Elbert Shelley, the special teams specialist for the Atlanta Falcons, owns a local limo service. In the off-season he not only manages the company, called All-Pro Limousine, Inc., but also drives one of its four cars. In May, Shelley was hired to ferry five Dallas Cowboys around when they were in town for a charity basketball game.
He didn't tell this group of passengers, which included wide receiver Michael Irvin and defensive tackle Leon Lett, who he was at first, but as Shelley was loading their bags into the trunk, one of the Super Bowl champions looked at him curiously.
"Elbert Shelley of the Falcons," the limo driver said, holding out his hand.
"Man, what are you doing driving us?" the Cowboy said.
Shelley chuckles at the memory. "People say that when they find me driving them," he says. "But I'm not rich like a lot of players."
For the last four years Shelley's peers have elected the 31-year-old backup strong safety to the Pro Bowl for his ferocious play on the Falcons' kickoff and punt coverage teams. But as a special teamer Shelley makes about 10% of what his premier lockermates in Honolulu earn. His 1996 salary: $275,000 (the NFL minimum for veterans with at least five years in the league) and a $25,000 signing bonus.
G.M.'s aren't the only ones giving special-teamers short shrift. Reporters and fans are equally guilty. "I used to be the same way," says Eddie Sutter, a kick coverage ace for the Baltimore Ravens. "I'd watch games and doze off when the punt team came on the field. When the special teams play, that's when people go get hot dogs."
But consider these numbers: Last season an average of 27 of the 156 plays per game were in the kicking game. Almost 30% of the yardage gained was accumulated on punt and kickoff returns. And virtually half of last year's regular-season games were decided by a touchdown or less. So if half the games can be won or lost on the outcome of one play out of 156, it stands to reason that special teams can affect a game's outcome.
"I consider the kicking game as important as offense and defense, an equal third of the game," says Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy.
"When we were setting up our team," says Dom Capers, the coach of the second-year Carolina Panthers, "we thought defense came first, and then special teams. We knew they'd be a vital part of winning for us." Among the free agents Carolina signed last year were the third-most-accurate kicker in NFL history, John Kasay of the Seattle Seahawks; the AFC's leading kickoff returner in 1994, Randy Baldwin of the Cleveland Browns; the sixth-ranked punter in the league, Tommy Barnhardt of the New Orleans Saints; and special teams standout Paul Butcher of the Indianapolis Colts. The Panthers won an expansion-record seven names.