Commentary: Copy the Falcons' philosophy

The Falcons and Vikings had very different results with their punting and punt-coverage units in 2008. If the Vikings are going to keep Paul Ferraro as their special teams coordinator, a change in philosophy could really help cure the glaring weakness of special teams.

Perhaps the biggest news at Brad Childress' year-end press conference was him saying that for now the Vikings plan to keep Paul Ferraro as their special teams coordinator. With all the planning, preparation and film study Childress and the staff plan to do, perhaps the entire coaching staff should be forced to watch film of the Atlanta Falcons and how they operate their special teams, especially their punt return coverage.

Michael Koenen was 31st in the league in punting with just a 40.7-yard punting average, but the Falcons ranked 16th in net punt average. Why? The design of the Atlanta special teams was to maximize yardage on kicks and not allow returns. It may not show up in Koenen's individual numbers, but, from the team perspective, it was a boon for the Falcons defense, which rarely faced a short field following punts.

Chris Kluwe set franchise records for punts of 50 yards or more, but he also set up return men to cut through the Vikings porous coverage teams like a hot knife through butter. Of Kluwe's 73 punts, 10 went out of bounds, 13 went in the end zone for touchbacks and 42 of the other 50 were returned – for an average of 15 yards a pop. The Vikings rarely pinned opponents deep in their own territory when Kluwe out-kicked his coverage. Kluwe may have been fourth in the league in gross punting average, but thanks to the returns (four of which went for touchdowns), the Vikings were 29th in net punt average.

So why the big swing between the Vikings and Falcons? Philosophy. The Vikings seemed content with letting Kluwe try to bomb every punt down the middle of the field without regard for return potential. The result was obvious – only eight fair catches and a total of 624 return yards – worst in the NFL. Atlanta's approach was to kick the ball high (albeit shorter) and let their coverage team do its job. The result? Of 63 punts, Koenen had just four touchbacks, 12 kicked out of bounds and, of the 47 punts in the field of play, 27 of them resulted in a fair catch. While the Vikings allowed 624 yards in return yards (39 yards a game), the Falcons allowed 49 punt return yards for the entire season. That comes out to three yards a game with a season-long return of 12 yards.

What numbers are more important – net punting average or gross punting average? There's no doubt that Kluwe can bang kicks 50-60 yards, but if they're returned 20 yards or more, what has been gained?

The fact that Childress (at least publicly) isn't holding Ferraro accountable for the brutal punt coverage, which failed again during the playoff loss to the Eagles, isn't a good sign. The Vikings are doing too many things well to allow one glaring weakness to make such a consistent difference against them.

They say the NFL is a copycat league. The Wildcat offense is a clear and obvious example of that, although the Vikings were one of the few teams to never try it in a game situation. If something works, other teams copy it. If Ferraro is kept, perhaps he should be forced to watch Atlanta game film and learn from the Falcons did. Copy it if you must, but when you have allowed almost 600 yards more in returns that another team, maybe it's worth copying.


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