Every team in the NFL has a special-teams coach (some even have two). They are the coaches who teach players to prevent the game from changing on a punt or kickoff return. They find the guys who can block kicks, which is very important. They are the coaches you see on the sidelines during games urging their players to cover those kickoffs, stay in their lanes, and keep an eye out in case there's an onside kick.
Those onside kicks can be really dangerous. Did you know that nearly 23 percent of all onside kicks last year were successful? It's true -- 12 of the 52 attempts worked! And in the playoffs, there were five attempts with none being recovered by the kicking team. So these situations aren't as grave as some people think -- just ask the Seahawks, who lost out on an onside kick recovery and subsequently lost a Monday night game against the Cowboys late last season that could have hurt their playoff chances.
As you know, there's a lot more to special teams. Included in that group are the kickers and punters, who can change the results of any game. A great field-goal kicker can be the difference between a one-point win or a two-point loss, and a great punter can change the field-position battle in a single play.
Look no further than Super Bowl XXXVIII if you want to see just how important special-teamers are. After tying the game with 1:08 to play, the Panthers kicked the ball out of bounds, giving the Patriots great field position without losing any time on the clock. In Super Bowl XXXIX with 8:05 left to play, Adam Vinatieri kicked a field goal to put the Patriots up by 10 points against the Eagles, and eventually winning the game by three points (Vinatieri's kick).
In general, players on kickoff and 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, along with a deep snapper -- a very, very important part of the unit. Many players earn a roster spot based solely on their ability to play on special teams.
Here are some of the better special-teamers from 2004:
Karl Hankton, Carolina
Keith Davis, Dallas
Keith O'Neil, Dallas
Nick Sorensen, Jacksonville
Michael Stone, Arizona
Bryan Scott, Atlanta
Scott McGarrahan, Tennessee
Brendon Ayanbadejo, Miami
Cameron Worrell, Chicago
Marcus Wilkins, Cincinnati
Gary Stills, Kansas City
Mel Mitchell, New Orleans
Sean Morey, Pittsburgh
Torrie Cox, Tampa Bay
Granted, they are not household names like Tom Brady or Terrell Owens, but ask any NFL coach about them and they'll tell you just how valuable they are.
There are also some very good coaches who spend many hours during the season and offseason working on ways to improve what they do. These seven coaches continue to earn praise from their peers:
Chuck Priefer, Detroit
Bobby April, Buffalo
Joe DeCamillis, Atlanta
Alan Lowery, Tennessee
John Harbaugh, Philadelphia
Brad Seeley, New England
Mike Westhoff, N.Y. Jets
Before we start ranking these players, let's mention that those kickers and punters who went to the combine did not lift weights or run shuttles. They were measured and weighed, then did what they did best -- kicked the football.
Below are my rankings for kickers, punters, kick returners, kick coverage players, kick blockers and deep snappers.
1. Mike Nugent, Ohio State (5-9 5/8, 282)
Nugent had a complete workout at the combine. He had an outstanding high school career and was the team captain and MVP as a senior. He played quarterback and set a school record with 165 PATs. He also recorded 13 of 17 field goals, including a school record 52-yarder. In 2002, Nugent converted 23 consecutive field goals to set a single-season school record. He finished the season 25 of 28. In 2004, he converted 20 of 23 field goals, including a 55-yard kick vs. Marshall as time expired. He made eight kicks from 50 yards or longer in his career. Nugent is a very accurate kicker from beyond 40 yards. He has good leg strength to handle kickoffs. Nugent should be very good for a long time.
2. Dave Rayner, Michigan State (6-2, 210)
Rayner was wide receiver, a kicker and a punter (43.3-yard punting average) in high school. He was also a two-year starter in basketball and was recruited as an NCAA Division I soccer prospect. Rayner has been Michigan State's kicker since the 2001 season and has converted 62-90 field goals and 148 of 151 PATs. He can drive the ball through the end zone on kickoffs. He also punts (rugby style), averaging 40 yards in 2003. Rayner has a powerful leg, but needs better accuracy. It has improved of the past year.
3. Jonathan Nichols, Mississippi (5-101/2, 182)
Nichols converted 20 of 27 field goals and 19 of 19 PATs in 2004. He has good leg strength.
4. Joe Rheem, Kansas State (6-01/4, 217)
In 2004, Rheem connected on 13 of 15 field goals and 37 of 38 PATs. He doesn't have great leg strength.
5. Nick Novak, Maryland (5-111/2, 191)
Novak converted on 16 of his 22 field goal attempts in 2004 and was 21 of 21 on PATs. He doesn't have real great leg strength.
6. Paul Ernster, Northern Arizona (5-111/2, 215)
In 2004, the Colts drafted David Kimball of Penn State to be a kickoff specialist. Ernster (nicknamed "Boomer" by teammates) should be a player drafted for that job this year. He can also punt if needed.
1. Reggie Hodges, Ball State (6-0 3/8)
Hodges played high school football in Champaigne, Ill., and was named to the all-state team. He punted as a true freshman in 2000 (36.3 avg.). He sat out the 2003 season to concentrate on academics. He had a 42.6 average in 2004 with 25 punts inside the 20-yard line. Hodges has a live leg and powerful. He looked very good at the combine and can drive it or hang it.
2. Dustin Colquitt, Tennessee (6-2 3/8, 211)
He was a high school punter and an outstanding soccer player (all-state and all-south). He averaged 39.6 as a true freshman in 2001 and has averaged over 40 yards per kick over the last three years. He is left footed and is a very good directional punter with outstanding hang time. He's very consistent.
3. Adam Anderson, Western Michigan (5-111/2, 188)
Anderson was not invited to the combine. He was at walk-on at Western Michigan who redshirted in 2000. He had 37 punts over 50 yards in his career. He has a strong leg.
4. Cole Farden, Oklahoma State (5-101/2, 205)
He was a punter, placekicker, safety and wide receiver in high school and also lettered in track and soccer. He kicked off for OSU as a true freshman and took over punting duties in 2002 (41.4 avg.). Farden has averaged over 40 yards per punt the past three years. Over the past two years, 103 of his kickoffs went for touchbacks. He has a very strong leg. Farden is the grandson of former Bears head coach Neil Armstrong.
5. Matt Payne, BYU (6-4, 229)
Payne has a very strong leg. He had a 45.3 punting average in 2004. He is also able to place kick and kickoff, but he's inconsistent.
1. Justin Miller, Clemson (5-93/4, 201)
He ran 4.42 and 4.48 at the combine. He led the nation in 2004 with a 33.1-yard average on kickoff returns, and ran two back for touchdowns against Florida State. He also had a 13-yard average on punt returns. In all, he returned seven kicks for touchdowns (five on kickoffs) in his career at Clemson.
2. Chad Owens, Hawaii (5-7 3/8, 183)
He ran 4.62 and 4.65 at the combine. He returned punts for a 14.8-yard average and brought back two kickoffs for touchdowns in 2004. In all, he returned eight kicks for touchdowns (six on punts) in his career at Hawaii.
3. DeAndra Cobb, Michigan State (5-93/4, 196)
He ran 4.50 and 4.57 at the combine. He's a junior-college transfer who led the Big Ten in kickoff returns in 2003 (27.2 average) and three touchdowns. He had a 24.1-yard average and one touchdown in 2004. He has explosive speed, but does not return punts.
4. Marquis Weeks, Virginia (5-101/2, 216)
He ran 4.56 and 4.62 at the combine. He was a running back in high school. In his career, he had a 30.1-yard average on kickoff returns and scored two touchdowns. In 2004, he had a 32.2-yard average and one touchdown.
KICK COVERAGE PLAYERS
1. Ellis Hobbs, Iowa State (5-9, 192)
He ran 4.45 and 4.50 at the combine. He played the gunner position for ISU. He can play nickel back. He was a running back in high school.
1. James King, Central Michigan (6-0 3/8, 212)
He ran 4.54 and 4.43 on March 16 at CMU's Pro Day. He blocked 14 kicks in his four-year career -- eight as a freshman! -- including 10 punts. He blocked four punts in one game against Michigan State in 2001, which tied an NCAA record. He played safety for three years and linebacker in 2004.
2. Derrick Wake, Penn State (6-23/4, 236)
He had seven blocks in his career.
If you're a reliable snapper, you can have a long NFL career. Many long snappers end up with 10-plus years in the league. Now deep snappers are making good money because a solid one isn't easy to find.
In 2002, the Dallas Cowboys gave unrestricted free agent Jeff Robinson a $1.1 million signing bonus. Last year was Robinson's 11th year in the league.
1. Jon Condo, Maryland (6-21/4, 230)
Condo has been Maryland's deep snapper for the last 49 games and has never had a punt blocked during that period. He gets good velocity on snaps.
2. Kyle Andrews, Ohio State (5-111/2, 248)
He walked on at Ohio State and played as a true freshman in 2001. He's very accurate with good velocity. Andrews has some trouble covering kicks downfield.
3. Matt Katula, Wisconsin (6-5 3/8, 274)
He redshirted in 2000 and has been the starter the last four years. He has long arms (33 inches) and has very good accuracy. Katula does a good job covering punts. He ran 5.2 at Wisconsin Pro Day.
4. L.P. Ladouceur, California (6-5 1/8, 257)
The Canadian born Ladouceur played some defensive end in 2001 and 2002. He has good velocity on snaps. He ran 4.93 and 4.97 at California Pro Day.