During the Lovie-Smith era the Chicago Bears consistently built one of the best special teams units in the NFL. The units featured one of the best returners ever, in Devin Hester, produced quality special teams players and had one of the NFL’s best coaches.
Then it all fell apart.
Special teams coach Dave Toub did not return to the team when they fired Smith in 2012. Toub’s loss was felt right away within the organization as the team struggled without him. The Bears were one of the best special teams units in 2012, finishing 6th in Football Outsider’s special teams DVOA rankings in Toub’s final year.
That ranking dropped in 2013 to 11th overall and then last season, at its worst, when they ranked 25th overall.
To say the Bears were just bad at special teams in 2014 was an understatement. The team featured a revolving door of return men and blockers with no consistency.
The Bears finished last in four special teams categories including punt return average (5.2 yards), field goals made (12), extra point percentage (94.2) and had 27 penalties for 224 yards.
The club also had 53 drives start inside their own 20-yard-line last season, putting a strain on the offense. When that happens, the field position battle switches, which often has a big impact on the game.
Even Robbie Gould, one of the most accurate kickers in league history, struggled making just nine of 12 field goal attempts. His 75-percent field-goal percentage was also the lowest in his career.
But the Bears are looking to change things on special teams this season. In the offseason they hired Jeff Rodgers as the special teams coordinator. Rodgers previously spent time under head coach John Fox in Carolina and Denver, holding the same position.
“No. 1, ball security,” said Rodgers. “Our No. 1 goal of our return game is going to be give the ball back to the offense. Every guy is different. I’ve coached bigger guys, smaller guys, faster guys, the ball security thing is always going to be a common trait.”
Rodgers is optimistic the Bears can turn it around this season despite the struggles last year.
“Well, we’re still evaluating,” Rodgers said. “There’s a lot of different ways to teach things. The previous regime, some things will carry over, some won’t. You try to keep an open mind.”
Evaluating the talent on the roster includes rookies expected to earn their roster spot on special teams. Most rookies in the NFL get their start on special teams, which works them into the fast pace of the NFL. If a turnaround on the unit happens, it will have to start with the rookie class.
“This is our first exposure to these guys,” Rodgers said following rookie minicamp. “To say that there is an overriding positive trait about guys, I mean, yeah there’s a lot of things to like about guys that make tackles or guys that did a good job with blocks or if they were penalty type guys. You just try to identify those things, educate them on what we’re trying to do and move forward.”
One of those rookies who could see a lot of time in the third phase is running back Jeremy Langford. The Bears selected Langford in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, hoping he can be the long-term replacement for Matt Forte.
But before Langford can do that, he will need to earn time on special teams. The former Spartan has played defense before – he was a cornerback as a freshman at Michigan State – which Rodgers thinks will help Langford when called into duty.
“He obviously has that background,” Rodgers said of Langford. “Most guys did it in high school or whatever, but being whatever it was 3-4 years ago. You know he can tackle, you know he’s a willing player, you like everything about him athletically and hopefully that translates.”
Improving the special teams could have a ripple effect on the Bears offense and defense in 2015 and beyond. It will be easier said than done, however.
According to the Dallas Morning News’ annual special teams rankings, the Broncos finished 19th in the NFL under Rodgers last season. Yet there were plenty of positives that belie that ranking: Denver finished 8th in kickoff return average, 9th in kickoff return average against and 4th in punt return average against.
The Bears have overhauled the back end of the roster, so there is plenty of fresh talent with which Rodgers can use. His ability to mold Chicago’s special teams into formidable units will be critical toward the success of the Bears going forward.
Zack Pearson graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a journalism degree and has years of experience covering the Chicago Bears. He has written for BleacherReport, FanSided and founded ChiCitySports.