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Less-than special performances raise value of special teams

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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The San Diego Chargers were supposed to lap the field in the AFC West, but they're 0-2 in the division and 0-3 on the road, and people want to know what's wrong. Let me explain it in two words -- special teams.

They can't cover punts. They can't cover kicks. Their punter had two kicks blocked in one game ... correction, two in successive series ... and talk about extraordinary. Until this season, the Bolts' Mike Scifres had one punt snuffed in his entire career.

Pathetic.

Fair or not, a porous effort from the Dolphins' special teams unit cost John Bonamego his job. (AP)  
Fair or not, a porous effort from the Dolphins' special teams unit cost John Bonamego his job. (AP)  
But the Chargers aren't suffering alone. Across the league special teams are making more and more contributions to wins and losses, and special teams assistants are fastening their seat belts -- hoping they're not the next John Bonamego waiting to happen.

Bonamego was Miami's special teams coordinator until his units suffered a Monday meltdown. Then he became Miami's ex-special teams coordinator, fired the morning after his units short-circuited against New England.

San Diego's Steve Crosby was luckier. Coach Norv Turner stood by his assistant after the Bolts' special teams helped abort a 13-game winning streak over Oakland, and while Turner's refusal to react might not have played well with frazzled Bolts' fans, coaches across the league appreciated Turner's patience and allegiance to one of the game's valued and trusted special teams assistants.

"Miami was ranked 10th last year in overall special-teams play," one special teams coordinator said Tuesday. "So do you think John Bonamego got stupid all of a sudden? Look at San Diego. The Chargers ranked seventh in special teams last year. You think Steve Crosby got stupid all of a sudden? Of course, he didn't. He lost players from last year, including a Pro Bowler [Kassim Osgood] who went to Jacksonville.

"The thing about good coaches is that you better have good players to be successful. You can talk all you want about making a commitment to special teams, but if you don't have the guys it doesn't make a difference."

Apparently, San Diego doesn't have the guys. It cut Fred Bennett and C.J. Spillman on Monday, both of whom played on special teams, to make room for tackle Marcus McNeill. Spillman, once a coverage dynamo, was the first guy downfield on a Scifres punt Sunday that Oakland returned 46 yards and one of the first to appear in the picture on Leon Washington's kickoff returns in Seattle.

Washington scored twice that afternoon and would have made it three TDs had he not slipped and fallen on another runback.

But I'm not here to bash the Chargers or Steve Crosby. They're just the most notable example of a team whose record has been influenced -- and I mean heavily influenced -- by special teams gone awry. Look what happened to Green Bay in its Monday night loss to Chicago. The Bears' last touchdown was scored by punt returner Devin Hester. Or check out Dallas last weekend. The Cowboys lost after a fourth-quarter kickoff was returned 73 yards, with another six yards tacked on because of a facemask penalty -- by the kicker, no less.

I don't know what's going on exactly -- that special teams coverage units aren't as good as they once were or that returners are far better than ever -- so I consulted several assistants I trust, and the consensus was: A little of both.

"You look at Miami," said one special teams assistant, "and I think they made something like 16 roster changes since the first of the season. Now whom do you think that is affecting? Offensive and defensive coaches can take the second or third-stringer who's been practicing and move him up the roster to replace an injured player, but the special teams coach? He's getting someone off the bottom end of the roster, which means he sometimes is getting guys off the streets."

In Buffalo the Bills were so decimated by injuries and so short of special-teams help that their punt unit changed every position but the punter and left end in one week. I'm serious. Tell me that doesn't have an impact on your coverage teams. You know that it does.

"The flip side," said another special teams coordinator, "is this might be the greatest group of returners I've ever seen. It seems like every week we're not in the position to say, 'Well, if we just do our job we can control him [the returner].' But that doesn't happen anymore."

The numbers support him. According to league statistics, there have been nine returns for touchdowns and at least one in each of the first five weeks. Only once before, 2007, have there been as many kickoff returns for scores since the 1970 merger -- and pardon the folks in San Diego if they're not surprised. They saw what Washington did to their club in one afternoon. But this isn't just about returns. There have been five blocked punts in five weeks, three in San Diego and two more in Miami. A year ago there were six all season. There have been blocked field goals, too, like a 29-yard gimme in Washington that kept the Redskins from closing out Houston ... or a 37-yarder that Julius Peppers blocked against Green Bay, the difference in the Bears' 20-17 win ... or that Patrick Chung reject of Dan Carpenter's 53-yarder that turned into a Patriots touchdown.

I don't think I have to draw you a picture. Special teams are making a difference, a big difference, in the NFL this season. And in a season where there are so many close calls, with 48.7 percent of the games decided by seven or fewer points and 20 of the 32 teams at .500 or better, they may determine who reaches the playoffs and who does not.

So next time someone tells you special teams aren't a big deal, that field position is a baseball term or that punters and kickers aren't really football players, rewind the videotape to this season. Then he'll know what NFL clubs everywhere discovered, sometimes the hard way -- that special teams do matter. Now more than ever.

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