my meeting the night before the [Oct. 7] Denver game, Isaid [to linebacker Shawne Merriman], 'If we need you and you've got to cover akickoff, can you do it?' He said, 'Are you kidding me? I'm there.' In themiddle of the game he walked up to me and said, 'I'm ready to go.'"
Merriman wasn'tneeded that night, with the Chargers on their way to a 41--3 win. But don't besurprised if he's out there—alongside or across from another All-Pro—when thenext call comes.
Trotter's Take: Anderson Rising
The biggest surprise of 2007 may be the play ofquarterback Derek Anderson. Since replacing Charlie Frye early in the Browns'opener, Anderson has thrown 17 touchdowns against eight interceptions whileleading 4--3 Cleveland to its best start since 2001. Anderson can become arestricted free agent after the season, and if he and the Browns don't agree onan extension, Cleveland figures to give Anderson the high tender ($2.562million next year), meaning any team that signed him would have to give theBrowns first- and third-round picks—too high a price for a player who's had onegood season. What's it all mean for first-round pick Brady Quinn? Likelyanother season on the bench.
CLIFF WELCH/ICON SMI (BARBER)
GUEST STARS Barber, Reed and Bailey (left to right) are Pro Bowl players valued for their special teams work.
MARK LYONS/EPA (REED)
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GREG TROTT/GETTY IMAGES (BAILEY)
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JEFF ROBERSON/AP (ANDERSON)