Season in Review: Special Teams

Ugly, disgusting, downright awful, these are a couple of terms used to describe the San Diego Chargers special teams, and for the most part the revelations were dead on. Special teams is a catalyst for both the defense and offense. The difference in field position can be an asset. Imagine on every drive starting with 10 less yards to go to score a touchdown, now conversely imagine the opponent has 10 more yards to go to score or even get into field goal range.

The difference in those 10 yards could prove the difference between winning and losing. Here is some proof from other teams around the league.

The Giants botched two fourth-quarter field-goal attempts as the San Francisco 49ers escaped with a 39-38 victory in week one of the playoffs.

Pittsburgh-Tennessee playoff game- the outcome was decided by special teams play. Titans kicker Joe Nedney actually got three chances to win the game. He misfired on a 48-yarder during regulation after a high snap. And he missed a kick in overtime but got a reprieve when Pittsburgh's Dewayne Washington was called for running into the kicker. Nedney got it right on the game winner, but only after holder Craig Hentrich pulled down a high snap and got the ball in place on time. A week before Pittsburgh's Antwaan Randle El returned a punt 77 yards in a three-point victory over Cleveland.

Green Bay-Atlanta playoff game- Atlanta blocked a punt for one touchdown and recovered a muff by Eric Metcalf on a punt return to score another against Green Bay.

New England won the Super Bowl in 2001 on its special teams play. Adam Vinatieri's 48-yard field goal as time ran out to beat St. Louis was huge but it did not stop there. His two field goals, one with 32 seconds left and one in overtime, helped beat Oakland in the AFC semifinals. New England beat Pittsburgh 24-17 in the AFC championship game on the strength of Troy Brown's 55-yard punt return and a blocked field-goal attempt that went for a touchdown.

Joe Gibbs, who has three Super Bowl rings to his credit, told the Washington Post recently: "Offense is for show, defense wins Super Bowls and special teams are the heart of your football team."

On to the Chargers massacre on special teams.

Punt Returns:

Marty Schottenheimer had this brilliant idea that the past would be good in the present. Profusely loyal to his players, he brought in Tamarick Vanover to handle punt returns. Vanover played in seven games for the Chargers this season and was inactive for two others, one due to injury and the other time he was benched (in St. Louis). He boasted a 5.4 yards average on 16 punt returns. His long was a 16 yard return. Take away that one return and he averaged 4.6 per return. In a few weeks he redefined the term bust.

Tim Dwight, the Chargers No. 2 receiver, took over the punt return duties after that. He provided electricity and aggressiveness to the return game and averaged 12.2 per return on 19 attempts. He fielded balls that the defense thought they would be able to down, his quick initial burst got him past the first would-be tackler and he fielded balls on hops just as sure as if it was in the air. The original idea had been to keep him healthy, but clearly the best asset he provided during the season was his punt returning abilities.

Punt Coverage:

The Chargers team progressed as the season wore on in covering punts. They ended the year 20th best in the league allowing 10.3 yards per return. They also allowed a 53 yard touchdown to Santana Moss during the season and he almost had another but Bennett, the last man back, made the tackle.

More starters may be asked on coverage next season as the unit gets revamped.

Punting:

Darren Bennett did not have the best average but did nail 31 of his 81 kicks inside the 20 yard line or 35.6% of his kicks. The 31 drops tied him for third in the league in that category. Add to that he only had 6 touchbacks, and he had yet another Pro Bowl type season. The only problem was two punts were blocked in consecutive weeks. One happened when there were only 10 men on the field after a penalty against the unit (Josh Norman never came back in) and another Ed Ellis missed his assignment. Add to that the shoddy coverage and missed tackles and we see why Bennett did not make the Pro Bowl.

Bennett will return next year to provide his usual reliable self.

Kickoff Returns:

The Chargers ended the season a respectable 9th in returning kicks. The dividends did not pay off until late in the season however. Ronney Jenkins never was comfortable deciding which direction to break on kickoff returns, and his average fell from a league-leading 26.1 yards in 2001 to 23.1 in '02. At the midpoint of the season he was averaging just 20.7 yards per kickoff. Finally when he was showing signs of playing well, he was benched. He ended the season with 40 returns and a long of 56.

Vanover also spent time returning kicks and averaged 23.1 yards per return as well. The problem is all his returns were between 20 and 25 yards, no breakout returns were present.

Reche Caldwell rounds out the kickoff return team. He had 9 returns for a 24.4 average with a long of 39. At the time it was the longest of the season for the Bolts. The key to Caldwell returning kickoffs is it does not eat up a roster spot. He also plays wide receiver.

The Chargers could look for help in this area. To be considered you must be able to play another position, perhaps a cornerback who returns kicks. Roster spots are much more important these days with injuries to key positions. Having a reserve to play that role would aid the team in the long run.

Kickoff Coverage:

The kickoff return team was solid allowing just 20.0 yards per return. The unit is led by Carlos Polk who led the team with 12 special teams tackles. Part of the ability to cover on special teams was poor kicking that placed the coverage team closer to the returner.

Kickoffs:

Wade Richey "Wide Righty" was the primary kickoff man, in fact that was his only duty. Kick the ball off, and kick it deep. Richey had 16 touchbacks for the year used exclusively on kickoffs. Just as many times if not more he had kicks that defied explanation.

Richey had been so bad that on one kickoff he kicked the ground before making contact with the ball. A number of times this year he kicked the ball out of bounds, a play that gives the opposition prime field position at the 40 yard line. In the Denver game he had a number of bad kicks in a row. A day later he was cut.

Enter James Tuthill, a former Washington Redskin. Tuthill was active for one game and kicked the ball so short he was inactive a week later in Buffalo. A week later he was released. Exit James Tuthill.

Steve Christie took over the kickoff duties for the final few weeks of the season. He fared well against Pro Bowler Dante Hall, allowing him just 11.6 yards per return on five returns. Still even Christie knows he was not the solution on kickoffs, he could just keep them in bounds.

Field Goals:

Steve Christie was the field goal kicker for the year. After an illustrious career he does not have the leg he once had. Evidence of that is in his inability to connect beyond the 40 yard line. From distances of 40-49 he went 4-9 on the season, from 50+ he was 1-3 one of which was blocked. Overall on the season he hit 18-26, with only one miss from under 40 yards.

A 69.2% success rate will just not cut it. That does not even take into account the potential field goals. Numerous times this season, Marty Schottenheimer decided against kicking a field goal when any other team in the league would. Consider they had the ball twice in St. Louis inside the 32 yard line and decided to punt the ball instead of kicking a field goal. Six potential points off the board. On the last drive of the game they also got inside the 32 and that makes nine potential points. Six would have won the game in a 28-24 loss. That is just one example of many.

The Chargers will look long and hard at kickers who can add the extra dimension to their offense. Christie will not return and the Chargers will look to free agency where a number of kickers are available, including Ex-Charger John Carney who has stated he would like to come home. Getting a kicker in the Draft is also an option.

Special teams will be crucial to the ultimate success of this franchise especially in the months of November and December. Games will happen where the offense and defense may not do enough to win and special teams will have to come up with that game changing play. Special teams is 1/3rd of the gameplan and it best start executing or more changes will come.

Accountability. It goes all the way back to the 2001 offseason when Fullback Fred McCrary was put on notice, having been exposed in the expansion draft. That has acted as a wakeup call, and McCrary must prove his worth as a blocking back every week. More wakeup calls need to be sent out to this unit in the offseason, and that will come in the form of different players.

It is clear Schottenheimer does not think it is the coaching, "We may not have available to us right now the players that we need to have to get it done in that one phase." Steve Crosby (he will be featured in another section to come soon), the Chargers special teams coach, is breathing a sigh of relief at that news.

Up Next: Defensive Coaching Staff

Denis Savage can be reached at: Denis Savage

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