How will lockout affect 49ers special teams?
It's somewhat incongruous that in a year in which the Green Bay Packers were the Super Bowl XLV champions, the storied franchise finished near the bottom of the special teams rankings – 29th, in fact – annually compiled by NFL writer Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News.
One of the alleged football truisms upon which most of us have been raised has been the trite notion that special teams units, or the kicking component, represent one-third of the game. But the Packers, with their high-powered offense and a defense that attacked the pocket in its 3-4 scheme, and finished the campaign rated No. 5 overall, flaunted that bedrock belief.
They might not be as fortunate in 2011.
In normal seasons, approximately 25 percent of all games are determined by three points or fewer, a scant differential that not only magnifies the importance of a club's field goal kicker, but its special teams units in general.
The 49ers, for instance, had five games decided by three points or fewer in 2011 – they were 1-4 in those games – and half of their games were decided by eight points or fewer.
The 2011 campaign, which already has been without minicamps and OTAs and might have a truncated training camp schedule, figures to be anything but ordinary. And while some might argue that the unusual circumstance could result in more lopsided outcomes – with the most experienced and stabile clubs enjoying a significant advantage – many coaches acknowledge that strong special teams play will make a difference.
"The impact (of special teams) will probably be bigger than ever," allowed one NFC head coach whose teams ranked in the top one-third of the league in '10, according to Gosselin's calculations. "Details are big in any year, and will be bigger if we have to play without an offseason ... and special teams are all about details."
The 49ers ranked in the middle of Gosselin's list, which ranked the league's 32 teams in 22 kicking-game categories, assigning points according to their standing in each category. The 49ers finished 17th on the list with 378.5 points. The New England Patriots ranked first with 269 points.
The kind of detail work normally associated with special teams, the repetition that is often necessary for return or coverage units to mesh, could be reduced by a condensed preparatory schedule for 2011. It makes some sense that coaches will invest time and effort to ready their offenses and defenses for the season, and that special teams will be less a priority.
The upside of the lockout is that more five- or six-year veterans who play special teams, and who might otherwise be replaced by cheaper rookies, will be able to retain their roster spots. The tradeoff, however, is that they might get less work in practices.
Still, there is something to be said for continuity, and that's a commodity that, as far as special teams, will be a prized commodity in 2011.
That is particularly true for the 49ers, who are starting over on special teams with a new coordinator in Brad Seely. The upside of that is Seely has 22 years of experience in the NFL as a special teams coach and, in fact, is considered one the most successful special teams coordinators in league history, having won three Super Bowl rings during his 10 seasons in that role with the New England Patriots.
Seely was named NFL Special Teams Coach of the Year as recently as 2009, when he was with the Cleveland Browns. Seely also has coached special teams with the Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts.
The 49ers also return their top tackler on special teams in 2010, rookie NaVorro Bowman, along with veteran Reggie Smith, the player who finished atop their special teams performance chart, which is based on a points system for tackles and blocks on those units. Top specialty-unit performers such as Tarell Brown, Delanie Walker and C.J. Spillman also are scheduled to return to the team, but the 49ers could lose Manny Lawson, a special teams mainstay over the years, to free agency.
Because the lockout has made it a little more difficult to maintain completely accurate and updated contract databases, the exact number might be a bit off: But it appears as if only about 10-11 franchises in 2011 currently have under contract all six major puzzle parts from last year's special teams units: kicker, punter, deep snapper, primary punt and kickoff return specialists, and leading tackler.
The 49ers are among those teams with kicker Joe Nedney, punter Andy Lee, long-snapper Brian Jennings, Ted Ginn and Bowman. The Niners also have several other youngsters on their roster who could complement Ginn on returns this season.
At least three league teams list both their incumbent kicker and punter as pending unrestricted free agents. A fourth, Philadelphia, has an unrestricted punter (Sav Rocca) and figures to replace its transition-designated kicker (David Akers) when the lockout ends.
Pittsburgh, the other Super Bowl XLV participant, which ranked unusually high last year in the special teams ratings (ninth), counts its kicker, punter, and deep snapper among the players who might be eligible for unrestricted free agency.
Notable is that seven of Gosselin's top 10 special teams units in 2010 advanced to the playoffs. The group included three of the teams that played in the conference championship games — Chicago (fourth), the New York Jets (seventh) and Pittsburgh (ninth), with Green Bay the exception.
The teams that, because of the lockout, give special teams short shrift in 2011 may end up on the short end in general.
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