So at least some people are willing to give special-teamers their due. It has taken only about 60 years.
For the first two thirds of the NFL's life, kicking and punting were afterthoughts or sideshows. In the first pro football game played in New York, between the Cleveland Tigers and the New York Giants on Dec. 3, 1921, a crowd of 3,000 got most excited by the halftime show: a drop-kicking contest between Jim Thorpe of the Tigers and Charlie Brickley of the Giants. The exhibition ended in a tie, each player making all six of his attempts. In 1941 the Washington Redskins were in the middle of a run of four championship-game appearances in six seasons. But how much attention did they pay to their kicking unit? In one game the Philadelphia Eagles' Bob Suffridge blocked three consecutive extra-point attempts. The Redskins finished 6-5 and out of the playoffs. Most teams used burly linemen—remember Lou (the Toe) Groza?—to kick through the '50s. Even the Green Bay Packers didn't have kicking specialists in their glory years of the '60s; running back Paul Hornung doubled as a kicker.
In January 1969, with the Packers dynasty on the wane, special teams were ushered into the modern era. That watershed moment went like this. Dick Vermeil, Stanford's 29-year-old offensive assistant and quarterbacks coach, was on a recruiting trip in Southern California, staying at a friend's home, when the phone rang. It was for Vermeil.
"Dick, this is George Allen, the coach of the L.A. Rams," the caller said. "I'd like to talk to you about a job."
"Yeah, and I'm Bear Bryant," said Vermeil, who suspected a coaching buddy who would hold up the phone to him and say things like, "It's Frank Leahy. He wants you for the Notre Dame job."
An annoyed Allen spent the next couple of minutes convincing Vermeil that he really was who he said he was. Within two weeks Vermeil became the first coach hired exclusively to handle special teams.
"George told me the Rams had lost a crucial game at the end of 1968 because they had a kickoff returned for a touchdown on them," Vermeil says. "He ordered Howard Schnellenberger, one of his assistants, to break down every kickoff return that year and grade even' player on the unit. They were being instructed in coverage but not graded like players were on offense and defense. Schnellenberger found that the two guys who allowed the touchdown hadn't made a tackle in kickoff coverage all year. That's when George decided he had to hire a full-time special teams coach."
Vermeil stayed just a year before taking the offensive coordinator job at UCLA. His replacement with the Rams, Levy, followed Allen to Washington in 1971; the next year the Redskins blocked four kicks in 14 games and made it to the Super Bowl. "Our level of preparedness made it feel like we were shooting cannons at teams who had bows and arrows," says Levy.
Since getting the Bills' coaching job in '86. Levy has issued a separate kicking playbook to his team each year. Page one reads: Kicking plays are weighted more heavily in importance than offensive or defensive plays, for three reasons:
1. There is a huge change of field position.