"This may sound funny, but not many guys, deep down inside, want to block a punt. Oh, a lot of them will bust in there, but only a few are really willing to put their face In the kicker's foot."
—Marv Levy, Redskin special-team coach
"Little Noland Smith—Super Gnat—man, he was tiny but he led the league in returns. Then one day Noland finally got around to thinking about what he was actually doing out there running those kicks back, and after that...."
—a former Chief teammate of Smith's
The most dangerous calling in pro football is playing on the so-called "special teams," which is a polite, formal version of "suicide squads" or "Kamikaze corps." No matter what the special teams are doing—running back a punt, covering a kickoff or assaulting a field-goal kicker's shin—the overall impression is all-out war. Their activity, however, is never the haphazard charge it seems to be; special teams rely not only on recklessness and mayhem but on such subtleties as the calling of automatics, "ball stripping" and a stopwatch quest for the statistical and strategic edge. In recent seasons the mission of a special team has become so finely honed that Coach Paul Brown of the Bengals says, "It's more important than it's ever been in the past. So many games are won or lost now by the performance of special teams."
Special teams are on the field for 20% of the plays. Moreover, says Man Levy, the assistant coach on the Redskins in charge of special teams, "Something significant happens on every kicking play. There is a specific attempt to score, or a large amount of yardage is involved, or there is a change in ball possession. These are things that determine the course of ball games."
The 1972 season is a banner year for special teams. More first stringers than ever are being assigned to the suicides. San Francisco 49er Coach Dick Nolan believes his special squads are so important that he has given the assistant coach in charge of them carte blanche to use any players he wants. Bobby Bell, the Kansas City Chiefs' perennial all-league linebacker, centers the ball for punts and placements, and Ed Podolak, Kansas City's leading rusher the last two years, handles kickoff returns. Middle Linebacker Bill Bergey of the Cincinnati Bengals tries to break the wedge on kick-offs, and Lemar Parrish, the team's best cornerback, returns punts and kickoffs.
In all the NFL no club is better known for its care and feeding of special teams than the Redskins. Coach George Allen goes out of his way to keep special-team men on his roster. "George makes it known that special teams really are special," says Levy. Speedy Duncan, who will soon become the alltime NFL kick-off-return yardage leader, adds: "George puts more emphasis on more phases of the game than I ever thought existed. I've been re-ignited."
In 1969, when Allen was head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, he made a breakthrough by hiring Dick Vermeil as the league's first assistant coach in charge of special teams. "Everyone laughed," says Upton Bell, general manager of the Patriots. "They all thought George was crazy to hire another assistant. Mm he won a lot of games that year. Nowadays, whether or not a team hires a special coach to handle the special teams, there is at least one coach designated as such."
In 1970 Vermeil left the Rams, and Levy, who has respect for Allen's insights into football, applied for the post and got it. When Allen moved to the Redskins last year, Levy went with him. Now 44, Levy was both a running back and Phi Beta Kappa at Coe College in Iowa, earned an M.A. in history from Harvard and served as head coach at New Mexico, the University of California and William and Mary. When he shifted to the Redskins, one of the players who caught his eye was Bill Malinchak, a wide receiver who had been cut by the Lions after he beat up a teammate in a street brawl. To his professional pleasure, Levy found that Malinchak possessed a rare willingness "to put his face in the kicker's foot."
Thus far this season, Malinchak has been the league's most successful ball hawk. In the opening game against the Vikings he blocked a punt to score one touchdown and recovered a fumbled kickoff to set up another. Against the Patriots he blocked a punt in the final seconds, settling for a safety instead of a touchdown when he recovered it just outside the end zone. Following these heroics, opposing teams have assigned one man just to hold off Malinchak,—who charges the kicker from an angle on the outside. Levy is not worried. "If you get a team concerned about one man," he says, "it is bound to leave itself open somewhere else and increase our options."
The Redskins have seven special teams: the kickoff-return team, the kick-off-coverage team, the punting team, the punt-return team, the field-goal-kicking team, the field-goal and point-after-touchdown rushing team and the onside-kick-defense team. The Redskins keep detailed statistics on both their own and their opponent's special teams, and Levy, who stalks the sidelines during a game with a stopwatch in hand, is able to reel them off the top of his head. For instance: "Last year we returned 62% of the punts and our opponents returned only 29% against us."