Giants can't Dodge special teams issues

Long before the football sailed off Matt Dodge's foot to DeSean Jackson, special teams was a headache for Tom Coughlin.

Starting with Jeff Feagles' retirement in April to the moment Domenik Hixon crumpled in pain after tearing his ACL on the new turf in a practice at New Meadowlands Stadium in June, the New York Giants' special teams suffered massive losses in the offseason it would never recover from during the 2010 season.

Dodge struggled to step into Feagles' cleats and the Giants kept auditioning replacements for Hixon throughout the season with no luck. Now, as the Giants look toward 2011, they must figure out a way to improve their special teams -- a weakness all season.

Not only did they struggle in punting and punt returning, their coverage was shaky at times as well.

"There's no question," Coughlin said. "We've got to improve [our special teams play]. Provided we can get this thing resolved so that Matt is in here, Matt needs to work almost situationally every day on it. A young punter that has got to grow from the experiences that he's had and get better, that's going to help us a lot."

Dodge was the poster boy for the Giants' special teams struggles. The seventh-round pick finished third to last in net average with 34.3 yards per punt. The Giants love his rocket-powered leg but the young punter redefined the term roller coaster this season. Early on, Dodge had trouble at times even executing the fundamentals of catching the snap and then dropping the ball to punt.

It often looked like Dodge had no idea where his punts were heading. But as the season progressed, he did show signs of improvement and tantalizing flashes of his powerful leg. Unfortunately, the one crucial time the team needed him to deliver in the clutch, he failed miserably.

Instead of punting the ball out of bounds as instructed against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 15, he sent it right to Jackson, who scored on the final play of regulation to complete a stunning 38-31 come-from-behind win that set off Coughlin like an erupting volcano. Dodge, of course, wasn't solely responsible for the Giants' blowing a 31-10 lead in the final eight minutes, but his mistake punctuated the team's most damaging defeat, one that ultimately cost them the playoffs.

On other occasions, Dodge out-kicked his coverage team. Still, the Giants and Coughlin supported the maligned punter and are hoping Dodge will thrive next season after all he has been through this year. The Giants have stuck with Dodge this far, so they plan on bringing him back to compete for the job next season.

"We think he's talented, but we always try to create competition and we aren't just going to lay dead and think, 'Well, he's going to be the guy,'" general manager Jerry Reese said. "He'll have some competition moving forward. [Dodge] did a good job at times. We think he has great potential."

Dodge, who absorbed all the criticism throughout the season and always stood tall and talked candidly about his inconsistencies, vowed to stay ahead of his competition.

"I guarantee no one is going to outwork me in the offseason," Dodge said.

Dodge admits his rookie season was more topsy-turvy than any ride at Six Flags.

"There's no kind of screw up that I can say I didn't get to experience this year, so that will help me a lot," Dodge said. "I went into this season with a lot unknown and now I've got my share of crazy experiences so I think I'll be better for it."

Special teams coordinator Tom Quinn will also have to find a way to improve his return team and punt coverage team. What would help is more talent. The Giants need better special teams players starting with someone to return punts.

Hixon, whose contract expires after 2010, has been rehabbing his knee injury and wants to reclaim his old job.

"To be honest with you, I think I'll be better," Hixon said. "On the outside looking in, you get a different perspective."

It wasn't hard for Hixon or anyone else to see how badly the Giants fared without him. Darius Reynaud finished last in the NFL in punt returns with an average of 5.7 yards. The Giants brought in Will Blackmon and he was only a slight improvement before getting injured. Aaron Ross finished out the year as the punt returner.

D.J. Ware provided a late spark as the kickoff returner but the Giants desperately need speed and a playmaker on special teams. Reese's top priority in the draft is to take talent and the more athletes he picks, the better his special teams might be.

There were some positives on special teams as Lawrence Tynes converted on 16 straight field goals after the Giants replaced Dodge with Sage Rosenfels as the team's holder in Week 5. Tynes missed his last field goal of the season to snap the streak, finishing 19-of-23 on the season.

Rookie defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul also emerged as a special teams standout on coverage teams, often drawing double teams and plenty of praise from Coughlin.

Dodge hopes he'll be hearing Coughlin's praises soon.

"Until they tell me otherwise," Dodge said, "I'll be back for sure."