Time to Value Special Teams

Browns' special teams play takes a step back under new regime

Clichéd coach speak dominates television screens, radio airwaves, print publications and websites. When it comes to football coaches, they can be heard referring to special teams being just as important as offense and defense.

Typically, that comment is overlooked or causes an eye-roll from the intended audience. Sure, coach, special teams are important, but they don't throw touchdown passes or sack quarterbacks. And when was the last time a team rode excellent special teams units to a Super Bowl victory?

Forget a Super Bowl berth. If the Browns want to win a fourth game this season, they better play better special teams.

It seems there is some truth to that clichéd comment.

Chris Tabor was hired as the Browns special teams coordinator last January to replace Brad Seely. Tabor's previous job was as an assistant with the Chicago Bears under its special teams coordinator Dave Toub. Toub knew Shumur and Browns general manager Tom Heckert from the trio's days in Philadelphia. Under Toub and Tabor, the Bears special teams were traditionally solid and we all know networking is the best way to further your career.

The Browns hired Tabor because Seely left Cleveland to join San Francisco's new staff led by head coach, Jim Harbaugh. Seely is in his 23rd season in the NFL and is widely regarded as one of the – if not the – best special teams coach. During his tenure in Cleveland, the Browns were one of four teams not to allow a kickoff or punt return for a touchdown while leading the league in kickoff return coverage and fourth in punt-return coverage. Individually, Josh Cribbs set the all-time NFL record for most kickoff returns for a touchdown in a career in 2009 and was named to the NFL's All-Decade Team as a second-team kick returner in 2010.

Cribbs is still in Cleveland, but fellow special-team mavens like Blake Costanzo, Nick Sorensen, Jason Trusnik and Lawrence Vickers are not. In addition, it also seems the Browns new regime hasn't placed as big of an importance on this area.

As a result, it leaves Browns fans yearning for Seely.

Entering Week 6, FootballOutsiders.com ranked the 49ers as having the best special teams. Aforementioned Costanzo followed Seely to San Francisco and the 49ers' unveiled their new special teams on opening day. Ted Ginn and the 49ers beat Seattle 33-17 on Sept. 12 after Ginn returned a kickoff and punt for a touchdown within 60 seconds.

Meanwhile in Cleveland…

On Oct. 16, Jacoby Ford's 101-yard kickoff return and a faked field goal for a touchdown in a 24-17 loss to the Oakland Raiders burned the Browns.

It didn't get better last Sunday against the Seahawks.

The Browns allowed two blocked field goals (24 and 48 yards) by Seattle's Red Bryant. The Seahawks' Leon Washington returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown, but it was called back after a generous block in the back penalty. Special teams cost the Browns a legitimate chance at a victory in Oakland. Thankfully, Charlie Whitehurst was in the building last Sunday.

"We'll emphasize on the issues that showed up in the game," Browns coach Pat Shurmur said a day after his team's 6-3 win over the Seahawks.

The two blocked field goals were a result of Bryant beating starting left guard Jason Pinkston.

"Issues in left guard area were part of it," Shurmur said. "The matchup of Bryant got penetration. Execution wasn't there and you get what you emphasize and we need to work our fanny to get it fixed."

As for the called-back punt return, Shurmur said it is correctable.

"Kickoff coverage was OK, but punt return got out of the lane," he said. "We'll look at personnel and scheme and tidy it up so it doesn't happen again."

It has happened too much in the last two weeks. If anything, it has cemented that coach's cliché. These special teams units are pretty darn important and perhaps Cribbs was onto something following the Raiders game when he said that he thinks he needs to "be out there heavily on all specials teams."

Leading up to the Seattle game, Cribbs' comments were chalked up to his frustration for only having two catches against the Raiders. Maybe. Or maybe Cribbs realized the Browns special teams unit was headed in the wrong direction?

"I feel like where I'm an asset on this team is special teams," he said. "I want to re-focus on what got me into this league."

"I make tackles on special teams. I led the team every year when I was on coverage and I'm a dynamic special teams player. I don't remember a touchdown being scored on us being out there. I feel like we have enough receivers on offense to get things done. My touches this game were insignificant to the value I can bring to special teams."

Good special teams may not consistently win games and championships, but doing it poorly – as the Browns have the last two weeks – will prevent a team consistently winning games.

Whether it is Cribbs, Tabor or Shumur, the Browns need to return to stressing a Brad Seely-esque value of solid special teams play.

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