Elbert Shelley, the special teams specialist for the Atlanta
Falcons, owns a local limo service. In the off-season he not
only manages the company, called All-Pro Limousine, Inc., but
also drives one of its four cars. In May, Shelley was hired to
ferry five Dallas Cowboys around when they were in town for a
charity basketball game.
He didn't tell this group of passengers, which included wide
receiver Michael Irvin and defensive tackle Leon Lett, who he
was at first, but as Shelley was loading their bags into the
trunk, one of the Super Bowl champions looked at him curiously.
"Elbert Shelley of the Falcons," the limo driver said, holding
out his hand.
"Man, what are you doing driving us?" the Cowboy said.
September 1, 1996
Shelley chuckles at the memory. "People say that when they find
me driving them," he says. "But I'm not rich like a lot of
For the last four years Shelley's peers have elected the
31-year-old backup strong safety to the Pro Bowl for his
ferocious play on the Falcons' kickoff and punt coverage teams.
But as a special teamer Shelley makes about 10% of what his
premier lockermates in Honolulu earn. His 1996 salary: $275,000
(the NFL minimum for veterans with at least five years in the
league) and a $25,000 signing bonus.
G.M.'s aren't the only ones giving special-teamers short shrift.
Reporters and fans are equally guilty. "I used to be the same
way," says Eddie Sutter, a kick coverage ace for the Baltimore
Ravens. "I'd watch games and doze off when the punt team came on
the field. When the special teams play, that's when people go
get hot dogs."
But consider these numbers: Last season an average of 27 of the
156 plays per game were in the kicking game. Almost 30% of the
yardage gained was accumulated on punt and kickoff returns. And
virtually half of last year's regular-season games were decided
by a touchdown or less. So if half the games can be won or lost
on the outcome of one play out of 156, it stands to reason that
special teams can affect a game's outcome.
"I consider the kicking game as important as offense and
defense, an equal third of the game," says Buffalo Bills coach
"When we were setting up our team," says Dom Capers, the coach
of the second-year Carolina Panthers, "we thought defense came
first, and then special teams. We knew they'd be a vital part of
winning for us." Among the free agents Carolina signed last year
were the third-most-accurate kicker in NFL history, John Kasay
of the Seattle Seahawks; the AFC's leading kickoff returner in
1994, Randy Baldwin of the Cleveland Browns; the sixth-ranked
punter in the league, Tommy Barnhardt of the New Orleans Saints;
and special teams standout Paul Butcher of the Indianapolis
Colts. The Panthers won an expansion-record seven games.
So at least some people are willing to give special-teamers
their due. It has taken only about 60 years.
For the first two thirds of the NFL's life, kicking and punting
were afterthoughts or sideshows. In the first pro football game
played in New York, between the Cleveland Tigers and the New
York Giants on Dec. 3, 1921, a crowd of 3,000 got most excited
by the halftime show: a drop-kicking contest between Jim Thorpe
of the Tigers and Charlie Brickley of the Giants. The exhibition
ended in a tie, each player making all six of his attempts. In
1941 the Washington Redskins were in the middle of a run of four
championship-game appearances in six seasons. But how much
attention did they pay to their kicking unit? In one game the
Philadelphia Eagles' Bob Suffridge blocked three consecutive
extra-point attempts. The Redskins finished 6-5 and out of the
playoffs. Most teams used burly linemen--remember Lou (the Toe)
Groza?--to kick through the '50s. Even the Green Bay Packers
didn't have kicking specialists in their glory years of the
'60s; running back Paul Hornung doubled as a kicker.
In January 1969, with the Packers dynasty on the wane, special
teams were ushered into the modern era. That watershed moment
went like this. Dick Vermeil, Stanford's 29-year-old offensive
assistant and quarterbacks coach, was on a recruiting trip in
Southern California, staying at a friend's home, when the phone
rang. It was for Vermeil.
"Dick, this is George Allen, the coach of the L.A. Rams," the
caller said. "I'd like to talk to you about a job."
"Yeah, and I'm Bear Bryant," said Vermeil, who suspected a
coaching buddy who would hold up the phone to him and say things
like, "It's Frank Leahy. He wants you for the Notre Dame job."
An annoyed Allen spent the next couple of minutes convincing
Vermeil that he really was who he said he was. Within two weeks
Vermeil became the first coach hired exclusively to handle
"George told me the Rams had lost a crucial game at the end of
1968 because they had a kickoff returned for a touchdown on
them," Vermeil says. "He ordered Howard Schnellenberger, one of
his assistants, to break down every kickoff return that year and
grade every player on the unit. They were being instructed in
coverage but not graded like players were on offense and
defense. Schnellenberger found that the two guys who allowed the
touchdown hadn't made a tackle in kickoff coverage all year.
That's when George decided he had to hire a full-time special
Vermeil stayed just a year before taking the offensive
coordinator job at UCLA. His replacement with the Rams, Levy,
followed Allen to Washington in 1971; the next year the Redskins
blocked four kicks in 14 games and made it to the Super Bowl.
"Our level of preparedness made it feel like we were shooting
cannons at teams who had bows and arrows," says Levy.
Since getting the Bills' coaching job in '86, Levy has issued a
separate kicking playbook to his team each year. Page one reads:
Kicking plays are weighted more heavily in importance than
offensive or defensive plays, for three reasons:
1. There is a huge change of field position.
2. There is a change of possession.
3. There is a specific attempt to score.
The job of special teams coach has grown in stature since Allen
placed that phone call to Vermeil. "A decade ago this was an
entry-level job," Dallas special teams coach Joe Avezzano says.
"You did this until you got a real job. Now head coaches view it
as a crucial hire."
Getting the right coach for your special teams units has always
been a lot easier than getting the right players. Coaches
routinely pluck standouts off the kicking teams to fill holes in
the starting lineup. Special-teamers are also hit hard by the
fiscal realities of the NFL. This year the minimum salary for
fifth-year players rises from $185,000 to $275,000, and veteran
top-notch kick coverage men may find themselves without a job.
Avezzano notes that with a rookie minimum of $131,000, teams
sometimes can sign two youngsters for the price it costs to land
In this era of the salary cap, Avezzano might have the toughest
job of any of his peers. He has lost first-rate special-teamers
Kenny Gant, Darrick Brownlow, Matt Vanderbeek and Joe Fishback
to free agency because the Cowboys have so much money tied up in
stars like Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith. Avezzano knows he will
have to build his units with a solid veteran such as Bill Bates,
a couple of starters sprinkled here and there, and a bunch of
kids whom nobody has heard of.
"But I understand," says Avezzano. "I've got three [Super Bowl]
rings in the last four years, and they don't hand those things
out if you've got the best special teams. They hand 'em out if
you've got the best team."
So Avezzano and his peers are always on the lookout for fast,
inexpensive, fearless guys prone to violent behavior. "If the
NFL announced tomorrow that in football games from now on, bats
would be optional, everybody would carry Louisville Sluggers,"
says Buffalo's Steve Tasker, a choirboy look-alike who might be
the best special-teamer of all time. "It's a violent game."
"I've noticed that the guys with the big bonus money feel they
don't have to be great special teams players," says Shelley.
"It's demeaning to them. At crunch time they just don't have it
in them to destroy someone."
Do the great special-teamers feel fear? "You sit on the
sidelines, and you might think about it," Shelley says. "You sit
at the meeting Monday and watch film, and you think, God, how
did I walk away from that one? But when the whistle blows,
fear's the last thing on your mind."
Players like Shelley are underappreciated and unknown in part
because there aren't stats for what they do: change the tempo of
the game; knock the home team off its emotional high horse. It
has little to do with numbers but everything to do with
momentum. Ravens special-teamer Bennie Thompson helped teach the
Falcons that lesson a few years ago.
"I was with New Orleans in 1989," says Thompson, "and Deion
Sanders was hot. This was the year he hit a home run and came to
football a week later and returned a punt for a touchdown. He's
back waiting for a punt. The [Atlanta] crowd's chanting,
'DEE-on, DEE-on.' Well, he got his hands on the ball. I fought
through my block, and I'm going at him about 90 miles an hour,
and I just blew him up. And the crowd got real quiet. All you
heard was, 'Ooooohhh.' The crowd was out of the game."
Now that's special.