Some talented teams are struggling while longtime bottom-dwellers are making surprising runs. What's the secret to this crazy season? Special teams
The voice of the 60-year-old coach was weary. Almost resigned. "Thirty-three years I've been doing this," San Diego special teams coach Steve Crosby said last Friday. "In this one year I've had more things go wrong than in all those other years combined. Guys doing things I've never seen before."
Crosby laughed a bitter laugh. "Disturbing," he said finally. "Just ... well, disturbing. I mean, we've missed blocks that Ray Charles could have made. And if you think those plays don't cost you games, you're not watching football now."
An NFL team might not lose four games in 10 years because of special teams. San Diego lost four games in the first six weeks of the 2010 season due to incompetence in the kicking game. The most infamous: Week 5 at Oakland. In the first five minutes the Chargers had two punts blocked—equal to the number that Crosby's punt teams allowed in his first eight years with San Diego, covering 579 punts.
In those eight years Crosby had one long snapper, David Binn. This year he's had five. (Binn, who'd been long snapping for San Diego since 1994, suffered a season-ending hamstring injury in Week 1.) Crosby's two best coverage guys from 2009, Kassim Osgood and Antonio Cromartie, left through free agency and a trade, respectively. Their replacements, Quinton Teal and Richard Goodman, were signed off the street. Placekicker Nate Kaeding slipped and tore his groin while attempting a fourth-quarter field goal that was blocked in a 20--17 Week 6 loss at St. Louis. In a 27--20 Week 3 loss to the Seahawks, San Diego missed four tackles on a single kickoff, one of two that Seattle returned for touchdowns in the second half. Just when Crosby thought he was getting a handle on his problems—boom! Another punt blocked, 89 seconds into the game against the Titans on Sunday. San Diego also botched an extra-point attempt, allowing Tennessee to stay in the game until the final minutes of a 33--25 San Diego win.
The Chargers, at the season's midpoint, have the top-ranked offense and top-ranked defense in football. Philip Rivers has 2,649 passing yards, more than any other quarterback in history through eight games. But San Diego, which many thought would be playing for the NFL title in February, is 3--5, done in by its not-so-special teams.
The next time you go for a beer when the punter jogs onto the field ... don't. This year there's a chance you'll miss the play of the game.
SEPT. 26 SAN DIEGO AT SEATTLE
We feel that whenever they kick the ball to me, it's going to be a touchdown. If we don't score, we're pissed. Against San Diego that's 14 points. Think about that. Most games in the NFL are decided by six points or less. You've got a chance to win a game with big plays like that.
—LEON WASHINGTON, Seattle kick returner, whose runbacks of 101 and 99 yards against the Chargers accounted for two of the Seahawks' three touchdowns. Seattle sits atop the NFC West in part because of strong play in the kicking game.
Mamas don't raise their babies to be special teams players. Callers don't call talk shows to rail about the punt team. Fans in April don't microanalyze draft prospects, wondering, Can this guy be a good gunner? When college players dream of the NFL, not one of them envisions being a wedge buster. No one talks about, thinks about or wrings his hands over special teams. Until it's too late. That would be now, in the Year of the Kicking Game.
The first half of the season has had compelling story lines: the fall of Favre, the return of Roethlisberger, Moss madness, the decline of Dallas. The coaching seat is heating up under Mike Singletary in San Francisco and John Fox in Carolina, and it's downright scorching the Cowboys' Wade Phillips. Young quarterbacks in St. Louis (Sam Bradford), Tampa Bay (Josh Freeman) and just maybe Cleveland (Colt McCoy) have given hope to woebegone franchises, while Mike Shanahan might have fallen out of love with Donovan McNabb in Washington. The Jets and the Giants could play a subway Super Bowl deep in the heart of Texas. Cool year so far—and weird: If the season had been seven weeks long, the six NFC playoff teams would have been different from the six that made the postseason last January.
But there's a special place for special teams this season. In 2008, through seven NFL weeks, according to Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News, there were 38 of what we'll call "explosive plays" on special teams: touchdown returns, blocks and turnovers. This year, through seven weeks: 63.
OCT. 3 INDIANAPOLIS AT JACKSONVILLE
I'm just thinking, Don't overpower it. I play golf. I know when you swing easier and contact the ball better, it goes farther and straighter. Same with kicking. When I hit it, I couldn't see over the line, and I had to rely on the crowd to tell me if it was good. When they went nuts, I knew. No question—that's the highlight of my career.
—JOSH SCOBEE, Jaguars placekicker, who hit a 59-yard field goal (his career best by eight yards) as time expired to stun the Colts 31--28 in Week 4 and contribute to the dogfight in the AFC South this year. Scobee's was one of two 59-yarders so far this season; Denver's Matt Prater hit one in a 24--20 loss to the Jets in Week 6. There have been only 11 other field goals of 59 or more yards in NFL history.
The kicking game has ruined the Chargers. It's given the Chiefs and the Seahawks hope. A 68-yard run on a preposterous fake punt by Cleveland's Reggie Hodges helped lift the Browns to a shocking win at New Orleans. A disastrous performance in a 41--14 loss to the Patriots got Miami special teams coach John Bonamego fired, the first time in memory that a kicking-game coach was so scapegoated in midyear. The Redskins use 5'7", 150-pound rookie burner Brandon Banks to return punts and kicks; on Sunday, looking like a trick-or-treater dressed as an NFL player, Banks ran a kickoff back 96 yards against the Lions to briefly give Washington a fourth-quarter lead.
Two new rules enacted in the last two years, both related to player safety, have opened up the special teams game. To limit violent multiplayer collisions, kickoff teams no longer can use a four-player wedge to block for the return man; now that lead-blocking unit can be two players at most. And no longer can a player line up over the center on punts or placekicks to cave in an unprotected long snapper. This latter rule has created some blocking problems for linemen and also led to larger gaps in the middle of the field, such as the one that helped Hodges go up the gut against the Saints.
OCT. 24 CLEVELAND AT NEW ORLEANS
We've been working on this play since last year, and I give credit to the coaches for having the guts to call it. I'm back there buck naked, and I've got to present the ball like I'm punting before I take off. Hey, I would have taken nine yards—just enough for the first down. Sixty-eight, that's unbelievable. I just kept looking for one of their DBs to come up and tackle me. That's the kind of play that can change the climate of a game.
—REGGIE HODGES, whose fourth-and-eight fake broke open a seven-point game. Mediocre teams such as the Browns have to take chances against superior opponents. A fake punt with a 10--3 lead from your own 23-yard line is a pretty big chance.
Because clubs are always looking to save money at the bottoms of their rosters, special teams players are always turning over. That reduces cohesion in kick coverage, and it also opens up opportunities. A terrific crop of new runback specialists—seven of the top 10 kick returners at this season's midpoint are either rookies or new to their teams—has made the explosive return a part of the 2010 landscape. And Saints coach Sean Payton's gutsy call for an onside kick to start the second half of the Super Bowl last February has emboldened coaches and players. "That was in the championship game of our sport," Jets safety and special-teamer Jim Leonhard said. "To some degree that was a tipping point. I think we're seeing more coaches say, 'Let's really go out and get that advantage on special teams.'"
"Seems like it's been a perfect storm this year," says longtime special teams coach Bruce DeHaven, now in his second coaching stint with Buffalo. "So many great young return guys, a couple of different rules and totally different emphasis with the salary cap. First time I was here [from 1987 to '99] guys like Steve Tasker, Mark Pike, Dwight Drane, Hal Garner—they stayed core players on special teams for six, seven years in a row. Last week the eight players on the front of our punt-return team were all different from the ones who were on the same unit last December. You can get three second-year guys for the cost of one good eight-year vet. That wasn't a very big deal when guys like Tasker played."
Last Friday, Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff stood at the grease board in his office illustrating the turnover in his units. He joked that general manager Mike Tannenbaum hated to come in his office last spring because Westhoff would give him an earful for signing another aging veteran—LaDainian Tomlinson, Jason Taylor, Mark Brunell—with no special teams value and forcing Westhoff to improvise by plugging in a newbie. "Teams basically have a tough time affording the middle class anymore," Westhoff said. "The top-heavy teams are constantly struggling to find special teams players."
OCT. 4 NEW ENGLAND AT MIAMI
Coming out for the second half, we knew we'd be getting the kickoff, and our coaches said, 'It's time to go out and make a play. But you have to be smart. Make smart decisions.' When they kicked it, I saw the hole and just hit it. I went to the house. We changed the game with one play.
—BRANDON TATE, whose 103-yard TD return sparked a 35-point second half for New England in its rout of the Dolphins. The Patriots are contending for another Super Bowl berth thanks in part to consistent special teams impact.
Which brings us to the AFC West. The underdog Chiefs have built up their middle class, focusing heavily on the kicking game. The Chargers, prohibitive favorites, let Osgood, their star special-teamer, walk in the off-season and then were wracked by injuries and mental mistakes. Matt Cassel has nearly 1,500 fewer passing yards than Rivers; the Chiefs are 12th in the league in offense and 16th in defense, while the Chargers lead the NFL in both categories. Yet Kansas City is 2½ games ahead of San Diego entering the second half of the season. There are lots of reasons for that, but none bigger than the kicking game.
While the Chargers lost Cromartie to the Jets and Osgood to the Jaguars, the Chiefs bulked up in the kicking game. General manager Scott Pioli badly wanted to upgrade team speed and special teams in the 2010 draft. With their two second-round picks the Chiefs took runner-receiver-returner Dexter McCluster from Mississippi and cornerback-returner Javier Arenas from Alabama. "Our special teams last year were slow," Pioli said. "Very slow. You lose games if you don't get that fixed."
You win them if you do. In Week 1 the Chiefs and the Chargers met on a rainy night in Kansas City, and McCluster took a punt back 94 yards for a score. The Chargers dominated the game, outgaining K.C. 389 yards to 197. Final score: Kansas City 21, San Diego 14.
It got worse for the Chargers when Leon Washington almost single-handedly beat them with 101- and 99-yard kick returns. Then came the debacle of debacles.
OCT. 10 SAN DIEGO AT OAKLAND
We had guys coming off the edge, and they didn't account for me. I'm what we call the creeper in that scheme. When the defender stayed on the guy on the inside, there was nobody to pick me up and I shot the gap. Special teams are just as important as offense and defense. They can win a game, they can lose a game. That's been shown this year more than any other.
—ROCK CARTWRIGHT, Oakland running back, who blocked the Mike Scifres punt out of the end zone, giving the Raiders a 2--0 lead in their 35--27 Week 5 win.
On punt teams each lineman matches up with a rusher. This year that job has been made slightly more difficult by the existence of what the Raiders call the creeper, the rusher who's been displaced by the rule about lining up over the center. Regardless of the creeper's location, each punt-team lineman has to count from his left to pick up his man. The left wing blocks the outside rusher, the left tackle the second in line, the left guard the third in line, and so on. When San Diego played Oakland, the Chargers' left guard on the punt team was linebacker Antwan Applewhite. Cartwright was the third man from the left—Applewhite's guy. Cartwright got a late jump off the snap; Applewhite said he didn't see him and double-teamed the man to his right. Cartwright blocked the punt out of the end zone. Safety.
"If you're on a punt team and you can't count to three, you can't play there," said Crosby. So after the play, on the sideline, Crosby told Applewhite he was going to replace him; Crosby needed to be able to rely on the guard to block the third man in.
"Coach," Applewhite said to him, "please don't do that to me. I'll never do it again."
Crosby relented. As Applewhite said later, "I made a bad decision on the play. They wanted to take me out, but I wanted to show them I could do it."
Three minutes later the Chargers lined up for another punt. Out trotted Applewhite to play guard. Across from him, to his left, was a new third man, tight end Brandon Myers. Incredibly—Crosby cannot believe it to this day—Applewhite again helped on a man already accounted for, leaving his gap unplugged. Here came Myers. Boom! Another block, this time for a touchdown.
"Those mistakes were uncharacteristic of me," said Applewhite.
"Totally unexplainable," said Crosby. "You've just got to block number three ... one, two, three."
You know how they say it's the little things in football that turn out big? The missed blocks, the missed tackles? Those are the things that, in the Year of the Kicking Game, can decide playoff spots.
NEXT TIME YOU GO FOR A BEER WHEN THE PUNTER JOGS ON ... DON'T. YOU MIGHT MISS THE PLAY OF THE GAME.
THE SUPER BOWL ONSIDE KICK WAS A TIPPING POINT. NOW COACHES ARE TAKING CHANCES ON SPECIAL TEAMS.
PETER KING'SALL-PRO GATEFOLD
Photograph by JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
ERROR PRONE The Chargers, who have lost four games because of special teams mistakes, had this punt blocked and botched an extra point against the Titans but held on for their third win.
GEORGE HOLLAND/CAL SPORTS MEDIA (WASHINGTON)
OPEN FIELD San Diego gave up two TD returns to Seattle's Washington (left) and one to K.C.'s McCluster (below) in upset losses.
JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES (MCCLUSTER)
[See caption above]
LONG SHOT Scobee's last-gasp 59-yarder, one of two field goals from that range in three weeks, beat Indy and helped clog up the AFC South.