Special teams finally garnering attention

Never mind that, minus the exploits of Dante Hall, the rest of the NFL's return specialists have combined for only five touchdowns on kickoff and punt runbacks. Forget that, less than halfway through the year, some clubs have changed kickers as if they were sweaty tube socks. Ignore the fact that there has been a plethora of poor tackling and already, it seems, more than a full season's share of shanked punts.

For a season in which Hall's brilliant performance has generated discussion revolving around the Kansas City Chiefs star's viability as a most valuable player candidate, and earned him a weekly niche on the Sunday night SportsCenter highlights, there is a burgeoning perception that special teams determine just about every game.

And you know what happens, right, when perception dovetails with momentum?

"Yeah, it becomes reality, no matter what the truth really is," said Buffalo Bills special teams coach Danny Smith, whose kicking game units are among the most improved in the league this year. "But in this case, I think there is some truth to it, because you see (the importance) of special teams being magnified. A lot of it is Hall, of course, because he's called so much attention to it. But we've had games decided on blocked field goals, or missed extra points, and stuff like that, too. I'm kind of biased, obviously, but I think (special teams) are winning and losing more games, sure."

By nature, special teams coaches have always felt that their tucked-away little corner of the football universe was far more significant than most observers realized, but that their fastidious attention to detail was unappreciated. It became a well-rehearsed mantra for special teams coaches, an inherently quirky lot, to remind anyone within earshot that the kicking plays represented one-third of the game.

And finally, this season, that message seems to have taken a mental hold on the public consciousness of the fans and the media.

In truth, some of the statistics indicate that special teams play in 2003 has regressed a bit, at least in terms of the most notable plays. If the current numbers are projected over a full season, there will be just 12 kickoff returns for touchdowns and only 10 touchdowns on punt runbacks in 2003, after 39 such scores in 2002. The average for the past 10 seasons is 27.4 touchdowns on combined kickoff and punt returns.

Field goal accuracy, even with several kickers enjoying perfect seasons to this juncture, is down a bit. Net punting average, which had demonstrated little variance over the last few seasons, is holding pace.

But the incredible streak authored by Hall, in which he scored on punt or kickoff returns in four straight games, has clearly skewed a once-wavering attention span toward special teams units leaguewide. For such a diminutive performer, he's commanded an oversized spotlight, and, in essence, forced people to focus on the kicking game.

People who once used a kickoff or a punt as an excuse to use the restroom, or head to the kitchen to make a sandwich or grab a beer from the refrigerator, are more apt now to heed those plays. The kickoff, which went through a drought when everyone was blasting the ball into the end zone and was regarded as just an innocuous exercise, is being viewed again as one of the game's most potentially exciting plays.

Fanning the special teams flames, as well, has been the fact so many plays in the kicking game have occurred late in contests: The breathtaking game-winning punt runback by Philadelphia returner Brian Westbrook last Sunday, a play that temporarily salvaged the Eagles season, and left the New York Giants in chaos. The blocked special point by Kris Jenkins of Carolina in the second game of the season, which sent the contest at Tampa Bay into overtime, and allowed the Panthers a monumental victory. The 17 last-minute field goals that have either won contests or nudged them into overtime.

"I don't pay as much attention to it now that I'm retired, and I don't have the (data) that I used to, but it sure seems like there have been a lot of big (special teams) plays this year," said Frank Gansz Sr., a longtime NFL special teams coach, the man who transformed the kicking game into a science, and the father of current Chiefs special teams mentor Frank Gansz Jr. "It seems to have gotten more attention."

But identifying why special teams seem to have played a more prominent role -- or discerning whether the headline plays of the season's first seven weekends are actually a factor of lax special teams performance in some cases -- is about as challenging a task as running downfield as the outside "gunner" on the punt coverage unit.

One element offered by several special teams coaches surveyed this week and typically overlooked by the public: There are more kicking game plays, on average, in a game now than there were only a couple seasons ago.

Changes in the way the league administers television timeouts, and the manner in which the clock is now stopped and started in relatively esoteric situations, has slowly increased the number of snaps from scrimmage and also the volume of special teams plays. There are, on average, about two more kicking plays per contest than there were two years ago.

"That's a couple more chances for a big play, positively or negatively, on special teams now," pointed out Smith. "And over a period of time, you're going to get both, probably."

Also notable, pointed out one NFC special teams coach, is the actually paucity of kickoff and punt returns for scores in the first month of this season. The heroics of Hall aside, the first part of the campaign has seen a decrease in kicking game scores, over the first halves of recent campaigns. The long kickoff and punt returns typically occur early in the season, when special teams coaches are still tinkering with coverage units, or breaking in some new players on those teams.

Philadelphia special teams coach John Harbaugh noted that, on special teams, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and assessment is usually based on relative results. Good point, since how Westbrook's late-game punt return on Sunday is viewed depends on from which side of the prism it is examined. For the Eagles, not surprisingly, it was a terrific effort. For the Giants, the play was the latest in a string of special teams faux pas, dating back to the team's 2002 playoff defeat in San Francisco.

The degree of emphasis on special teams characteristically is determined by a franchise's head coach but, even given some disparities, the daily time allotted to the kicking game does not vary considerably from team to team.

"You usually get your 25 minutes on the field, and it depends how you ration that out, and between 30-45 minutes in classroom stuff," said Carolina special teams coach Scott O'Brien, whose charges rank among the premier units in the league. "That hasn't changed a lot in the last five years. So you've got to be efficient with your time, because you have a lot to address, and you're doing it with the knowledge you are just one (botched) detail away from disaster. It's tough, man, really tough."

The salary cap, of course, is one culprit that has exacerbated the problem for coaches. Because most teams tend to turn over the bottom of their roster every year or two, special teams tend to be in flux, since it is those performers who characteristically fill out the "grunt" units. Few franchises, Kansas City being one notable exception, have been able to enjoy special teams continuity.

As a result, special teams coaches work even harder with rookies in stressing the critical role of the kicking game, and some have begun using more starters in spot situations. It is not happenstance, for instance, that Jenkins of Carolina is in the middle of the Carolina placement block unit, and that he swatted away two kicks in the win at Tampa Bay. Nor is it coincidence that, in the Panthers opening week victory over Jacksonville, starting safety Mike Minter saved the win by blocking a field goal try.

In last week's overtime victory at Miami, it was New England starting defensive end Richard Seymour who sent the game into an extra session, rising up in the middle of the line to knock away an Olindo Mare field goal attempt in regulation. Patriots starting wide receiver Troy Brown, the team's most prolific pass-catcher and recipient of last week's winning touchdown, still returns punts.

"You're looking for any edge you can get on (special) teams," Brown said. "And there are still some of us (veterans) who aren't too proud to go out there for the kicking game."

Said Seymour: "The one area where there's more emphasis is on blocking field goals and extra points. Maybe in the past, on a 25-yard (field goal attempt), you'd kind of just lean into the blocker, because you knew the kicker was going to make it. Not anymore. I mean, every point is important, that's what special teams coaches are stressing."

By nature, O'Brien acknowledged, his charges have to be guys who are "a little goofy," since playing on the coverage units in particular is akin to being in the middle of a train wreck. That said, special teams have emerged as a science of sorts, and the coaches who steward over the position have taken on added significance.

There are a half-dozen special teams coaches now whose title includes "coordinator" or "assistant head coach" billing. It is recognition, most special teams coaches privately say, that has been a long time coming. Head coaches seem to understand now that the special teams coach is the only member of a staff who meets daily with every player on a roster. Carolina coach John Fox, for instance, consults O'Brien on every roster move, because he wants input on the special teams ramifications.

The perception this year, that special teams plays have helped swing the balance of power in the league, figures to push the power curve for kicking game assistants.

Well, maybe.

"I still think it goes in cycles," said Smith. "Yeah, we've made a lot of advancements in coaching special teams, and gotten more attention for it. But this year has been a freaky one to this point. There have been a lot of big plays, especially by Hall, that got a ton of attention. He's kind of captured the fancy of people and deservedly so. But, me, I'm just a typical special teams coach who has always felt the kicking game is crucial every year."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.