It was a bit surreal to see the TV camera crews surrounding punter Chris Kluwe. They did so because Kluwe was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week after pinning the Cardinals deep on all four of his punts and continuing the most productive season of his career.
The last time he was the center of such an illuminated media circle was in October 2008. He was answering questions of a much different tone.
The Vikings had beaten New Orleans 30-27, but did so through no thanks to the special teams. Reggie Bush scored a pair of punt-return touchdowns, the second of which Kluwe had been instructed to simply punt the ball out of bounds. It was the low point of his career.
Slightly over two years later, Kluwe is the toast of the punting world and, while the Vikings have struggled at times on both offense and defense, the special teams – or at least the punt-coverage units – have anonymously transformed from being the team's weak link to its most consistent strength.
As a unit, they were epically bad. Opponents averaged15 yards per return and the Vikings allowed four returns for touchdowns. If the Vikings made an immediate stop on a return for no gain, they needed to allow a 30-yard return to make up for it. As a group, the special teams was nothing short of hideous – a consistent liability.
Special teams coach Brian Murphy vowed improvement – given how heinous the numbers were in 2008, that wasn't exactly going out on a thin limb. Although they did allow on return for a touchdown in 2009, the numbers improved dramatically. They cut the average per return almost in half (to 7.9 yards per return). The return of Heath Farwell from a season-ending 2008 injury, the signing of CFL star Kenny Onatolu and the drafting of Jasper Brinkley helped the cause markedly. In their second year together, the results have been off the charts.
In 2008, of Kluwe's 73 punts, 42 of them were returned (for 624 yards) and returners called just eight fair catches. Through eight games of the 2010 season, Kluwe has punted 36 times. Of those, only 13 of them have been returned. He has already had 12 punts fair caught by returners, but, more importantly, when teams try to return punts, there's hell to pay.
Two years after averaging 15 yards per return, of the 13 Kluwe punts that have been returned, the most yards gained on any of them has been nine yards – a sideline return by Tramon Williams of the Packers on Oct. 24. Not only are fewer kicks being brought back, but those that are have gone nowhere.
"They've been doing a great job this year," Kluwe said. "They really bought in (to the system) and have gone down and covered well. Without those 10 other guys, I don't really do a lot out there. A lot of the credit is on their shoulders."
The system is a relatively simple concept Murphy installed. Kluwe had the leg to bomb 60-yard punts, but, if he out-punted his coverage, the team's net punting average was 15 yards less. This season, Kluwe's gross punting average is 44.5 yards. The team's net punting average is 42.2 yards, averaging just 3.5 yards on those kicks players opt to return. The system employs three components – hang time on punts (even at the expense of distance), coverage-lane integrity and directional kicking. Very few punts from Kluwe are bombed down the center of the field. It's a chase-and-attack approach that has paid dividends. In 2008, the Vikings averaged 39 punt return yards a game. Through eight games in 2010, they have allowed a total of 45 return yards.
Onatolu said he has seen plenty of improvement, but not a single punt returned even 10 yards? The was an eyebrow-raiser.
"I didn't even know that," Onatolu said. "Nine yards is the longest? That's pretty good."
The success has been predicated on multiple factors. To fans who aren't in the stadium, the NFL – for no explainable reason – follows the flight of the ball on punts rather than the players running down the field. It is controlled chaos. Bodies are hitting at high speed and great distance. Penalties come often because of the open-field nature of coverage and returns. If a punter booms a punt, but the coverage team fails and it gets returned 40 yards, the unit has failed. For the first half of this season, all of the different specialties have come together.
"It's a combination of a lot of things," long snapper Cullen Loeffler said. "Kluwe has been cutting down the field and we've been focusing on our scheme, holding our lane integrity and getting to the ball. It really helps that we have guys like Kenny and Jasper and Heath in our interior that can not only get out and run, but can make a tackle when they get to the ball. It's been a win-win situation all the way around, because we've been able to kick directionally and have players that can get out and wrap up tackles before a guy gets a head of steam going."
The attention has clearly paid off. Rumor had it that the Patriots were ready to make a free-agent offer to Farwell and the Vikings stepped up and gave him an impressive contract for a player viewed as a specialist with an injury past. The Vikings also showed they conduct CFL due diligence in the signing of Onatolu and used a draft pick on Brinkley with special teams foremost on their minds.
With the core players in place and competition for the gunners on the outside, it has become a perfect storm for the Vikings to not give up useless and costly yardage on punt returns.
"Obviously, you have to have the players that can make the plays, and with the way Kluwe is punting it – he's getting great hang time on almost every one – we really just have to get our release and get down the field and they will usually call a fair catch," Onatolu said.
Farwell is the captain of the group and was named to the Pro Bowl last season for his ability as a special-teams standout. He has been in on 13 special teams tackles and said that for him to succeed, the credit needs to be shared.
"We get a lot of the credit because we're the ones that are usually making the tackles, but we don't deserve all the credit," Farwell said. "A lot of the credit should be going to the gunners and to Kluwe. Our gunners have done a great job of getting down the field and keeping the return guys from getting to the outside and Kluwe has been getting such great hang time that we're getting a lot more fair catches. Guys will get frustrated and not call a fair catch after a while. That's where we come in and we want to make sure that, after we hit him, he wants to call a fair catch the next time."
The group has embraced its role on the team. Given the return of almost the entire starting lineup from last season, one of the byproducts has been a nearly identical special teams unit. Players aren't leaving special teams because they are starters. They have a role and they're trying to perfect it.
Onatolu said the consistency of the group has created a friendly competition between the players. They're not running down the field like a pack of crazed dogs – there is method to their madness – but the competition is fierce to be the first to the ball.
"Heath has so many tackles, he'll be really hard to catch," Onatolu said. "But, it's always a competition with us as to which one can get to the returner first and make the tackle. It's good competition, but isn't to the point that somebody will cross his lane to try to make a play. We're a unit and everybody has his job to do."
With all their accomplishments through the first half of the season, there is no complacency with this group because they're going into a punting house of horrors at Soldier Field and facing certain nemesis who goes by the name Devin Hester. The biggest problem, Kluwe said, may not be Hester himself, but how and where he gets the ball, because, with winds blowing off Lake Michigan, perilously close to Soldier Field, it can change from one minute to the next.
"Chicago's probably the toughest place to punt that I've ever punted in," Kluwe said. "The wind is so inconsistent. You can have it coming in your face one second and behind you the next. It's always a challenge."
Vikings fans have seen what a premier return man can do with the arrival of Percy Harvin. Many opponents have opted to squib kicks that, if corralled quickly can easily get the ball to the 35- or 40-yard line. The rationale is that it is the wiser move to give the offense a shorter field than to risk a heart punch from Harvin. As it pertains to punt returns, the Vikings have Hester firmly in mind.
"A big part of the game plan is making sure we account for Hester," Kluwe said. "Hopefully, we've got the tools in place and our guys will do a great job running down covering and I'll make sure I give them enough hang time. Hopefully, we can keep him from doing anything."
Whether the Vikings will have the hubris to convince themselves that they can dominate anyone and not change their style to prevent Hester from having a chance to hurt them, it may play a critical role in whether the Vikings win or lose. Hester has done it before and will likely do it again. The Vikings don't expect to get burned by Hester for a third time (he has two punt-return TDs in his career against the Vikings), but they're not going to back down either.
"I don't think we'll kick it out of bounds, but we'll be careful," Onatolu said. "We have a heightened awareness of players like him. We have to be on our ‘A' game when we face a guy like him, so our concentration level with have to be high to do everything by the book."
With Hester on deck, coverage has been great
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