Matt Daniels knows that in football, special teams isn't viewed in the same light as offense and defense.
"Let's be honest, it's the red-headed stepchild," he said.
When the Vikings brought in a new regime and built out their coaching staff this offseason, little fanfare was given to the hire of Daniels as their special teams coordinator. The vast majority of the attention went to Kevin O'Connell and Wes Phillips on offense, Ed Donatell on defense, and the assistant coaches hired to complement them.
How it's perceived doesn't matter to Daniels. He takes pride in that phase of the game, and he's fostered an environment where the players care about it too. Josh Metellus and C.J. Ham are at the forefront of the Vikings' player-led special teams meetings on Fridays, something Daniels says he hasn't been around during his decade in the NFL.
"For those guys to take full responsibility and accountability for those type of things, that's where you see the excellent special teams play show up on Sundays, Mondays, or Thursdays," he said.
So far, whatever Daniels is doing is working. Through two games, the Vikings' special teams rank sixth in DVOA and eighth in PFF grade, and they've already produced a number of impactful moments. In the opener against the Packers, Greg Joseph drilled a 56-yard field goal, tying the franchise record for distance. On Monday night against the Eagles, a Patrick Peterson blocked field goal could've been a huge swing in the game if the offense had been able to capitalize on it.
It's not just the highlight plays, either. Rookie punter Ryan Wright, who beat out veteran Jordan Berry in a training camp competition, has been excellent so far. Wright ranks seventh in the league in net average, fifth in PFF punting grade, and is tied for the league lead with six punts inside the 20.
"Mr. Wright is doing an unbelievable job," Daniels said, revealing Wright's nickname. "Like I told you when we made the decision to go with Mr. Wright, I firmly believe he has a top-ten leg in this league. Guys trust him. I trust him. He always matches the hang with the distance and the direction, putting our cover team in elite positions to go down and find the football immediately. He put it on display Monday night on a big stage on the road, rowdy crowd. He just continues to answer the bell."
Along with Wright's punting and Joseph's kickoffs, the Vikings' coverage units have been great, helping them win the field position game. Put it all together, and special teams have been a bright spot for a Vikings team that got off to a great start by beating the Packers but received a reality check against the Eagles.
"I think it's been a real highlight, a real positive for our team," O'Connell told Paul Allen. "All you ask in that phase is that they win their phase. Their special teams unit versus our opponent, whether it's field position or game-changing plays, 56-yard field goals, punts to capture field position, and then when they can force a turnover-esque play like they did on the field goal block, we've gotta do something with that offensively. Could've been a real key to the game."
Daniels embodies the spirit of the Vikings' special teams units. He's young, he's energetic, he's hungry, and he understands the importance of the third phase of the game.
A former safety, Daniels went undrafted out of Duke in 2012 and carved out a four-year NFL career with three different teams. He got his start in coaching in 2018, spending two years with the Rams and then two with the Cowboys as an assistant special teams coach, learning under well-respected coordinator John Fassel. Then, in February, O'Connell gave the 32-year-old Daniels the opportunity to be a coordinator for the first time.
It may not have the glamour of offense or defense, but special teams is something Daniels is extremely passionate about.
"It's everything," he said of taking pride in special teams. "That's kind of who I am as a coach, is how can I get these guys to be truly invested and bought into special teams? We're in an all-star league where all-stars don't really want to play special teams, right, because that's the dirty work or that's not where you get in the limelight to shine. I try to make it so that we're just kind of talking about the chemistry, becoming as one, having a true impact on a game."
Key special teams roles usually go to backups like Metellus or Kris Boyd or Troy Dye. Peterson's blocked field goal — the fourth of his career — was an example of a starting player valuing that phase of the game. Daniels tries to keep everyone engaged by helping them understand their role and putting them in positions to make impactful plays.
"Special teams shows that your team has attitude, that your team has grit," Peterson said. "Those moments of the game, some teams take those parts of the game very lightly, and that part of the game can have game-changing plays."
You don't have to look back very far to see how important special teams can be. The 2020 Vikings ranked 31st in special teams DVOA, and it was something that really hurt them. They improved under Ryan Ficken last season, but Ficken left for the Chargers during the regime change. Daniels has come in and continued that momentum, adding his own imprint on things.
It's very early, but this special teams success seems like it should be sustainable for the Vikings. They have a kicker in Joseph who was lights out all training camp long. Wright, their punter, has a huge leg. They've got great athletes who can make an impact in every phase: kickoff coverage, kickoff return, punt coverage, punt block (they've come close to getting there a couple times already), punt return, field goal block.
And they haven't even gotten lightning-fast returners Kene Nwangwu and Jalen Reagor going much yet, which is something Daniels wants to see happen.
"That falls on me as a coordinator," he said. "I left a lot out there (on Monday) from a return phase standpoint. As I continue to get to know those guys, Kene and JR, I gotta put those guys in better positions. I’ll do that moving forward as we continue to build that chemistry."
If Daniels, assistant coach Ben Kotwica, and their players continue to make special teams a real emphasis and execute at a high level across the board, it could be a legitimate advantage for the Vikings this season.
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