Every team in the NFL has a special teams coach (some even have two). They are the coaches who teach their players to prevent the game from changing on a punt or a kickoff return. They find the guys who can block kicks, which is very important. They are the coaches you see on the sideline during games, urging their players to cover those kickoffs, stay in their lanes and keep an eye out just in case there's an onside kick.
The onside kick can really be dangerous. Did you know that nearly all the onside kicks failed last year? Only four of the 50 attempts (8.0 percent) worked when an opposing team anticipated the onside kick. Teams were more successful with surprise onside kicks, as three of nine (33.3 percent) worked for the kicking team. There was just one attempt in the playoffs and it was unsuccessful.
In 2005, 61 of 225 games during the regular season were decided by three points or less (27 percent). The Cowboys lost three games by three points or less. One of those came on Thanksgiving against the Broncos with a missed 34-yarder, and another came against the Redskins when Jose Cortez missed a 41-yarder on the first drive of the game.
In general, players on kickoff return teams are made up mostly of linebackers, defensive backs and bigger wide receivers. On field-goal units and punt teams, more offensive linemen are involved. A deep snapper is a very, very important part of this unit. Many players earn a roster spot based on their ability to play on special teams.
Here are some of the better special teamers from 2005:
- Jarrod Cooper, Oakland
- Torrie Cox, Tampa Bay
- Keith Davis, Dallas
- Larry Izzo, New England
- Kevin McCadam, Atlanta
- Hank Milligan, San Diego
- Sean Morey, Pittsburgh
- Kassim Osgood, San Diego
- Nick Sorensen, Jacksonville*
- David Tyree, N.Y. Giants
- -- Sorensen was injured and missed some games last season, but he is still very good.
Granted, these guys are not household names like Tom Brady or Chad Johnson, but ask any NFL coach about them and they'll tell you just how valuable they are.
There are some very good coaches who spend many hours during the season and offseason working on ways to improve what they do. These nine coaches continue to earn praise from their peers:
Bobby April, Buffalo
Joe DeCamillis, Atlanta
Bruce DeHaven, Dallas
John Harbaugh, Philadelphia
Alan Lowery, Tennessee
Chuck Priefer, Detroit
Brad Seeley, New England
Mike Sweatman, N.Y. Giants
Mike Westhoff, N.Y. Jets
Before we start ranking the players, lets mention that the kickers and punters who went to the Combine did not lift weights or run shuttles. They were measured and weighed, then they did what they do best -- kick the football.
Below are my rankings for kickers, punters, long snappers, kick coverage players and kick returners.
1. Steve Gostkowski, Memphis, 6-1 1/8, 212
Gostkowski was not invited to the Combine. He went to Memphis on a baseball scholarship, and then also played football and soccer. He was a high school pitcher. Gostkowski has a very strong leg, hitting 22 of 25 field goals in 2005, and 3 of 3 from over 50 yards out.
2. Josh Huston, Ohio State, 6-1 1/8, 209
Huston was invited to the Combine. He was a kicker in high school and his holder was actually Ben Roethlisberger. He's one of the older players in this draft as he turned 24 on Feb. 28, and this past year was his sixth at Ohio State. After a regular redshirt in 2000, Huston was granted a medical redshirt in 2002. He kicked some in 2001 but didn't earn a letter again until 2005. He booted 49 of 70 kickoffs into the end zone this past season. Had a range up to about 45 yards, missed three from 49 yards or more, and made 16 of 16 from inside the 40. Huston gets the ball up quickly.
3. Jon Scifers, Missouri State, 6-0 5/8, 224
Scifers worked out at the Combine. He was a punter and placekicker in high school. His brother Mike is an outstanding punter with the Chargers. He did not kick as well last year as his previous years, but does posses a strong leg.
Every year kickers get more and more accurate with their field goals, making them a very valuable part of the game plan. The following is a breakdown for field-goal percentages at 10-year increments for the last 40 years:
1965: 54.1 percent
1975: 64.1 percent
1985: 72.2 percent
1995: 77.4 percent
2005: 80.3 percent
1. Ryan Plackemeier, Wake Forest, 6-3 3/8, 253
Plackemeier worked out at the Combine. He was both a punter and placekicker in high school, and also a four-year starter in soccer. Led the ACC in punting the last three years, and had a 47.2 average in 2005. Plackemeier can be a backup placekicker if needed after he converted all 34 of his extra points over his career. He has a very strong leg and gets the ball away quickly. Has small hands (8½ inches) and not great leg extension. Plackemeier was the Ray Guy Award winner in 2005 as the nation's top punter.
2. Joel Stelly, Louisiana-Monroe, 5-10, 197
Stelly was a punter and placekicker in high school. He had a 45.1 average in 2004 with 22 punts inside the 20-yard line. He followed that up with a 44.6 average last year and 13 punts inside the 20. Half of his kickoffs (22 of 44) went for touchbacks. Stelly has some flaws that an NFL special teams coach can correct. He is very poised and once kicked a 47-yard field goal in 2002 to win a game.
3. Steve Weatherford, Illinois, 6-2 1/8, 217
Weatherford was a punter and placekicker in high school. He also played safety and ran track. Earned 10 letters in track, basketball and soccer. Part of a Junior Olympic record-setting 4x800 relay team. He has changed from a three-step punter in 2004 to a two-step punter in 2005. Weatherford can also kick off, but he shanked some balls last year. An NFL kicking coach can straighten that out.
4. John Torp, Colorado, 6-1 5/8, 217
Torp worked out at the Combine. He was both a punter and placekicker in high school, and also lettered in soccer and track. He holds four high school records in track. A left-footed punter who averaged 46.5 yards a kick in 2004 and 45.2 yards a kick in 2005. He's a good athlete who is able to kick high for good hang time. Torp can sometimes out-kick his coverage unit, but needs to release the ball a bit quicker.
5. Tom Malone, USC, 5-11 5/8, 212
Malone not only punted and kicked off, but he was also a wide receiver for a bit. He has been the USC punter for the past four year, but suffered a hip injury in 2005 and didn't have a great season. He holds for extra points and field goals. Malone kicked well at the Combine, has the ability to punt the ball inside the 20, is a good athlete and a special person.
Danny Baugher, Arizona, 5-9¾, 194
Baugher was invited to the Combine, but he was injured and didn't kick well. He looked good kicking on campus after the Combine.
1. Gavin Tarquinio, Georgia Tech, 6-3¼, 253, 4.95
Tarquinio worked out at the Combine. He ran his 40s in 4.95 and 4.93, and did 18 lifts. He played tight end and on the offensive line at Georgia Tech. He became the team's long snapper in 2005. Tarquinio snaps left-handed, and his ability to get the ball back fast in the right spot makes him look like a good athlete.
2. Boone Stutz, Texas A&M, 6-5 7/8, 259, 5.09
Stutz worked out at the Combine. He ran his 40s in 5.05 and 5.11. He didn't do any lifts in Indianapolis but did do them at his Pro Day afterward. Stutz started school at Alabama in 2001 and played in one game in 2002. He started at tight end eight times for Texas A&M in 2004 and two times in 2005. He looked good at the Combine and could be a possible third tight end in the NFL if needed.
1. Ethan Kilmer, Penn State, 6-0½, 204, 4.45
Kilmer ran his 40 one time at his Pro Day, clocking in at 4.45. He had a 40½-inch vertical jump, 10-foot-10 long jump, 4.12 short shuttle, 6.90 three-cone drill, and did 19 lifts. Kilmer transferred to Penn State from Shippensburg and played just two years for the Nittany Lions. He is really good on covering kicks and is a lot like David Tyree when he played at Syracuse. However, he is not that good at receiver.
1. Maurice Jones-Drew, UCLA, 6-6¾, 207, 4.40
Jones-Drew worked out at the Combine as a running back. He ran his 40s in 4.41 and 4.39. He scored six touchdowns in three years at UCLA, averaging 28.7 yards a return on punts with three scores in 2005.
2. Willie Reed, Florida State, 5-10½, 188, 4.39
Reed worked out at the Combine as a wide receiver. He ran his 40s in 4.34 and 4.44. He returned 31 punts for 541 yards and three touchdowns, and eight kickoffs for 145 yards. Reed catches the ball cleanly, has great vision and will make guys miss.
3. Skyler Green, LSU, 5-9 1/8, 192, 4.49
Green worked out at the Combine as a receiver. He ran his 40s in 4.44 and 4.53. He led the nation in punt returns in 2003 with 25 returns for 462 yards to go along with a pair of touchdowns. Green had four punt returns for scores in his career.
4. Cortland Finnegan, Samford, 5-9 7/8, 188, 4.35
Finngean was not invited to the Combine, but did run the 40s in 4.35 and 4.35 outdoors on FieldTurf at his Pro Day. He had a 44-inch vertical jump, 10-foot-8 long jump, 4.34 short shuttle, 6.95 three-cone drill, and did 14 lifts. He played defensive back at Samford and returned kicks. Finnegan averaged 15.1 yards on punt returns with a touchdown, and 25.1 yards on kickoff returns in 2005.
5. Aslan Davis, Tulsa, 5-7¾, 178, 4.47
Davis was not invited to the Combine. He ran his 40s twice in 4.47 at Tulsa's Pro Day. He set NCAA records with five kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2004 and returned a kickoff for a TD in four consecutive games.
6. Devin Hester, Miami (Fla.), 5-10 5/8, 190, 4.46
Hester was a cornerback for the Hurricanes and you can check out all his stats in my CB section.
Did You Know?
In 2002, Jon Scifers (Missouri State) played against his brother Mike (Western Illinois, currently in San Diego). Jon kicked a 42-yard field goal in that game.
Only five kickers have been selected in the first round of the draft:
Charles Gogolak (Washington, 1966)
Ray Guy (Oakland, 1973)
Steve Little (Arizona/St. Louis, 1978)
Russell Erxleben (New Orleans, 1979)
Sebastian Janikowski (Oakland, 2000)
Gogolak, drafted sixth overall, was the highest kicker ever taken.
Three players -- Maurice Jones-Drew, UCLA; Devin Hester, Miami (Fla.); Danieal Manning, Abilene Christian -- have all returned a total of six punts and kickoffs for touchdownseer. Two more players -- Reggie Busch, USC; Skyler Green, LSU -- have returned a total of four punts and kickoffs for touchdowns.
The first guy to have the title of special teams coach was Marv Levy, who was recently hired as the GM of the Buffalo Bills after a Hall of Fame coaching career.
Dallas Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells also coaches the punt-return unit.