Specialists drilled on slightest details

HOUSTON -- It will never be confused with the only two game-winning field goals in Super Bowl history, the 32-yarder by Jim O'Brien that nudged the Baltimore Colts past the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl V, or the howitzer launched from 48 yards by New England's Adam Vinatieri in Super Bowl XXXVI which lifted the Pats over St. Louis.

Special Plays
Check out Adam Vinatieri and others who made Super Bowl special teams highlights.

For that matter, the sterling play authored by nondescript Pittsburgh Steelers tailback Reggie "Boobie" Harrison in Super Bowl X doesn't register in most memory banks ahead of even the biggest placekick ever missed in title game history, the wide right 47-yard attempt by the Buffalo Bills' Scott Norwood in Super Bowl XXV.

But for Harrison, blocking a Mitch Hoopes punt through the end zone and for a safety represented the signature moment of his four-year career. And in recalling Harrison's big special teams play, which occurred early in the fourth quarter, former Steelers coach Chuck Noll termed it a "game-changing" sequence.

It was, indeed, a Super Bowl principally defined by Lynn Swann's acrobatic catches, with a 64-yard bomb from Terry Bradshaw securing Pittsburgh's 21-17 victory and earning the Steelers a second straight championship. But with the Steelers trailing 10-7 through three quarters, it was Harrison who ignited the comeback, storming through an inside gap and smothering Hoopes' punt. After the ensuing free kick, the Steelers drove to a Roy Gerela field goal and never trailed again.

"That was a huge turnaround," said Swann here earlier this week, when reminded of the Harrison play, one of five safeties in Super Bowl history. "We were moving the ball but kept stalling, and that play really provided us with momentum, you know? Because when you get a special teams play like that, it's really a bonus."

There haven't been many such bonuses in NFL history, but that certainly won't diminish the emphasis played on special teams in Sunday night's Patriots-Panthers matchup.

The franchises feature two of the league's premier special teams coaches, Scott O'Brien of Carolina and Brad Seely for New England, and, not surprising, some of the top overall kicking games. The special teams mentors, both of whom have worked on Bill Belichick staffs, are fanatical about attention to detail. And they have convinced their charges that the smallest oversight on special teams, or on the flip side the extraordinary effort, can be a difference-maker.

One of the game's true special teams devotees, O'Brien keeps videotapes of several years worth of kicking-game plays, and has lugged cartons of cassettes here for the week. Early in the week Belichick recalled that, when he first interviewed him for a job, O'Brien all but gave himself a hernia dragging in a box filled with tapes.

For Super Bowl XXXVIII, in fact, O'Brien has extended his video review, going back several years to investigate special teams maneuvers used by his Patriots counterpart, the equally anal-retentive Seely. Among the tapes in the Carolina inventory for this game are cassettes dating back to the early- and mid-'90s, when Seely worked in Indianapolis and on the Carolina staff.

Carolina coaches, led by O'Brien, have carefully catalogued some special teams gambits that Seely and the Patriots haven't broken out in two or three years. The rationale: If they used it once, it's in their playbook, and we don't want to be caught napping if they try to spring it again.

The consummate Boy Scout motto adherent, O'Brien is always as prepared as humanly possible and Seely is every bit as detail-oriented.

"It's a segment of the game where little things count," said O'Brien, whose special teams units were responsible for huge plays in at least six of Carolina's 11 regular-season wins. "So you try not to leave any stone unturned. And when you think you've turned all of the stones over, well, you go out and look for some more stones. Because you know what? There might be something under the last stone that makes a difference."

Said Seely, echoing those sentiments: "It's all about preparation and detail. This league is so close anymore that even the smallest edge you might get on 'teams' is magnified."

In a Super Bowl atmosphere, of course, any key special teams feat or failure figures to be blown up exponentially. This game in particular, both Seely and O'Brien acknowledged, includes some of the top special teams performers in the league. The combined special teams prowess of the two teams extends far beyond the obvious. Vinatieri and Carolina kicker John Kasay, who had four-game winning field goals in the regular season with three of those in overtime, are among the best clutch placement men in the NFL.

Special teams standouts with less profile than the two kickers, though, abound on the two Super Bowl rosters.

New England rookie Bethel Johnson led the AFC in kickoff return average (28.2 yards) and veteran punt returner Troy Brown, who always seems to come up big in postseason situations, averaged 10.1 yards. Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith, one of the game's truly emerging young stars, averaged 10 yards on punt returns and, for his career, has six kick returns for touchdowns. Panthers punter Todd Sauerbrun led the NFL in gross average and earned a third consecutive Pro Bowl berth.

Four different Patriots players -- Larry Izzo (31), Don Davis (24), Chris Akins (22) and Matt Chatham (20) -- had 20 or more special teams tackles. Little wonder that the New England coverage units ranked fifth on kickoffs. The Panthers had six players with 10 or more special teams tackles. More notable, Carolina blocked five placements in 2003 and backup defensive tackle Shane Burton is one of the best kick-swatters in recent history.

"It's a 'want-to' kind of job," said Panthers special teams standout Karl Hankton. "If you are going to be good on special teams, you better be ready to do the dirty work, because that is what it's all about, man. And, hey, who's to say that a special teams play won't be big on Sunday night? I mean, you never know when you're time is going to come, and all of a sudden, you're a big part of things."

Certainly in Super Bowl XXXI, there was no inkling that Desmond Howard, the former first-round bust signed by Green Bay late in the season to bolster a failing return game, would combine for 244 yards on kickoff and punt runbacks. Howard's 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown secured a 35-21 victory over New England, a Patriots club that included Belichick as the defensive coordinator, and made him the first special teams guy to earn Super Bowl most valuable player honors.

Howard has one of seven kickoff returns for touchdowns in Super Bowl history but there has never been a punt run back for a score. The ever-confident Steve Smith wasn't about to predict he will be the first to achieve that feat, but he agreed that the kicking game in general, and the field position it creates, could be a "significant part" of Sunday night.

Belichick, who began his career as a special teams coach, concurred.

"The kicking game, those are what I call 'organized chaos' plays, and anything can happen when you've got so many people scattered around like you do on special teams plays," he said. "You've got two great (special teams) coaches in this game, and some of the best special teams players on these two teams, so it would be short-sighted to think they won't be a factor."

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