ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Don Carey lined up on special teams in training camp his rookie season. This, he knew, was how he was going to make an NFL roster. The Cleveland coaches were giving him a chance during training camp as a gunner.
He lined up. Got ready. The ball was snapped. It didn’t go well.
“A couple of the vets took me to the Gatorades,” Carey said. “Took me to the Gatorades.”
As in pushed him so far out of bounds he was thrown into the tubs of Gatorade on the sidelines. After that, Carey went to Josh Cribbs to learn the intricacies of playing one of the most important spots on special teams.
Every gunner has this type of story, the welcome to the world of special teams moment that makes them realize both what it takes to be a gunner in the NFL, and also whether or not they can handle it.
And for many players, it is a way onto a roster.
It’s a position often overlooked, and many times fans have no idea who the gunners are. But to NFL teams, they are extremely important. They are the ones who keep big returns from happening. They are the ones who make punters look good.
And it is something that takes time, strategy and a certain type of mentality to perfect.
“You have to have a combination of mental toughness and physical toughness,” said assistant special teams coach Evan Rothstein, who coaches the gunners. “The speed to get downfield in about four-and-a-half seconds to go and make a play. You have to be mentally and physically tough ... it’s a want-to type of position.
“You have to want to go make a big play.”
They also have to understand there will be points, especially early on, where being a gunner will likely end in failure in a big way. Every gunner has that type of story, especially early on in their career.
Micheal Spurlock, the former Lions returner and gunner, remembers being tossed aside into the bench by Shawn Springs when he was with Tampa Bay facing Washington. Jeremy Ross, who replaced Spurlock at both spots, was with New England his rookie year when he was thrown out there in the preseason.
And promptly tossed to the ground.
“Both guys were on top of me,” Ross said. “And I couldn’t do nothing.”
Eventually, they learned, and now, with some years of experience in the NFL, have become a good gunner tandem for Detroit. For most of the season, Carey and Spurlock were handling the duties. Once Spurlock was cut, Ross took his place.
Both Ross and Carey have similar size and speed to be effective against single press (one defender) and double press (two defenders) coverages that are trying to keep them from the punt returner.
So what, actually, is a successful play for a gunner?
“A gunner has done his job if he makes a tackle or forces a fair catch,” Rothstein said. “So if you’re making a tackle or forcing a fair catch, that’s a job well done for a gunner.”
The Lions have the third-best opponent punt return average in the league, holding returners to 5.04 yards a return. The Lions have also forced 11 fair catches this season.
Most of the actual strategy for gunners, especially for a dome team like Detroit, comes during the week studying how punt return teams block for their returner and how they try to jam the gunners at the line. That’s the biggest key. In order for any gunner to have any success, he must learn to beat the initial jam coverage.
The planning that happens during the week, besides studying the jammers, is understanding where punter Sam Martin will likely try to place his punts during the game based off tendencies and potentially anticipated weather and wind.
There are times during games, though, that strategy becomes useless and becomes all about beating your man -- somewhat akin to how a receiver tries to beat a cornerback. Spurlock compares it to a fight. Every time.
“Your job is to get down to the returner as fast as you can,” Ross said. “And cause havoc, you know.”
Being thrown to the Gatorade tubs or to the ground, that’s something every good gunner eventually learns how to do. Create chaos in five seconds or less.