Special teams excellence starts in New England & Baltimore

Rick Gosselin

Bill Belichick understands the value of special teams. So does John Harbaugh.

Belichick began his NFL coaching career as an assistant special-teams coach with the Detroit Lions. Harbaugh began his NFL coaching career as a special-teams coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles. Now both are head coaches -- Super Bowl-winning coaches, in fact – and neither left their special-teams roots behind.

Under Belichick, the Patriots fielded the NFL’s best special teams in the 2010 decade. Under Harbaugh, the Ravens fielded the second-best special teams of the decade. Unlike many of their head-coaching brethren, Belichick and Harbaugh honestly believe special teams are an equal third of the game along with offense and defense.

I’ve charted special teams since the mid-1980s, compiling annual rankings for NFL kicking games. The 32 teams are ranked on a 1-32 scale in 22 categories (kickoff returns, punt returns, net punting, blocked kicks, penalties, etc.). One point is awarded to the best team in each category and 32 points to the worst. Add up the point total of each team in the 22 categories and you get a team’s ranking for the season. The lower the number, obviously, the better.

New England’s composite score for the 10 seasons of the 2010 decade was 283 points. Baltimore was next with 301.6 points, followed by Kansas City at 322.4 points.

The teams that finished in the Top 10 in special teams for the decade combined to win seven of the 10 Lombardi Trophies. Seven of the Top 10 special teams reached the Super Bowl – and they combined to claim 13 of the 20 Super Bowl berths in the decade. The Top 10 special-teams finishers also combined to win almost half of all the division titles awarded in the decade and claim almost 45 percent of all the playoff berths.

Here’s the composite ranking for the decade:

1. New England 283 (5 Super Bowl appearances)

2. Baltimore 301.6 (1 appearance)

3. Kansas City 322.4 (1)

4. Miami 329.8

5. Philadelphia 333.1 (1)

6. LA Rams 335.5 (1)

7. Seattle 340.6 (2)

8. Cincinnati 343.2

9. San Francisco 348.7 (2)

10. New Orleans 354.2

The Patriots led the NFL in special teams twice in the decade, as did the Eagles. The Ravens, Rams, 49ers and Saints all led the league once. New Orleans, in fact, led the NFL in special teams in 2019 with a score of 256. The Ravens finished in the Top 5 seven times in the decade, the Patriots six.

Baltimore and New England have each made specific roster commitments to the kicking game. Belichick assembled an all-star cast of special-teams aces in Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Brandon Bolden and Justin Bethel. Slater, Ebner and Bolden all blocked kicks last season, Bethel recovered two fumbles and Slater one and Slater also scored a touchdown on a blocked punt.

The Ravens spent a sixth-round draft pick on punter Sam Koch in 2006 and 15 years later he’s still handling fourth downs for Baltimore. The Ravens signed kicker Justin Tucker as an undrafted free agent in 2012 and he has now given Baltimore eight consecutive seasons with at least 128 points. Tucker also is the most accurate field-goal kicker in NFL history with a staggering conversion rate of 91 percent. Both Koch and Tucker have been to the Pro Bowl.

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