"This may sound funny, but not many guys, deep down inside, want to block a punt. Oh, a lot of them will bust in there, but only a few are really willing to put their face In the kicker's foot."
—Marv Levy, Redskin special-team coach
"Little Noland Smith—Super Gnat—man, he was tiny but he led the league in returns. Then one day Noland finally got around to thinking about what he was actually doing out there running those kicks back, and after that...."
—a former Chief teammate of Smith's
The most dangerous calling in pro football is playing on the so-called "special teams," which is a polite, formal version of "suicide squads" or "Kamikaze corps." No matter what the special teams are doing—running back a punt, covering a kickoff or assaulting a field-goal kicker's shin—the overall impression is all-out war. Their activity, however, is never the haphazard charge it seems to be; special teams rely not only on recklessness and mayhem but on such subtleties as the calling of automatics, "ball stripping" and a stopwatch quest for the statistical and strategic edge. In recent seasons the mission of a special team has become so finely honed that Coach Paul Brown of the Bengals says, "It's more important than it's ever been in the past. So many games are won or lost now by the performance of special teams."
Special teams are on the field for 20% of the plays. Moreover, says Man Levy, the assistant coach on the Redskins in charge of special teams, "Something significant happens on every kicking play. There is a specific attempt to score, or a large amount of yardage is involved, or there is a change in ball possession. These are things that determine the course of ball games."
October 22, 1972
The 1972 season is a banner year for special teams. More first stringers than ever are being assigned to the suicides. San Francisco 49er Coach Dick Nolan believes his special squads are so important that he has given the assistant coach in charge of them carte blanche to use any players he wants. Bobby Bell, the Kansas City Chiefs' perennial all-league linebacker, centers the ball for punts and placements, and Ed Podolak, Kansas City's leading rusher the last two years, handles kickoff returns. Middle Linebacker Bill Bergey of the Cincinnati Bengals tries to break the wedge on kick-offs, and Lemar Parrish, the team's best cornerback, returns punts and kickoffs.
In all the NFL no club is better known for its care and feeding of special teams than the Redskins. Coach George Allen goes out of his way to keep special-team men on his roster. "George makes it known that special teams really are special," says Levy. Speedy Duncan, who will soon become the alltime NFL kick-off-return yardage leader, adds: "George puts more emphasis on more phases of the game than I ever thought existed. I've been re-ignited."
In 1969, when Allen was head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, he made a breakthrough by hiring Dick Vermeil as the league's first assistant coach in charge of special teams. "Everyone laughed," says Upton Bell, general manager of the Patriots. "They all thought George was crazy to hire another assistant. Mm he won a lot of games that year. Nowadays, whether or not a team hires a special coach to handle the special teams, there is at least one coach designated as such."
In 1970 Vermeil left the Rams, and Levy, who has respect for Allen's insights into football, applied for the post and got it. When Allen moved to the Redskins last year, Levy went with him. Now 44, Levy was both a running back and Phi Beta Kappa at Coe College in Iowa, earned an M.A. in history from Harvard and served as head coach at New Mexico, the University of California and William and Mary. When he shifted to the Redskins, one of the players who caught his eye was Bill Malinchak, a wide receiver who had been cut by the Lions after he beat up a teammate in a street brawl. To his professional pleasure, Levy found that Malinchak possessed a rare willingness "to put his face in the kicker's foot."
Thus far this season, Malinchak has been the league's most successful ball hawk. In the opening game against the Vikings he blocked a punt to score one touchdown and recovered a fumbled kickoff to set up another. Against the Patriots he blocked a punt in the final seconds, settling for a safety instead of a touchdown when he recovered it just outside the end zone. Following these heroics, opposing teams have assigned one man just to hold off Malinchak,—who charges the kicker from an angle on the outside. Levy is not worried. "If you get a team concerned about one man," he says, "it is bound to leave itself open somewhere else and increase our options."
The Redskins have seven special teams: the kickoff-return team, the kick-off-coverage team, the punting team, the punt-return team, the field-goal-kicking team, the field-goal and point-after-touchdown rushing team and the onside-kick-defense team. The Redskins keep detailed statistics on both their own and their opponent's special teams, and Levy, who stalks the sidelines during a game with a stopwatch in hand, is able to reel them off the top of his head. For instance: "Last year we returned 62% of the punts and our opponents returned only 29% against us."
The basic Redskin strategy for the kick-off-return team is to get the ball out to the 30-yard line. "The kickoff return is an organized blackboard play," Levy explains. "Some teams will change theirs week to week to take advantage of an opponent's apparent coverage weakness, but I don't agree with that approach. We have several returns that are basic, and we keep working with them. The timing of our blocks is important, and who you block is 25% of your success. How far back we start our wedge is important too, but I don't want to be specific about that—let the other teams find out for themselves. In general, we use a battering-ram action out to the 30-yard line. If you gel the ball out to the 30, you've done well. The good kickoff return man does not think touchdown. He thinks get to the 30. Then he thinks touchdown."
Other teams operate differently. Coach Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins, who has Mercury Morris as his primary kick-off-return man, says, "Our idea is to break it," while Kansas City Coach Hank Strain says, "If you tell your squad you are satisfied with a return to the 30, the players will think they are doing a good job if they just get back to the 30. With today's kickers having the range they do, it's important for us to try to get to midfield. There we have a real chance of getting three points."
On kickoff-return coverage, the Red skins aim to keep the opposing team inside the 25. Levy says, "The keys are, number one, a high kick, and two, having your players get down the field quickly. Most of our people do the 40-yard dash in 4.7, 4.8, maybe 4.9. If we can hang the kickoff for 4.1 or 4.2 seconds, by the time the ball is caught on the goal line, most of our coverers are inside the 30-yard line and they should meet the ballcarrier around the 15."
A man to watch on the Redskin kick-off-coverage team is Rusty Tillman, an aggressive, intelligent reserve linebacker who plays on all the kicking units. Tillman is "R1" or "R2," the first or second man to the right of the kicker, Curt Knight. Tillman's job is to break up the wedge, the four-man strong-arm crew that is used to protect the ballcarrier. "When some players meet the wedge," Levy says, "they tend to pull up. Rusty sails in full speed and tries to take down two or three, either headfirst or with a side body block." The man who plays "L2," Mike Hull, is a reserve running back who has, in Levy's words, "a knack for knifing through the wedge." In the first four games of the season, Hull, Tillman and company fully met their statistical objective: not one opposing kick returner got past the 25.
On punt coverage, the Redskin objective is to keep the opposing team from making any runback whatsoever. In their first four games, Levy's men had done even better than that; their opponent's average was—0.4 yards per return. Mike Bragg, the Washington punter, has averaged only 39.5 yards, a figure that seems poor, but he hangs his kicks high, allowing his teammates time to get down-field and contain the return men.
Statistically, a punter like Jerrel Wilson of the Chiefs, who has a 48.5 average, looks to be the best in the league, but as Hank Kuhlmann, the Green Bay Packers' new special-team coach, says: "Wilson tends to outkick his coverage." The average return of a Wilson punt is 11.8 yards, which means the Redskin punting game is better than the Chiefs': 39.9 yards to 36.7. As a general rule, AFC punters kick for more distance than those in the NFC—and are more prone to get burned by long returns.
The ideal, says Levy, would be a punter who can kick the ball between 40 and 45 yards and have it in the air for five seconds. "The exceptions are when you are backed against your own goal, which forces you to go for raw distance, or when you are on their 45 and perhaps because of the wind, the score or the dangers involved, you don't want to try for a field goal. Then you want to nudge a punt down inside the 10."
A 42-yard, five-second punt should require a fair catch, but as Levy points out, "The good safety men in the league have their egos. If they're not getting their returns during a game, their ego is going to force them to try. They're like good baseball hitters who will swing at bad pitches. This means the kicking team's chance of recovering a fumble is greater than it should be." With this in mind, the Redskins practice forced fumble drills. "There are several ways of stripping the ball," Levy says. "If we have a return man hung up, we instruct our people to go for the ball, to hit an elbow, to try various little things."
To guard against their own safety men fumbling, the Redskins harass their quite bold kick returners—Duncan and Ted Vactor—in "bother drills." The defenders scream, they poke their fingers in Duncan's and Vactor's faces and they whack them on the helmet. Duncan takes it all as part of the job. He has a lifetime average of 11.8 yards per punt return. "Punts have been good to me," he says.
In practice or in an actual game, Duncan is able to isolate himself as he awaits a punt. "I don't hear a sound," he says, "and my vision is locked in." All he sees is the ball arching down. It is his call: "Me" or "You," himself or Vactor.
When the word is "Me," Duncan begins to talk to himself: "Catch the football, Speedy. You can't go anywhere without the football." He does not react further until he hears Vactor shout the fail-safe command, either "Fair catch" or "Take it."
Duncan is on the small side—5'10" and 180—but he is not bothered by the tension or the high incidence of injury in his field of endeavor, one that Don Shula calls "the greatest pressure situation in sports."
"Running back punts is challenging," says Duncan. "It's like being a race driver. I always tell myself, man, I never could be a race driver. But I guess a race driver would say, man, I could never stand out there and catch punts."
Duncan is probably right. The whole thing sounds, well, suicidal.