Think You're Special?

October 27, 2014

Punting may be at its peak, but there's a prevalent sense that in the not-too-distant future, special teams as a whole will look very little like what we see today. In the last five years alone the NFL has done away with the three-man wedge on kickoffs and moved the kick itself up five yards. (In the 2014 Pro Bowl the kickoff was eliminated entirely.) The league experimented in the preseason with pushing PATs back to the 15-yard line, and even that old metaphor about moving the goalposts has been made real: This season the uprights are five feet taller. The NFL promises these types of changes will make special teams safer while ramping up the excitement. But how do placekickers and punters, gunners and returners feel about constantly being singled out in the league's crusades? SI empaneled nine experts for a roundtable discussion.

WHAT DO YOU GUYS MAKE OF ALL THIS TINKERING?

TUCKER: I'll say it like this: I think it's real important to keep the foot in football. Not just because it will keep me employed, but because this is a great game and there's no reason to change it unless there's a real safety concern. The goalposts being raised? That's understandable. But the extra point being moved back? I don't think the guys making the rules know what it feels like to attempt what many would consider an automatic operation when it's --7º, windy and the field is torn up.

ZUERLEIN: They say they want to move kickoffs up for player safety. But then they want to move the PAT back because it's not as exciting. The kickoff becomes less exciting, more player safety; the PAT becomes more exciting, less player safety. Those kinda contradict each other.

JONES: The PAT and all that—that's [an issue] for the kickers. But moving the kickoffs up? That's no biggie. If your leg is strong enough, then kick it out of the end zone. If not, we're gonna return the ball no matter what.

HESTER: Last season was my first year having 1,400 kick-return yards—and that was with [kickoffs moved up]. It all depends on who you have returning and on whether or not the coach is putting a lot of trust in him.

ANDERSEN: The kick return is really exciting—but it's also one of the most violent plays in football. It's not for the meek.

JONES: I just feel like, It's football. If things happen—God forbid, those things are gonna happen. Special teams require a special type of player. That's why some of us have jobs. A long time ago one of my coaches told me, To be a returner you've gotta be a fast fool.

ANDERSEN: For safety, the league may get to a point where it says, Take the ball and start on the 25 or the 20.

WESTHOFF: The role of special teams—the number of plays—is diminishing. We're already getting fewer kick returns because of the number of touchbacks. I've been asked numerous times if I would come back and coach. I've said no, because the job that I had, in my opinion, doesn't exist today.

FISHER: I understand Mike's perspective. But when we [the competition committee] looked at the kickoff, injuries were off the charts compared with offense and defense—especially the number of concussions. We had to do something. Those kicks that are not returnable? They're not causing concussions. We haven't had a concussion on a kickoff in two years. [The NFL was unable to verify this.]

IS THERE A WAY TO KEEP THE KICKOFF A LIVE PLAY BUT MAKE IT SAFER?

WESTHOFF: The thing they want to alter on kickoffs is the violent collisions when players have 40-yard run-ups to each other. And that violence started when return teams began to treat kickoffs like offensive running plays, where you double-team, trap, kick out, wall, seal, lead. I've pitched a solution [that keeps the majority of the return and kicking teams' players within roughly 15 yards of one another at the start of the play]. It turns kickoff returns, essentially, into punt returns. But don't throw the kickoff out the window. I don't want to change this to flag football.

HEKKER: I like any setup where you avoid straight-arrow, force-against-force collisions. I think that's something—just get people going in the same direction and have them block and maintain that down the field.

HESTER: You could turn the kickoff into a punt, like after a safety, [with the majority of players lined up 10 yards apart]. That way you don't have two guys going 100 mph into each other.

IF THE PAT WAS MOVED BACK, WOULDN'T IT CREATE MORE OF THESE BLOW-UP PLAYS?

HEKKER: PATs are usually just somewhat contested; defenders kinda let that play go. But pushing the PAT back creates a lot more rush—a heavy collision. Guys are getting planted back, and their helmets are the first thing hitting the ground. That could be avoided if the PAT was just kept where it is.

IT FEELS AS IF THE MORE EFFICIENT KICKING BECOMES, THE MORE THE LEAGUE POKES A STICK IN THE GEARS.

TUCKER: Quarterbacks are getting increasingly efficient every year. If you take the same idea—make it harder—then receivers shouldn't be wearing gloves, quarterbacks should only be allowed to take three-step drop-backs. You can make the game harder on any position, but I don't think that's going to make the game better. You should reward guys for doing well.

HOW COULD THE LEAGUE REWARD KICKERS?

HEKKER: Maybe change the point value of field goals depending on yardage? That would jibe with the offensive mind-set of football. If we miss those deep, high-value kicks, the opponent would have a shorter field.

TUCKER: While that sounds kinda cool, I would say it's a great game and there's no reason to change it. I think you leave it as is.

COACHES, WITH FEWER SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYS, DOES THAT MEAN LESS PREPARATION?

TOUB: I get the first meeting of the day; in training camp we get an additional 15 minutes of walk-through every other day. When a head coach does that, it sends a message to the rest of the team: This is important.

FISHER: Throughout the season, half of our special teams practice is technique and fundamentals, as opposed to scheme. Because of that, we're not afraid to do much. Fake a punt out of our end zone right before halftime? We're gonna do those kinds of things to get an edge. [The Rams scored on a punt-return misdirection on Sunday.]

EVERY TIME I SEE A TRICK PLAY I WONDER, HOW MUCH MORE DO THEY HAVE IN THEIR BAG?

TOUB: Every coach has his tricks. Once you get 'em on tape, everybody steals 'em. I stole from Westhoff. That's the way the NFL is. Every game, every week, I steal from someone we play.

WESTHOFF: I remember one time we called for a fake on the first punt of the season! It turned out [the opponent was not] in the look we anticipated, and we punted. That's how it goes. People won't believe this, but there were times when I called as many as four, five, six fakes a game, and we didn't run any of them.

COULD YOU IMAGINE TEAMS ONE DAY FOLDING SPECIAL TEAMS DUTIES INTO ANOTHER ASSISTANT COACH'S JOB?

WESTHOFF: It could easily happen. I was doing media stuff for the last Super Bowl, and I predicted Percy Harvin would run back a touchdown against Denver. Why? The Broncos hadn't had to cover a kickoff in a month. A month. [Kicker Matt Prater had 13 straight touchbacks.] And they'd covered only a handful of punts. So now, if you're an owner, you might say, Why do I need a coordinator and an assistant?... Are we there yet? No. But are we headed in that direction? Absolutely.

Go to SI.com/NFL to read the entire Q&A

Jacoby Jones

Ravens

Return man

Jeff Fisher

Rams

Coach; competition committee co-chair

Devin Hester

Falcons

Return man

Justin Tucker

Ravens

Kicker

Greg Zuerlein

Rams

Kicker

Mike Westhoff

Retired special teams coordinator

Johnny Hekker

Rams

Punter

Morten Andersen

Retired kicker; NFL's alltime leading scorer

Dave Toub

Chiefs

Special teams coordinator

PHOTOZACH BOLINGER/ICON SPORTSWIRE PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED PHOTOSIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED PHOTOKARL MERTON FERRON/BALTIMORE SUN/MCT/LANDOV PHOTOSCOTT KANE/USA TODAY SPORTS PHOTOCHRIS SZAGOLA/CSM PHOTOAL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED PHOTOMIKE DEHOOG/TDP PHOTOJEFF MOFFETT/ICON SPORTSWIRE

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