Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Do Not Forget About Special Teams - Part 1

This certainly has a chance to set records for readership.  In the wrong direction.  I have noticed that talking about special teams is the perfect way to get people to stop reading what you are writing, because who wants to hear about special teams?  How boring a topic can you possibly cover on a Cowboys blog?

But, if you actually go to a NFL training camp and visit with actual personnel people and coaches, the topic repeatedly comes back to special teams.  In fact, a few times a week, you can witness with your own eyes entire practices that are dedicated to the fine art of special teams.  Covering punts, getting punts off without getting them blocked, kickoffs, kickoff coverages, field goals under duress, and of course, onside kicks.  Coaches know that the quality of your special teams can often determine the difference between winning and losing, playoffs or not.  And yet, the media and fans hardly ever mention special teams.  Your average fan may have no idea who plays on special teams beyond the kicker and the return man.  In the college game, it is not nearly as stressful because there are no roster limits.  But, in the NFL, this is a real issue for coaches - especially the special teams coach.
NFL teams have just put pen to paper.  In a NFL season, a normal number of snaps for the offense or the defense each to face is usually between 1,000-1,100.  This ranges between about 62-68 snaps per game.  In the current era of the NFL, this is about normal.  But, how about special teams?  What would you guess?  200?  12 special teams snaps per game?  Does that sound right?
Not even close.  On average, in the last 4 seasons, the Cowboys have taken 456 special teams snaps per season.  That equates to almost 30 snaps per game!  If the offense and defense average about 65 snaps each, who would imagine that the special teams can impact 30?  Well, it is true.
Here is a chart from the last 4 years to show you how that all breaks down:
YearFGAOppFGAX PTOppXPTPuntsOppPuntsKickoffsOppKickoffsTotal ST Plays
Yr Avg31.728.244.74268.768.58884.5456.5
Above, you can find the 6 components of special teams.  The field goal unit, field goal block (both also handle extra points, of course), the punt coverage, punt return, kickoff coverage, and kick return units.
You can certainly see that during the course of a season, there are many opportunities for the special teams to let you down.  And unlike your offense and defense, this is where you generally have dedicated almost no money or premium talent to fix.  Often, special teams are made up of players making the NFL minimum and many times are completely undrafted.  It is the NFL's lower class. If your offense gives you issues, chances are pretty good that you will throw millions and millions to fix the problem in the spring.  But, if your special teams is a disaster, you almost never do more than fire your special teams coach.  Every offseason, many of these coaches are switched out, but make no mistake - they have a very difficult job to do in today's NFL.
Let's walk through this exercise for Cowboys special teams coach Rich Bisaccia.  So, there are 46 players on the roster on Sunday, but when it comes to special teams, he literally has almost nobody to choose from.  Once you subtract off the special teams the "starters" - key players who already have 60 snaps on their plate on offense or defense - and guys who are not very good fits - offensive linemen are not very good choices for covering kickoffs - you are left with seeds and stems with which to choose your coverage units.
Take the Green Bay Playoff game and then let's just look at the kickoff team.  Remember, Rich Bisaccia does this with all of his teams, but let's just do one today.
Here is the roster that day in Green Bay (using the Ourlads depth chart from last January):

The line through the name indicated a player who is either not dressed (injured or healthy scratch) or listed somewhere else on the chart.  The arrows indicate players who are likely off limits.  The leftovers - guys with no marks - are the players which the special teams coach can choose from to name his 10-man coverage unit (Dan Bailey is the 11th, of course).
So, while I am guessing here, I assume Bisaccia had the following players to choose from for his group: Street, Beasley, Harris, Hanna, Dunbar, Randle, Clutts, Escobar, Lawrence, Lawrence, Wilber, Hitchens, Watson, Moore, Heath, Patmon, Spillman, and Wilcox.  It is possible that Beasley, D Lawrence, and Hitchens were off limits, too, given the amount of time they were getting on offense and defense, respectively.
In the end, he had about 15 names to find 10.  Here were his choices to make sure Randall Cobb didn't return any touchdowns in that playoff game:

So, they want fast players who have mobility.  So, if you are on either line, you are not a candidate.  If you are in the lineup at all, you likely are not a candidate (JJ Wilcox is the one exception), and otherwise, all RBs, TE, DBs, and LBs, seem to be the group with WR Dwayne Harris the one exception because he was basically on the team because he was a special teams terror.
Now, let's go back to the moment where an offensive coordinator, head coach, and special teams coach get into a spirited debate about whether so-and-so can cover kicks and this idea that he might be placed "off limits" by the coaching staff.
Well, this is the fine balance life of a special teams coach.  If you want him to have success, you must give him the proper tools to do so.  But, you also know that if Dez Bryant is hurt on special teams, you will never forgive yourself.  So, it is this constant tug-of-war to properly prioritize the special teams with practice time and the proper troops so that you don't have to do it after a disaster and have the special teams coach trying to cover his rear by telling the rest of the staff that "this is why I asked for better players covering kicks!"  It has happened many times in coaching meetings.
So, it needs to be a staff-wide priority to make sure that this team is not sabotaged by a punt return or punt block that ruins a game or a season.  And to do that, you need a head coach who gets it (often because he was burned a few times along the way in his career by substandard special teams).  Like I said earlier, this is also true in the college game, but with massive rosters, it is never this pinched.  In college, you can literally have a coverage unit and not use anyone who will play a snap on defense if you want.  In the pros, with a really short bench, the coach might only have 12 or 13 players to use midway through a game (due to injuries or fatigue) to cover a punt.  That is when the fingernails are bitten.
In this special teams series, I want to do 2 things.  1) - track who is playing on which special teams unit in the preseason.  Trust me, as we try to figure out who makes the team, you can learn a ton from the coaches and how they deploy troops in the preseason.  Tony Romo won't play much, but you can bet the preseason is where the Cowboys coaches are determining the final few spots of their roster based on this very topic: Can this guy play all of the special teams?  Can he give us 300 special teams snaps?  If so, he has a real chance to be one of those guys.  And 2) - attempt to give us all a better understanding of the roles on the back of the roster and which types of players Rich Bisaccia is looking for when he puts a punt team not the field.  One week I will do kickoffs and kick returns, the next week field goals, and the final week, punts.
Special teams is never given any love in the press unless someone is writing about how awesome Dan Bailey is as a kicker.  Well, I will change that here in the few weeks until the season starts.  I know some of you will not even consider reading about special teams and that is ok.  But, if you have always been curious about this vital portion of the roster, then follow along and I will attempt to define how a NFL team tries to approach those 450 snaps a year.

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