For two seasons under Joe DeCamillis, the Chicago Bears special teams were putrid. Camillis' units failed to kick and punt with any consistency, while the coverage units struggled on a weekly basis to corral opposing returners.
Last season, the Bears ranked 29th in the NFL in combined ST rankings, which was down 14 spots from their 15th overall ranking in 2013.
The struggles of Chicago's special teams units are foreign to Bears fans, who were spoiled for nine years (2004-2012) with former ST coordinator Dave Toub in charge. Toub bolted for Kansas City after Lovie Smith was fired following a 10-6 season, and Chicago's third phase has been a mess ever since.
The Bears fired DeCamillis, along with the rest of the coaching staff, shortly after season's end last year. With DeCamillis' departure, most assumed the Bears special teams would rise out of the basement of the league, incrementally at the very least. Yet under Jeff Rodgers, whom John Fox brought with him from Denver, very little has changed.
Bears rank 29th in total kickoff return yards allowed (540) and 31st in average yards allowed per kickoff (30.0), while ranking 25th in total punt returns yards allowed (202) and 26th in average yards allowed per punt (11.2).
Bears are 26th in total punt return yards (98) and 23rd in average yards per punt return (7.5), while they are 18th in total kickoff yards (325) and a respectable 9th in average yards gained per kickoff (25.0).
Punter Patrick O'Donnell, a former sixth-round pick, is 13th in the NFL in yards per punt (46.5) and 19th in net yards per punt (39.6), while his 7 punts inside the 20 rank 27th in the league.
The one positive for the Bears has been Robbie Gould, who has bounced back from a dissapointing 2014 campaign. Gould has converted 17 of 18 field goal attempts, with his lone miss a 51-yarder last week against the Vikings. To nitpick, Gould's miss on Sunday played a big factor in the home loss to Minnesota but, overall, he's been by far the club's most reliable special teams player.
Rodgers' coverage units have allowed a league-high three return touchdowns this season, which includes a 65-yard punt return TD by Marcus Sherels this past Sunday.
“I think we just keep working," Rodgers said this week about his coverage units. "There’s some things over the bye week that you look at and there’s some things that have shown up and you try and address those things. You try and address those everyday in practice. You try and address those things in the meeting room, on the practice field and allow guys to play a little bit of confidence. The punt return thing for us in terms of our punt coverage we’d done in my mind a solid job of covering punts for the majority of the year. We get hit with trick play against Seattle. We obviously didn’t cover that very well. But the normal punt returns, there’s some things that show up, and we didn’t necessarily get hit by them.
"I think guys have kind of realized that if we don’t address these things, if we don’t take some of the things that are being emphasized then you can be exposed. And against a good returner like that, that’s what happened. That particular returner especially going that way has had a lot of production in that style of punt return. I think it helps us moving forward focusing in on the things that are emphasized and trying to play better that way.”
The problems are not a matter of personnel, as Sherrick McManis is the only special-teams-only holdover from the DeCamillis era. Beyond Mcmanis, it's nothing but new faces for Chicago's special teams, yet the results have been equally embarrasing.
Even last week, the most consistent player on special teams, returner Marc Mariani, muffed two straight punts, which elicits concerns about effort and focus under Rodgers.
“Marc is a very confident fielder of the ball," said Rodgers. "His history has been very good in terms of a ball security … and their guy put one on the ground. A little bit more wind up there than sometimes it may look, a left-footed guy, the wind is coming across, when he hits that inside-out punt, it’s usually going to die short and left. That’s what happened. A little bit of traffic on the first one. The second one, I think it just moved on him late. We have a lot of confidence in Marc going forward. There’s dramatically a lot more tape of him doing that successfully than unsuccessfully and we look forward to him getting back on track.”
When asked if he considered benching Mariani after the second muff, Rodgers was diplomatic.
"Sometimes it’s a matter of taking a rep off," Rodgers said. "A lot of people talk about quarterbacks, young quarterbacks: 'Hey, let’s sit there and watch a series.' You don’t try to mess with your returner all that much. Consideration? Yeah, but we never got to that. We have several guys on our team that we feel like can do a good job in that area."
This is a situation that is getting worse by the week and it's compromising the team's ability to win games. The Bears lost by three points to the Vikings, yet there was a 10-point swing on special teams (Minnesota's return TD + Gould's missed field goal). Folks are blaming Jeremy Langford, who had a crucial late-game dropped pass on 3rd down, and McManis, who allowed the game-tying touchdown in the 4th quarter, for the club's loss to Minnesota. But in reality, special teams did the Bears in against the Vikings.
The impact of Chicago's third-phase struggles go beyond just the points scored on those return touchdowns, as it has severely impacted the offenes and defense as well.
NFL fans know that field position is crucial, particularly in tight games. Flipping field position or creating a short field is extremely important in nearly every contest. Often, the team that wins the field-position battles also wins the battle on the scoreboard.
In terms of starting field positoin, the Bears have either lost or tied that battle in each of the first seven contests. It has been an important factor in eaach of the team's five losses, and 75 percent of that falls on special teams.
It's real simple, if the other teams doesn't have to go as far to score every single week, you end up 2-5.
Some have called for Rodgers to be fired but those requests fall on deaf ears.
"He’s definitely a very capable coach," Fox said on Monday. "I don’t have any concerns in that area."
Despite Rodgers' supposed pedigree, Bears fans are getting tired of the poor play on special teams. Under Toub, the Bears were consistently at or near the top of league in special teams each season for nearly a decade. How do these units just fall off a cliff after his departure?
It's a question I can't answer, and it doesn't appear as if the Bears can either. Yet there are reasons to believe Chicago's special teams can improve going forward, starting this week in San Diego.
The Chargers have a grand total of 1 return yard this season. Yes, you read that correctly, so things should improve on Monday Night for the Bears coverage units.
Also, it's well known that new ST staffs and their players take a while to develop cohesiveness. Toub established a baseline of excellence through which he was able to create competitive units each year. Rodgers has yet to build that foundation. Once he does, we should see improvement, even if it doesn't come until next year.
Hope is not all lost and there might be some rough times ahead, but if Rodgers is as good as Fox claims he is, then he'll right the ship before things get too far out of hand. And if he's not, then God bless you Bears fans.