Special teams used to have a major impact and serve as a proving ground for players and coaches. The new rules have turned the third phase of the game into an afterthought—and sucked some of the fun out of football

By Mark Mravic
October 04, 2013

A touchback arguably is the most boring play in football. Because of recent changes in the rules, they have increased in frequency at an alarming rate. (Jason O. Watson/Getty Images) With recent changes in the rules, the frequency of touchbacks has increased, and special-teams units have been weakened. (Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: Mike Westhoff retired this year after a 31-year run as an NFL assistant coach and special-teams coach. He spent the past 27 years with the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets, and he was known for terrific coverage teams, led by career special-teamers like Bernie Parmalee and Larry Izzo. In his first season out of the NFL since 1981, Westhoff, 65, who is working as an analyst on the Jets’ radio network, has studied special-teams play through a month of the 2013 season—and he doesn’t like how the kicking game is trending.

By Mike Westhoff

One of my former players, Chris Hayes, called me this week. He had a good career, seven years, as a special-teams player with the Packers, Jets and Patriots, and we’ve stayed in touch since he left the game in 2003. The first thing he said to me was, “Coach, where have the special teams gone?”

I knew exactly what he meant. When Chris played, the nucleus guys on your kicking teams used to get 20 to 25 plays a game, maybe as many as 27. Now, they might get five to eight … five plays a game on which special teams can make an impact the way they used to. That claim takes some explanation, because obviously players are out on the field for many more plays in the kicking game than five. And I will explain it.

Mike Westhoff became a household name when he played a central role in HBO's 'Hard Knocks' in 2010. He retired from the NFL after the 2012 season. (Getty Images) Mike Westhoff became a household name when he played a central role in HBO's 'Hard Knocks' in 2010. He retired from the NFL after the 2012 season. (Getty Images)

But here’s the simple way to look at it. Matt Prater kicks off for Denver. Obviously, with that explosive offense the Broncos have, he’s going to be kicking off a lot. But through four games he’s had 25 touchbacks and only eight kicks returned. That, obviously, stems from the rule the NFL put into play in 2011—moving kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line. Prater kicked for Denver in 2010 too. He had only 20 touchbacks all season then. In 2010 he had 63 percent of his kicks returned. This year, only 24 percent of his kicks are being returned.

Is that good for the game? I don’t think it is.

Now let’s look at the other side of the ball for the Broncos. Their kick returner, Trindon Holliday, is one of the most exciting players in football. We all saw him light up Baltimore in the playoffs last year. And he’s got two special-teams touchdowns (one kick return and one punt return) already this year, with the rules as restrictive as they are. Even more amazing? Holliday has had a chance to return three kickoffs this season; the rest were touchbacks. So this play that gets stadiums going crazy and can change the momentum of a game in an instant (one of his three returns was a 105-yard touchdown), this play that gives Holliday a chance to make an NFL Films memory, has been mostly eliminated. Three kick returns for Holliday in four games.

Is that good for the game? I don’t think it is.

We’re in the entertainment business, and the league has taken away a lot of the entertaining plays.

I’ve got an idea to make Trindon Holliday and Devin Hester and the new kid in Minnesota, Cordarelle Patterson, impact players again—every Sunday. But let’s get to the crux of the matter first.

I understand why the NFL wanted to make some of the rules changes it has made on special teams. It’s not just the kickoff rule, where the NFL was trying to eliminate some of the big collisions that caused concussions and neck and back injuries. It’s also the rule protecting the center on extra points and field goals. Now you can’t line up over the center and crash into him before he’s able to protect himself. And you can’t push the pile either, creating the kind of force on the interior blockers on extra points and field goals that wasn’t good for the health of centers and guards. I get the rules. And I don’t want to damage football. But, with the kickoff rule, what I never understood is how the league could go from A to Z without trying some intermediate steps to make sure the excitement of the kickoff stays in the game.

Think of erasing players like Tasker, Parmalee and Izzo from football history. That’s a very big loss for the sport.

The byproduct of this is something no one seems to be paying attention to. Teams aren’t emphasizing special teams in the past two or three years when they fill out their rosters, for a very simple reason: There aren’t enough impact plays in the course of a game for a coach and general manager, when they’re cutting the roster, to keep a guy who may be nothing more than a backup at a certain position but who would be a great guy covering kicks or blocking punts.

What I worry about when I see the diminished impact of special teams on NFL games today is this: Would Steve Tasker or Bernie Parmalee or Larry Izzo have had careers in football today with these rules? Steve’s one of the best special-teamers of all time, and Bernie and Larry aren’t far behind. Think of all the games they won, or had huge impacts on. And think of erasing them from football history. I just think that’s a very big loss for the sport.

Larry Izzo (left), Bernie Parmalee (center) and Steve Tasker all made names for themselves on special teams, which might not be possible in today's NFL. (SI/Getty Images) Larry Izzo (left), Bernie Parmalee (center) and Steve Tasker all made names for themselves on special teams; the de-emphasis on kicking and coverage teams means it will be harder for players like them to emerge. (SI :: Getty Images)

Now we’ll get to my math—my point about impact special-teams plays being down from 25 to the single digits per week.

You’ve got eight elements of special teams: kickoff return, kickoff coverage, punt return, punt coverage, field goal, field-goal block, extra point, extra-point block. For the most part now, the field goals and PATs are automatic, unless you’re going to use a speed player from the wing to try to block it. You’re just not going to block from the middle anymore, unless a kicker kicks the ball too low. To block a kick from the middle, you’ve got to get penetration and push up the middle, and then have an athletic guy who can jump and make the block. You’re not going to get much penetration anymore with the new rules. So once in a while, maybe, if you see a real weakness in a team’s field-goal protection, you’d put a block on today. But mostly you don’t see the emphasis on the kick blocks that you used to.

On the kickoffs, I think coaches have de-emphasized coverage teams. And why not? The year before the rules change, Arizona returned 84 kicks. Through four games this year the Cardinals have returned five. If you go from five significant plays per game to one in one huge aspect of special teams, wouldn’t you think twice before spending a lot of time in practice on kickoff returns?

Part of the reason for returns like McCluster’s is that teams don’t place emphasis on acquiring good punt-cover guys and practicing with them.

So let’s say there’s three or four kickoffs a game—combining the coverage and the returns—that you’re going to have returns on. And the punts that aren’t touchbacks or fair catches, or downed inside the 20—maybe there are three or four of those. In the course of a game now, there’s about a third of the special-teams plays that used to be potentially impact plays. Maybe eight instead of 20 to 25. That’s going to have a huge impact on the game, for a couple reasons.

Did you see the Dexter McCluster 89-yard punt return against the Giants last week? He wasn’t touched on it. He’s a good returner, no question. But I believe part of the reason for that return is that teams don’t place the emphasis on acquiring good punt-cover guys and practicing with those good cover guys so that returns like that can be stopped.

For years, when I went out scouting before the draft, I’d look for guys who we could get as free agents and develop into core players on special teams. I’d tell ’em, “If you do what I say, and work hard at this aspect of the game, I can promise you a career in the NFL.” I remember going to scout Pat Tillman on Arizona State’s pro day. I watched him, flat-footed, jump up and grab the rim on the basketball court. He had everything—the desire, the athletic ability, the unselfishness—to have a long career on special teams. Maybe as a safety, but certainly on special teams. I told him, basically, “I don’t know if I can draft you, but sign with me and I can promise you a career.” The Cardinals beat us to the punch, obviously. They picked him in the seventh round, and he because a good safety. But my point is, the system now is making it hard to keep those marginal undrafted free agents and develop them into long-term special-teams players. They’re just not that valuable to teams anymore, and it’s easier for them to just keep signing guys every year and not develop players they might end up having to pay a little more money to in their fourth, fifth and sixth years.

I’m afraid if special-teams coaches want to advance up the ladder to be a head coach, it’s not going to happen. They’re on a one-way ride to Palookaville.

There’s one other thing I think the game is missing with the de-emphasis of the kicking game. I used to talk to John Harbaugh a lot when he was the Eagles’ special-teams coach. He once told me he spent more time drawing up plays to block my kick coverage. John really worked at it. You could tell by how prepared his teams were and by the impact plays they made. He made the most of his opportunity. But now, if you keep knocking out those plays, how will the next John Harbaugh ever get a chance to advance?

This is just one sign of that: In the first four weeks of the season, in all the games I’ve watched on TV, not once have I seen a shot of a special-teams coach on the sidelines, or an announcer talk about the special-teams coach. That’s because you don’t see the big special-teams plays. And unfortunately, for the coaches who put in so much time, I’m afraid if they want to advance up the ladder to be a head coach, it’s not going to happen. They’re on a one-way ride to Palookaville.

Here’s what is emphasized now: A punter who can put the ball way up in the air, preventing returns. A kicker who can put it consistently in the end zone. And the return guy who will be better than all the guys he’s trying to outrun. The core special-teamers? They’re gone.

*  *  *

Kickoff-Chart-800 My suggestion for a new kickoff format would reduce the high-speed collisions that endanger players’ safety while making the kickoff relevant again.

My idea to bring back the kickoff return is pretty basic. Take out a sheet of paper. You can diagram it yourself.

Draw a line at the 25-yard line. That’s your kickoff line. Your coverage team can line up no farther back than the 20-yard line. So put 10 guys behind the kicker, at the 20.

For the return team, you keep the same 10-yard no-man’s land from the kicking team’s 25- to the 35-yard-line. In the next 10 yards, from the kicking team’s 35 to the 45, the return team has to line up eight players. Behind that, I can play three players, anywhere I want. If you think the kicking team’s going to pop one up and try to race down through the traffic and recover like an onside kick, you can easily make a rule to prevent that: Make it just like a punt. After the kickoff goes 20 yards, the first touch has to be by the receiving team, or else the ball can just roll dead.

This would practically eliminate the touchback, unless you have a kicker who can kick one 80 or 85 yards. And it would eliminate the huge collisions. There won’t be the 40- and 45-yard sprints and collisions anymore, because the 10 guys on the kicking team would be met by the eight guys on the return team, 15 or 20 yards away. Really, it’s going to be like a punt. Guys will be blocking themselves in close quarters instead of getting flying starts at each other. Neither side will be able to build up that big head of steam to hit each other.

What it comes down to is this: Football’s just not as fun without the kicking game as an integral part of it.

You’d have to find people who could block in close spaces, people who could return, and people who could coach the strategy on both sides. I can coach this. It’s full of great strategic ideas, and the possibility of exciting return plays. I can’t coach the ball that’s kicked into the bleachers.

When I coached, I wanted to develop the next Devin Hester, but I also wanted to develop players who could stop Devin Hester. It’s fun on both sides.

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