Five Questions: Special Teams

The third phase of the game is often overlooked by casual fans. It also seems to have been overlooked by the Colts the past few seasons. Brad Keller has five questions to keep in mind from now until the start of the season.

1. What does Ray Rychleski bring to the table?

As one of the few replacements that occurred when Jim Caldwell took over the head job, Rychleski would not be wise to think his job is secure simply because he's one of "Caldwell's Guys."

Rychleski has certainly made an impact already with his booming voice and candor during interviews, but he's not trying to win a popularity contest.  He's trying to turn around a special teams unit that has struggled in every facet of the game the last three seasons, but specifically on returns and in coverage.  And, yes, that's a broad scope.


Replacing coverage demon Darrell Reid will be on Rychleski's list of priorities
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

But, until last season, Hunter Smith wasn't as much of a weak link as he was in 2008 and Adam Vinatieri only struggled in 2007, posting solid seasons in 2006 and 2008.

Obviously there are limits to what a coach can do with the personnel he is given.  One of the reasons Russ Purnell was fired was because he was unable to make lemonade out of lemons.  And, with the departure of Darrell Reid (more on him in a moment), the coverage unit would seem to be more suspect.

Although being a good motivator is a key component of being a good coach, you also need to be a good teacher.  Having come from the collegiate ranks, Rychleski certainly has those qualifications and, given that he's going to be dealing with a number of very young players, his background might very well be the reason the Colts decided to hire him over someone with more professional experience.

It would be impossible to expect Rychleski to right the ship in a single season, but he could get a lot accomplished in 2009.  Covering a kick or setting a wedge is equal parts desire and technique.  If he can teach and motivate his young charges to attack their assignments with aggression and discipline, then he can get the most out of them, which is basically all that can be expected.

He should be an improvement over Purnell, since Purnell had done too much in the way of assuming during his tenure with Indianapolis and didn't do nearly enough teaching, mentoring, or motivating as his personnel required.

The other factor working in Rychleski's favor is that the Colts finally seem to be placing an emphasis on special teams after having largely ignoring them — the Vinatieri signing notwithstanding — for the bulk of the Tony Dungy era.

Indianapolis discovered during last season's playoff loss to the Chargers that the difference between great special teams and subpar special teams is 10-15 yards per possession.  Historically, those were yards that the Colts offense could get back.

But, when the postseason hits and the yards are harder to come by, they become that much more value.  If nothing else, Rychleski needs to teach the players the value of those yards now that the front office has bought in.

2. What happens to Adam Vinatieri?

It's too early to tell for sure at this point, but it sounds as though he will be ready for the start of the regular season.  Even if he misses training camp and most of the preseason, he will keep himself in game shape and will be mentally ready for the 2009 season.

The benefit of having a clutch, veteran kicker like Vinatieri is that he can fall out of bed and nail a 45-yard game-winner, so that's one thing the Colts have going for them.

However, the thing that needs to be considered is that time may be catching up with Vinatieri, who turns 37 in December.  Kickers do tend to have a significantly longer shelf life in the NFL than other positions, but, after enough repetition, it's only natural for the body to start to break down.

Everyone will know more by July, but the true indicator will be how much time and attention rookie Pat McAfee gets.  McAfee was a placekicker as well as a punter in college and would be able to fill in for Vinatieri if necessary for preseason and for a game or two during the regular season. The Colts also have brought Shane Andrus back for another look, but he faces long odds to make the regular season roster if McAfee is capable of the duties.

Chances are that everything will be fine, but it's also good to know that the Colts won't have to scramble to sign any veterans.  Unless, of course, something catastrophic happens.

3. Who will hold for kicks?

The Colts will not only need to fill Hunter Smith's shoes at the punting position, but also as the holder for all PATs and field goals.  Considering that Smith held the position last season — and for several seasons prior — one would assume that, even with a new coaching staff and special teams coach in place, the punter would still draw holding duties.


Sorgi could add holder to his list of duties this fall
AP Photo/Michael Conroy

Add in the fact that 31 of the 32 NFL teams have their punter split duties and also hold for kicks — with Brad Johnson of Dallas being the only exception — and a strong case can be made for either Pat McAfee or Tim Masthay to take on this responsibility after they win the punting job.

However, this is not a position that should be taken lightly and is not necessarily a position that the new staff with their renewed emphasis on the kicking game would hand over to a rookie.  Smith is the only holder Indianapolis has known this century, so it's not as though Peyton Manning or Jim Sorgi has experience in the area either.

But, don't be surprised if Sorgi and Curtis Painter see some snaps at the position during the offseason.  If Painter can show an aptitude for it — or, more to the point, Sorgi, Masthay, or McAfee make too many mistakes — then that will be yet another reason for the Colts to keep him on the roster, and he needs all the convincing arguments he can muster.

Ultimately, though, it will probably go to either Sorgi or the man that ends up securing the punter's slot, with the new punter being the odds on favorite to win the job.

4. How do they replace Darrell Reid?

During the past few seasons, Reid was a solid rotation guy at the defensive tackle position, but he was a standout special teams performer and was a Pro Bowl alternate for the coverage unit for the AFC in 2007.

While Indianapolis has certainly pulled in a number of bodies in an attempt to fill his spot in the tackle rotation, his shoes in the kicking game will be much harder to fill.

It will be another defensive tackle, most likely a rookie, and a rookie that is not undersized, but not necessarily big, or that will play major snaps throughout the season.  The smart money is on either Adrian Grady or Pat Kuntz contributing on special teams, with Terrance Taylor and Fili Moala taking his snaps — and then some — at tackle.

It appears as though they've filled the hole they needed to fill, but they needed two players to do it.  And that leaves out the fact that, while Moala or Taylor may be more effective at tackle, neither Grady nor Kuntz is likely to be as effective as Reid was covering kicks.

For a team that is trying to place a new emphasis on the third phase of the game — with a new coach no less — this is a tough loss that they will need to overcome.

5. Who returns punts?

Now that Keiwan Ratliff has departed, there is an open job at the punt returner position.  Keep in mind, though, that Ratliff returned only 16 punts (with 12 fair catches) for only 89 yards last season, so it's not as though they have to replace Eric Metcalf.

T.J. Rushing would make sense if healthy, since he is the team's default kickoff returner.  But, it's not exactly as though Rushing has been Devin Hester thus far in his career, so for a staff that is looking to shake things up, there could be a lot of new faces in the return game in 2009.

Second-year receiver Pierre Garcon returned the most kickoffs for the Colts in 2008 and will probably be one of the two men set up deep in 2009.  But, the other return slot on kickoffs is open as well as the punt returner job.

Austin Collie will definitely get a shot, they may even try fellow rookie Donald Brown out on kickoffs, and Chad Simpson certainly has the explosiveness to do some damage as a punt or kickoff return specialist.

Ultimately, though, unless Collie or Simpson really wow the coaching staff, the kickoff tandem of Garcon and Rushing will be out there for the first return of the season and the punt return duties are Garcon's to lose.

Garcon is a smart player that realizes his limitations.  It remains to be seen if he can lock down the third receiver job, but he can certainly secure a job as the team's fourth receiver and return specialist.


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