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Chargers count on special fix for special season

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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In Nate Kaeding, the Chargers have one of the most accurate kickers in the league. (Getty Images)  
In Nate Kaeding, the Chargers have one of the most accurate kickers in the league. (Getty Images)  

DALLAS -- To those people who insist that special teams are the toy department of pro football teams, I have a suggestion: rewind the 2010 videotape of the San Diego Chargers. There, you'll find kickoffs and punts that weren't covered, punts that were blocked, field goals that went astray and missed tackles galore.

In short, you'll find a mess.

Nothing was more responsible for the Chargers' failure to reach the playoffs for the first time in five years than their special teams. They flat-out stunk.

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The club ranked first in offense and first in defense, yet didn't graduate to the postseason. So something significant must have held it back, and something significant did. The Chargers committed way too many turnovers -- especially early, when they kept losing the football -- and couldn't pull their error-prone special teams out of the gutter.

"It was tough," punter Mike Scifres said. "I don't know that we bought into what we were trying to do. Sometimes, I think we kind of gave up on what we were used to be doing, and it just got tough. Other teams saw it, and it was like sharks in the water. It was definitely frustrating."

Consider Scifres an expert on the subject. He had four punts blocked -- including two on successive series vs. Oakland -- and another deflected. By contrast, he has one block the rest of his career. Anyway, Scifres was in the vortex of the worst special teams play I've witnessed since covering the NFL, with San Diego's misadventures beginning from Day 1 when Kansas City's Dexter McCluster ripped off a winning 94-yard punt return.

That was just the opening act. Weeks later, Leon Washington returned two kickoffs for scores in a loss to Seattle when he should have had three. Oakland blocked two punts, returning one for a touchdown and scoring a safety on the other in a 35-27 victory that broke a 13-game losing streak to San Diego. Kris Brown missed a 50-yard field goal at the buzzer to lose to New England … but only after the Chargers took a 5-yard penalty as Brown measured his kick.

I think you get the idea.

"You can name three games right off the top," Scifres said. "We're in three games without a punt for a touchdown, two kickoffs for a touchdown or two blocked punts. So there are three games right there you're in it to win late ... and you have a chance ... even overcoming the things that happened on special teams.

"But take those special teams plays out, and it's a totally different season. So special teams do make a difference."

OK, so that's settled -- which is why I'm taking the Chargers to win the AFC West again. It's not so much because I think Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates and Ryan Mathews and Vincent Jackson will have big seasons -- because I do -- but because I think Rich Bisaccia will have a big season, too.

If you haven't heard of him, stay tuned. You will, mostly because he's the guy who coaches the Bolts' special teams today.

Bisaccia's job is simple -- namely, to make San Diego's special teams into something they weren't last season, which is an asset. Already, he's had an impact, with free agent Bryan Walters returning a kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown last weekend -- and if you think that didn't signal relief you didn't see Bisaccia pumping his fists on the sidelines.

"It's almost like a rejuvenated attitude," Rivers said. "It's been impressive to watch."

It will be more impressive when the Chargers fix the leaks that handicapped them last season. I mentioned turnovers, and, yep, that was a problem. The Chargers lost 12 fumbles in their first seven games, or nearly twice as many as the entire 2009 season (7) when they were 13-3.

But it's the special teams that get your attention because they were so consistently dreadful. You name it, they botched it, and, in the end, special teams cost the Chargers a chance at the playoffs.

That's why Bisaccia's addition is so important. The guy had a stellar reputation at Tampa Bay, where he was the club's assistant head coach, and he could be ... should be ... the difference maker in the Chargers' renaissance this season.

"The two things we did," said coach Norv Turner, "was we changed a lot of the players in the kicking game -- a lot of those guys on the kickoff and coverage punt team are no longer on our football team -- and we changed coaches. And I think it's gotten everyone's attention.

"When I stand up there and talk about how important special teams are, no one's going to roll his eyes and say, 'Aw, every coach says that.' We lived it."

In Scifres, the Chargers have one of the league's premier punters. In Nate Kaeding they have one of its most accurate kickers. In Bisaccia, they have an energetic coach who will not tolerate the mistakes of a year ago and who has the resume to prove it. His units last season ranked in the top 10 in punt coverage, kickoff coverage and kickoffs.

"I'd like to believe [we can make a difference]," he said. "We're kind of the glue that combines it all together. We don't have three downs. We have one down to make a play, and if we don't handle our job on that one play it could be a deterrent to the entire game, or it can be a momentum-changer to the entire game.

"I think that's the difference to the inner part of the game that some get, and some don't get. We only have that one down, and what you do on that one down is critical to the outcome."

Yeah, so we noticed. Nevertheless, the Chargers were 9-7 despite the screwups. Imagine what they do when they straighten themselves out. I already have. That's why I have them ticketed for the playoffs again.

"We have one goal," Scifres said. "What happened last year happened last year, and that's not us. So now we're going forward, and everything's been good so far. I'm very pleased with what's going on."

That's what you want to hear if you're a Chargers' fan. Special teams can make a difference. They did a year ago in San Diego. I have a feeling they will again, and this time that's nothing but good.

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