Week 7 provided a vivid reminder of the power of special teams: the St. Louis Rams upset the Seattle Seahawks thanks to not one, but two spectacular special teams plays. The first, a decoy punt return that yielded a 90-yard return for a touchdown, set the stage for the Rams’ surprising win; the second, a fake punt pass from punter Johnny Hekker on 4th-and-3, sealed the victory for St. Louis.
And yet there’s a prevalent sense that in the not-too-distant future, special teams will look very little like what we see today. Enjoy this element of the game while it lasts.
In the last three years alone the league has done away with the three-man wedge on kickoffs, reduced the distance that tacklers can run on that play and moved the kick itself up five yards, from the 30 to the 35. Beginning with last season’s Pro Bowl, the kickoff was eliminated entirely, a move that seemed to fulfill the three-year-old prophecy of Giants owner John Mara, who said that he could see “a day in the future [when] that play could be taken out of a game.”
Only, it’s not just the kickoff. Seemingly out of boredom, the league experimented in the preseason with moving PATs back from the two-yard line to the 15, essentially creating a 33-yard field goal that kickers missed eight times in 141 attempts -- or three more than they botched in 1,267 attempts in all of 2013. Even that old metaphor about moving the goalposts has been redefined. Starting this season, they’re five feet taller.
The NFL promises that these types of changes will make special teams safer while ramping up the excitement. But how do special teamers -- the placekickers and punters, gunners and returnmen -- feel about constantly being singled out in the league’s crusades? SI empaneled 10 experts for a roundtable discussion on where special teams is today, where it’s going and what fans could be missing if that phase gets eliminated altogether. -- Andrew Lawrence
Our expert panel:
Greg Zuerlein: Rams’ placekicker; first NFL player to boot two 58-plus-yard field goals in one game
Johnny Hekker: Rams’ punter; made 2013 Pro Bowl after setting single-season record for net punt yards, 44.2
Kassim Osgood: 49ers’ gunner, receiver; three Pro Bowls as a special teams contributor
Jacoby Jones: Ravens’ returnman; owner of longest kickoff return (108 yards) in Super Bowl history
Devin Hester: Falcons’ returnman; record holder for most return TDs in a season (six) and career (20)
Jeff Fisher: Rams’ coach; 30-year NFL veteran and co-chair of NFL’s competition committee
What do you guys make of all this tinkering with special teams of late?
Tucker: I’ll say it like this: I think it’s real important to keep the foot in football. Not just because it will keep me employed but because this is a great game and there’s no reason to change it unless there’s a real safety concern. The goalposts being raised? I guess that’s understandable. But the extra point possibly being moved back? I don’t think the guys making the rules know what it feels like to attempt what many would consider an automatic operation when it’s negative-seven degrees, windy and the field is torn up.
Zuerlein: They say they want to move kickoffs up for player safety. But then they want to move the PAT back because it’s not as exciting. The kickoff becomes less exciting, more player safety; the PAT becomes more exciting, less player safety. Those kinda contradict each other.
Jones: The PAT and all that -- that’s [an issue] for the kickers. But moving the kickoffs up? That’s no biggie. If your leg is strong enough, then kick it out of the end zone. If not, and if I get my hands on it, we’re gonna return the ball no matter what. We’re bringing it out.
Hester: Last season was my first year having over 1,400 yards returning kickoffs -- and that was with [kicks moved up]. It was my career-high. It all depends on who you have returning kicks and whether or not the coach is putting a lot of trust in him.
Andersen: The kick return is really exciting -- but it’s also one of the most violent plays in football. It’s not for the meek. I would venture to guess that most severe head injuries happen on kick returns.
Jones: I just feel like, it’s football. If things happen, God forbid --but those things are gonna happen. That’s why they call it special teams. It requires a special type of player. Not everybody can do what we do, run down and cover kickoffs, play punt team, return. That’s why we’re special. That’s why some of us have jobs. A long time ago one of my coaches told me: To be a returner you’ve gotta be a fast fool.
Andersen: In the end, for safety, the league may get to a point where they say, Take the ball and start on the 25, or the 20.
Westhoff: The role of special teams -- the number of plays -- is diminishing. We’re already getting fewer and fewer kick returns because of the number of touchbacks. When I was last coaching special teams, in 2012, we had 22 plays a game, not counting field goals. With the new rules, teams have in the vicinity of 10 to 12.
Fisher: I understand Mike’s perspective. But when we [the competition committee] looked at the kickoff, injury numbers were off the charts compared to offense and defense -- especially the number of concussions. We had to do something. Those kicks that are not returnable? They’re not causing concussions. We haven’t had a concussion on a kickoff in two years.
Is there a way to keep the kickoff a live play but make it safer?
Westhoff: The thing they want to alter on kickoffs is the violent collisions that happen when players have 40-yard run-ups to each other. And that violence started when return teams began to treat kickoffs plays like offensive running plays -- like a power off-tackle run where you double team, trap, kick out, wall, seal, lead. Those collisions caused concern. ... I’ve pitched a solution [that keeps the majority of the return and kicking teams’ players within roughly 15 yards of each other at the start of the play]. It turns kickoff returns, essentially, into punt returns. But don’t throw the kickoff out the window. I don’t want to change this to flag football. That scares me.
Hekker: I like a setup where you avoid those straight-arrow, force-against-force collisions. I think that’s something -- just get people going in the same direction and have them block and maintain that down the field.
Hester: You could turn the kickoff into a punt, like after a safety, [with the majority of players lined up 10 yards apart]. That way you don’t have two guys going 100 mph into each other.
Perhaps there’s another way to spice up kickoffs -- what if you awarded the return team more field position for touchbacks so the kicking team is more compelled to keep a ball in play?
Anderson: I could see that happening, where a touchback comes out to the 25. It’d penalize the kicker for putting it out of the back of the end zone, but it would bring the strategy back in play. “Let’s hang it up five yards deep in the end zone and let the guy think about it.”
Hekker: But you’d be penalizing a kicker or a cover team for doing their job well. We’d be forced to kick the ball to the five-yard line. If you kick it one yard deep they’re just gonna take the touchback and get the extra yards. That would completely eliminate touchbacks, and then you’re going to have more injuries.
The NFL experimented in the preseason with moving the PAT back; that seems like the type of change, though, that would create more of these blow-up type plays that we’re talking about.
Hekker: PATs are usually just somewhat contested; defenders kinda let that play go. But pushing the PAT back creates a lot more rush -- a heavy collision. It’s a really tough thing, being on that field goal protection team, getting put on your back by guys who are bull-rushing you on the edge. Guy are getting planted back, and their helmet is the first thing hitting the ground. That could be avoided if the PAT was just kept where it is.
Moving the PAT back seems like it would put extra pressure on kickers, too, and make them easier scapegoats in defeat.
Zuerlein: Imagine a potential tying PAT late in a game. If the kicker misses and his team is down by one, then his team’s playcalling is going to be more aggressive, which will add excitement. On the flip side, now their opponent is up by one, and they’re just gonna sit on the ball. ... It could be good for kickers, though, if they move [the PAT] back permanently because kickers would be more valuable.
When it comes to kicking, it feels like: The more efficient that phase of the game becomes, the more the league is keen to poke a stick in the gears.
Tucker: I don’t think you need to punish guys for doing well, kicking efficiently. Quarterbacks are getting increasingly efficient every year, throwing for 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 yards. If you take the same idea -- make it harder -- then receivers shouldn’t be wearing gloves, quarterbacks should only be allowed to take three-step dropbacks. You can make the game harder on any position group, but I don’t think that’s going to make the game better. You should reward guys for doing well.
How could the league reward kickers?
Hekker: Maybe they change the point value of field goals depending on the yardage? That would jibe with the offensive mindset of football because if we miss those deep, high-value kicks, the opponent would have a shorter field on offense and they could drive and score points themselves.
Tucker: While that sounds kinda cool, I would say it’s a great game and there’s no reason to change it. The current system works for reality football. It works for fantasy. I think you leave it as is.
If the result of all this tinkering is that there are fewer special teams plays, as Mike suggests, then that would seem to leave fewer opportunities for guys who mainly contribute on special teams to eke out a living.
Hekker: Special teams is a proving ground. You’ve seen many guys who are now special teams stars but who started off as late-round picks, undrafted. Or maybe a guy was drafted at a position with some depth and wasn’t quite able to establish himself early on, so he made a living playing special teams -- a guy like Matthew Slater in New England who’s a receiver but who’s caught maybe three balls in his career. He’s a Pro Bowler, one of the best special teamers in the league, and he earns contract money like that.
Westhoff: I had a ton of those guys under me. Larry Izzo went to Pro Bowls, won a Super Bowl. Bernie Parmalee, Chris Hayes -- they helped win football games. When I was with the Jets, Chad Pennington was a young quarterback and did a great job for us, but he played on the shortest field in the NFL because of the work of guys like that. I’ve been asked numerous times if I would come back and coach. I’ve said no, because the job that I had, in my opinion, doesn’t exist today.
Osgood: It’s becoming more and more difficult to survive in a league where you’re looked upon as an increasingly less attractive asset. The thing is, there are so many hidden yards on special teams.
Westhoff: [Kassim had] one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen when his Chargers played at the Colts in the 2008 playoffs. He and punter Mike Scifres were outstanding. [Scifres punted six times, all landing inside Indy’s nine, for a 52.7 average; Osgood was always first to meet the returner.] What San Diego did with field position was ridiculous, and they won 23–17. I hate to see those kinds of guys disappear. They can really swing the pendulum in a game.
Hester: Guys [like Osgood], they get better and better each year. By Year 4 or 5, they’re masters of special teams. But by then their salaries are high. And now that guy’s coach is trying to free up space for the cap, and he thinks he can bring in a younger guy and pay him one-third of what this veteran guy was making and hope that he can do the same thing. Now he’s gotta regroom this rookie all over again for four or five years until he gets it -- and then he gets too expensive. It’s just a never-ending cycle.
Coaches: With fewer special teams plays, does that mean there’s less preparation?
Toub: I’ve been very lucky. I’ve only worked for two coaches -- Lovie Smith [from 2004 to ’12 in Chicago] and Andy Reid [from ’01 to ’03 in Philadelphia, plus the past two years in Kansas City]. And both of them understand how important special teams are. In K.C., I get the first meeting of the day; in training camp, we get an additional 15 minutes of walkthrough every other day. And we always get our full allotment of practice and meeting time. When a coach does that, it sends a message to the rest of the team: This is important.
Fisher: We spend a great deal of time on it here, too, and last year [Hekker, in his second year] set an NFL record in gross punt and net punt yards. We were first in the league in opponents’ field goal percentage. Throughout the season, half of our special teams practice is technique and fundamentals, as opposed to scheme. Because of that, we’re not afraid to do much. Take a punt out of the end zone right before halftime? We’re gonna do those kinds of things to get an edge. ... I’m not going to give you the exact amount, but there’ve been many times on offensive third downs where we’ve had a punt fake [ready to call] -- and then we converted the third down and went on with the drive.
Every time I see a trick play I wonder, How much more do they have in the bag?
Toub: Every coach has his bag of tricks. And then, once you get ‘em on tape, everybody steals ‘em. We’re all stealing from each other. Make no mistake, I stole from Westhoff over the years. That’s the way the NFL is. Every game, every week, I steal something from someone we play.
Westhoff: I remember one time we called for a fake on the first punt of the season! Now, as it turned out, [the opponent was not] in the look we anticipated, and we punted the football. That’s how it goes. People won’t believe this, but there were times when I called fakes as many as four, five, six times a game and we didn’t run any of them. The [defense we anticipated] was never there.
Going back to something you said earlier, Mike: Do you actually think teams are verging on folding special teams duties into another assistant coach’s job?
Westhoff: If the league’s not careful it could easily happen. I was doing media stuff for the last Super Bowl and I predicted that Percy Harvin would run back a touchdown against Denver. Why? The Broncos’ special teams hadn’t had to cover a kickoff in a month. A month. [Kicker Matt Prater had 13 straight touchbacks.] And they’d only covered a handful of punts. I used to have more than that in a half. So now, if you’re an owner, you might say, Wait a minute. Why do I need a coordinator and an assistant? And that, to me, is really disappointing. Are we there yet? No. But are we headed in that direction? Absolutely.
Given the many moving parts here -- including the evolving rules -- why don’t more special teams coordinators get head coaching jobs? It seems they might be better prepared to take on the role than their single-minded counterparts running the offense and defense.
Fisher: Hard to say. But the fact of the matter is, yeah, those guys love their jobs because they get to deal with both sides of the ball. They work with the entire team. I can’t answer why these guys haven’t gotten opportunities.
Toub: I wish you were a general manager. [Laughs.] I think you’re on to something, and I think John [Harbaugh, the Ravens’ coach by way of his post as Eagles special teams coordinator] would be the first to agree. Guys are getting interviewed. I got two interviews. I know [Falcons special teams coach] Keith Armstrong got an interview. [49ers special teams coach] Brad Seely, he got an interview. Even [Vikings special teams coach Mike] Priefer. I think owners and GMs are starting to open their minds up about the whole thing. The truth is, we work with the offense, the defense and we work with all situations on the field.
Westhoff: Teams interviewed me, but it didn’t happen for me. I’m disappointed, but I’m not bitter, because I liked my career. We don’t always get everything that we want.
Toub: Maybe down the road, you never know.